More focused Alec Ogletree piling up numbers for Rams defense

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The numbers next to St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree's name at the end of the 2014 season were mostly in line with what he'd done as a rookie the previous year.

For the second consecutive year, Ogletree had wrested the team's tackles lead from middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and made his share of contributions in coverage with two interceptions and 11 pass breakups. He even chipped in four forced fumbles, down from the six of his rookie season but still an impressive total.

But when Ogletree scanned the numbers, he saw one that made him decidedly unhappy. Under the column for sacks, he saw a big round number but not the kind he'd prefer: It was a goose egg.

That sack total, or lack thereof, was enough to help Ogletree refocus in the offseason and shed about 10 pounds in an effort to be quicker to the quarterback.

“Alec came back into camp this year in phenomenal shape,” Laurinaitis said. “The year before, year 2, he had a lot of cheeseburgers in the offseason. He came in as a rookie as a thin guy, ran around really well. A lot of times after that rookie year sometimes, you have got a lot of time and there’s a lot of food you can eat. And my man was a little heavy and really determined to come back at what he played at his rookie year."

Just three games into this season, Ogletree is playing like one of the league's best young defenders. According to the coaching staff's review of game film, he has been credited with 44 tackles, including an 18-stop outburst in Week 2 that is the most by a Rams defender since London Fletcher's 21 in Week 2 of the 2001 season.

Against Pittsburgh last week, Ogletree had two sacks, which eclipsed the 1.5 he had for his entire first two seasons in the league combined.

"That was a big thing for me; the scheme that we’re in is very aggressive," Ogletree said. "You’re going to have your opportunities to get to the quarterback but you have to finish your rush."

As the weakside linebacker in the Rams' base 4-3, Ogletree's primary job isn't to rush the passer. But for any player in a Gregg Williams defense, there's always a good chance you will be called on to attack quarterbacks at some point. The level of success you have doing it is directly proportional to the frequency with which those chances are provided.

"He’s about production so he’s seen it and he wants me to get back there and if you’re able to get back there, you know he’s going to keep calling it," Ogletree said.

With that in mind, Ogletree set about eliminating things from his diet and reported to camp in better shape but also with a better understanding of offensive formations and how play designs work. In other words, Ogletree wanted to play faster while the game around him slowed down.

"I feel a lot more comfortable in the defense," Ogletree said. "I think it shows with me being able to play fast and go side to side and make plays.

"It’s definitely slowing down for me. After you see certain schemes and stuff over and over, you just kind of get used to it and you know what’s about to happen. This offseason I wanted to take more of a mental approach to the game and just try to learn what the offense is trying to do to us."

On that side of things, Ogletree has continued to attach himself to Laurinaitis, who is known for his voracious film study. Ogletree said there wasn't any one "aha" moment, but he feels more comfortable diagnosing things before they happen and then simply reacting. To be sure, there are still hiccups in his game, namely when it comes to coverage, but those haven't been as glaring early in the season as they were in his first two years.

With the mental side improving and the physical side squared away, the Rams believe there's no limit to where the 24-year old Ogletree's career could go from here.

"He’s a smart, instinctual player,” Laurinaitis said. “The sky is the limit for him on how good he wants to be so he keeps getting smarter and smarter and when you combine your instincts with how well he knows the defense, I think you’re really starting to see him blossom.”