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Versatile Rams linebacker Mark Barron is thriving in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme

Versatile Rams linebacker Mark Barron is thriving in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme
Rams linebacker Mark Barron intercepts a pass in front of teammate Nickell Robey-Coleman during a victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 1. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Wade Phillips' impending arrival as the Rams' defensive coordinator last January caused several players minor anxiety.

They were excited, of course, about Phillips' track record of success, but uncertain how they might fit into his 3-4 scheme.

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Mark Barron, at a seemingly undersized 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds for an inside linebacker, was not among the nervous.

"I wasn't worried about it all," Barron said. "Just tell me what you need me to do, what's my responsibility, and I'm going to go and try to find a way to make plays within that scheme."

Barron, 28, has done that for a Rams team that is 7-2 and atop the NFC West heading into Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

He has 63 tackles and three interceptions, both team bests.

"You feel him," coach Sean McVay said. "He's all over the field."

Barron's playmaking has helped the Rams lead the league with 19 forced turnovers, including 12 interceptions and seven fumbles.

In last week's victory over the Houston Texans, Jared Goff's long touchdown pass to Robert Woods was the third-quarter play that blew open the game and sent the Rams on their way to a 33-7 blowout.

But Barron's interception late in the first half positioned the Rams for the breakout.

After the Rams failed to generate a first down with a fake punt, the Texans took over and moved inside the Rams' 20-yard line with a chance to build on a 7-6 lead.

Barron intercepted a pass to quell the threat and returned it 15 yards to set up a drive that led to a field goal to put the Rams ahead going into the break.

And he did it wearing a cast on his left hand because of a thumb injury.

"If I'm going to step on the field and play with it, I can't be out there making excuses," Barron said. "You got to find a way."

Barron has thrived for the Rams since moving from safety to a hybrid role a few seasons ago. It was one of several position switches he made since he began playing football in youth leagues.

Barron mainly played running back, wingback and receiver in high school in Mobile, Ala. But during his senior season, to help the defense, he also moved to linebacker and safety.

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In college at Alabama, he played safety for two national championship teams and was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the seventh pick in the 2012 draft.

The Rams acquired Barron for two draft picks in a 2014 trade deadline move, and he finished that season at safety.

But in 2015, after outside linebacker Alec Ogletree suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 4, former Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams utilized Barron in a hybrid role.

"They just threw me in," Barron said, adding, "It wasn't a planned thing or a sit-down-and-talk thing. It was just a way to get me on the field — and I ended up being good at it."

So good, the Rams signed Barron to a five-year, $45-million contract before last season.

He responded by finishing with the second-most tackles and two interceptions for a defense that was forced to carry the load for a team that featured the league's worst offense.

Phillips surveyed the talent he was inheriting and saw Barron as a perfect fit for the "Mo" linebacker position, which does not require the stoutness of the other inside linebacker spot played by Ogletree.

"The better the guy can cover," Phillips said, "the more you can utilize him."

Teammates have not been surprised by the latest demonstration of Barron's versatility.

He is "one of those old-school-type players" that can be lined up anywhere and produce, safety Lamarcus Joyner said.

"I don't think too many people love the game like Mark Barron," Joyner said. "Some guys play with passion. Some guys play because they have the ability to play.

"Mark Barron, he's two in one."

Said Ogletree: "There's not a lot of people that can kind of transfer a position because they might struggle, whether it's technique or not having the ability to do it. But a guy like him, he's definitely able to adjust really quickly and then football instincts take over."

McVay and team trainers have been cautious with Barron since the offseason, limiting his participation in workouts and during training camp — and holding him out of preseason games — so that he would be physically ready for the season.

The Rams are the first winning NFL team for which Barron has played, so he is enjoying the feeling.

"It feels different," he said, "and better."

The Rams are on pace to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and have been mentioned in the national conversation about Super Bowl contenders.

But Barron said his mind-set would not vary if the Rams were 2-7 rather than 7-2.

"I just don't approach anything thinking I'm going to lose," he said, "So as far as I'm concerned, we're going to the Super Bowl."

Rams defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks, who was arrested in September after a gun was found in the car he was driving near Bakersfield, was charged with one misdemeanor count of carrying a loaded firearm and is scheduled to be arraigned Friday, the Kern County District Attorney's office said. Westbrooks, 26, was initially stopped for speeding on Interstate 5 in Kern County. He was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property, carrying a loaded firearm, carrying a stolen loaded firearm, grand theft of a firearm and possession of a high-capacity magazine. Westbrooks has played in every game this season, starting twice. He has two sacks. "He's been up front and honest with us the whole time," McVay said, "and we trust Ethan on his word and we're continuing to stick with him through that."…. Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who injured an ankle against the Texans, and linebacker Robert Quinn, who was sidelined for the game because of illness, were full participants in practice.

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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