Rams : Fred Strickland, a Man of Many Positions

Times Staff Writer

From the football laboratories of Anaheim, where the Rams once cooked up the Eagle defense, now emerges the prototype football player of the 1990s.

The Rams are calling him Fred Strickland. Other teams around the league will use different names.

This modern-day gladiator can rush the passer as a defensive tackle on one play and drop into pass coverage the next.

Has the game evolved? Imagine Merlin Olsen covering Gale Sayers out of the backfield.

The Rams drew up their unique five-linebacker Eagle scheme before the 1988 season, in part as reaction to National Football League offenses that seemed intent on turning football into a game of finesse and foot races.

"All these offenses with all these open formations are causing you to have to defend the whole field," Ram defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur explained. "The more guys you can put on the field who can run, the better off you are."

Bigger and faster players on offense demanded bigger and faster players on defense.

In the context of the new defense, he threw the compiled data into a computer and it spat out Fred Strickland's name. What exactly is a Strickland? Certainly not an Edsel. He was the Rams' second-round choice from Purdue in 1988. He played middle linebacker in college and is cat-quick and strong at 6-feet-2 and 250 pounds.

With the Eagle, the Rams had already invented a new position called the nose-backer, a player who roams the defensive line as a linebacker or lines up directly over the opponent's center.

Mark Jerue was the original nose-backer, but after his knees gave out late last season, the Rams moved rookie Strickland into the position. And he has taken the job to another level.

Before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 8, Strickland was playing a different position in every defensive formation. He'll resume that role once his knee gets a bit stronger. Strickland returned to the lineup last week against Indianapolis in a limited role.

What exactly does he do?

In the Rams' regular 3-4 defense, he's a starting inside linebacker. In the Eagle, he moves to nose-backer. In the team's "nickel" or pass defense, Strickland plays down in the trenches as a defensive tackle.

"You hear every day how the players are getting bigger and stronger and faster," Strickland said. "And I think with this defense, you can actually see that. It's no longer just because a person weighs this much and is this high or this fast he's just going to play that position. Chicago came up with it first, when they had Refrigerator (William Perry) playing at fullback. He ran pass patterns, and caught a touchdown pass. That started a new era, with them saying, not just big guys are made for the line, and not just small guys are made to just play linebacker."

The game, of course, has been evolving all along. For years, Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants has been darting and blitzing like a defensive end from his outside linebacker position, prompting other teams to follow suit. The Rams used the mold to form Kevin Greene.

But playing an active linebacker such as Strickland at defensive tackle was a new wrinkle that raised a few eyebrows around the league.

"I think it was a surprise to people that you could play Strickland in the line and have him do well," Coach John Robinson said. "When we were talking about it in the spring, people were laughing at us. They said, 'You can't do that.' "

Well, yes they could. And Strickland hopes to become a roving menace that opponents can't ignore.

"You're looked at a lot more," Strickland said. " 'Is he going to stay here? Is he going to drop? Is he going to blitz?' Staying in one spot, that gets boring after a while. You're standing there, and it's 'OK, I line up right here, I read this guy, and that's it.' With this, I can stand up over the center, I don't have to get in a three-point stance. I like it. It makes them aware."

Strickland said he actually lobbied to play defensive tackle.

"I said I wanted to rush, I didn't care where," Strickland said.

There were adjustments, of course. "At first I thought it would be easy," Strickland said. "I thought my speed was going to help me, that I was just going to get by them. But when I started playing over a guard, it was a lot harder, because speed didn't help there. I had nowhere to run. I was getting bounced back and forth."

The answer for Strickland was putting on weight. He has added about 15 pounds and now weighs about 255. "And I'm still running well, and dropping into coverages fine," he said. "And my pass rush has not slowed down at all."

So the next time you see Strickland following Roger Craig out of the backfield on a pass pattern, think of Olsen chasing Sayers. And take another good, long look at the Fred Strickland model. Soon, everybody in the league is going to have one.

Ram Notes

The team considered putting linebacker Larry Kelm on injured reserve Thursday but decided against it. Kelm, expected to start the season at inside linebacker, will miss his fifth consecutive game this week because of the foot injury suffered in the Phoenix exhibition game on Aug. 21.Tight end Vernon Kirk, who was on the non-football injury list, was released. Kirk tested positive for steroid use on Aug. 29, but was never expected to make the final roster. . . . Cornerback LeRoy Irvin, suspended Aug. 29 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, will return to practice Monday. . . . The Rams fell 14,835 tickets shy of selling out Sunday's game and lifting the local blackout.

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