'We don't eat with cats': How 'Dawgwork' has taken Los Angeles Rams' D-line to greater heights

Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson runs players through bag drills (0:22)

Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson runs players through bag drills at practice. Video by Lindsey Thiry (0:22)

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Dawg -- d-a-w-g -- work: Either you're gettin' better or you ain't.

No explanation needed if you're a member of the Los Angeles Rams' defensive line.

"It's a mindset," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "It's a mentality."

It's grimy. It's tough. It's "whipping somebody's behind, play in and play out, by working with great technique, fundamentals, energy and effort," according to cornerback Jalen Ramsey, an honorary member of the pack.

It's the ethos of second-year defensive line coach Eric Henderson, whose group sets the tone for a defense that ranks second in the NFL in efficiency, and dawgwork starts with how Henderson treats the league's best defensive player.

When Rams coach Sean McVay searched for a defensive line coach following the 2018 season, he sought the input of Donald, who had been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a second time and was coming off a 20.5-sack season.

"I just said, 'I just want to be coached,'" Donald recalled saying to McVay. "Let him know that you don't hold nothin' back from me. Find ways to get me better."

Enter Henderson, an energetic, football-loving technician who sugarcoats nothing but inspires his players to accomplish everything.

"He's going to be 100% real with you," veteran defensive end Michael Brockers said.

Donald distinctly remembers a spring workout in 2019, the first time Henderson told him to repeat a rep.

"We was doing drills and we was going full speed in the drills and everything was real fast-paced," Donald said. "When he said it, I ran right back, went back to another set."

Said Henderson: "He was like, 'Oh s---, no doubt,' and he got right back into the chute and did it again."

Teammates quickly saw Henderson was keen on detail and getting things right. His willingness to coach and challenge Donald, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time All-Pro, set the tone for the rest of the group.

"When guys see that I coach him hard, it's easy to coach everybody else because they already know, 'Oh f---, Coach got on AD, so now you know I got to do it right 'cause he's the best and he got his a-- chewed out," said Henderson, adding Donald doesn't get hollered at often: "He's just that good."

Defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day -- a sixth-round pick from Rutgers in 2018 -- has bought in and now is a second-year starter at nose tackle.

Defensive end Morgan Fox, acquired as an undrafted free agent from Colorado State-Pueblo in 2016, is a key contributor with two sacks this season.

"If he can help someone as talented as AD get better, and he's willing to impart that knowledge not only on AD but guys who aren't necessarily starters," Fox said, "it definitely means a lot."

Be a dawg, get a shirt

A pit bull with pinned ears and a spiked collar atop a shredded human body is featured on one side of the defensive line's custom-designed fit. On the other, a less-than-friendly reminder, "Either you're getting better or you ain't."

"I always tell these guys that we're dogs, we don't eat with cats," Henderson said. "There's nothing nice about this."


The Rams defensive line goes through individual drills with position coach Eric

The Rams defensive line goes through individual drills with position coach Eric Henderson. Video by Lindsey Thiry

Indeed, there's not.

The Rams' defensive line has been feasting on opponents this season.

Last Sunday, the Rams (6-3) dismantled the Seattle Seahawks, sacking Russell Wilson six times while producing 12 quarterback hits. They will attempt to do the same against three-time NFL MVP quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The Rams' defense has held opponents to a league-low 4.8 yards per play. They rank third with 31 sacks and have produced 124 pressures, which ranks in the top five.

"You just can't say enough about what they've consistently done," McVay said. "Our defense has been stout all year."

It starts up front.

With nine sacks and 32 pressures, Donald sets the tone for the defense. He's the hardest worker. The best player. He wants to be coached. And more than anything, he wants to succeed.

Henderson, who played defensive line at Georgia Tech and spent three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before moving into coaching, breaks down techniques, studies how to defeat blocking schemes and tries to find new one-on-one situations, a must for Donald -- who is double-teamed on 68% of his pass rushes.

"I definitely feel like it has taken my game to another level," Donald said.

No detail is too small to Henderson, something that has helped Donald and Brockers continue to improve into their seventh and ninth seasons, respectively.

"Usually you get into a situation where a lot of coaches don't play the game, but they mentally know the game very well, where he's played the game," said Brockers, who has three sacks this season. "He's played the position, so he understands what we go through."

Henderson usually grabs some pads during individual drills at practice, hollering about his sturdiness and the players' quick feet, while challenging them to knock him over.

"His natural ability to have energy every day just fuels us," Brockers said.

Dawgwork is hard, but a lot of laughter comes with it.

On the practice field, Donald and Joseph-Day bust out dance moves when early 2000s hip-hop comes on. Brockers is often heard laughing, a distinguishable bellow from anywhere on the field.

Position meetings are focused and informative, as Henderson takes aim not only at opposing quarterbacks, but often at the opposing defense, whom he wants his unit to outperform every game, even though they're not directly facing off.

"When we're talking about the opposing team, I kind of talk -- different," Henderson said with a deep chuckle. "From that standpoint, know I don't hold anything back. It is raw, it is uncut."

Meetings often turn into brainstorm sessions, as Henderson solicits feedback and ideas from players. He breaks down film and provides feedback, speaks in terms that the players grasp and doesn't withhold anything from them -- good or bad.

"He'll call me out in a room just like everybody else," Donald said. "But that's what I want. I want to be able to be coachable."

And sometimes, the meetings go a bit off the rails with witty one-liners, jabs, puns and "a lot of inside jokes that have built up over the years," Fox said.

"As a D-line, you got to be able to talk trash," Joseph-Day said. "You've got to be able to think fast on your feet and be able to dish it out."

Donald teased that Brockers and Fox are "jerks" who "don't hold back nothin.'"

Joseph-Day called Donald and Brockers the top trash-talkers, while Fox said the 29-year-old Donald is "a big little kid" who "jokes around all the time and always poking at people, always having fun."

'It's like a real brotherhood'

When Henderson had the dawgwork shirts placed in the defensive linemen's lockers at the start of training camp, they each had something to say about them.

"Brock made jokes that it was AD's body," Joseph-Day said, laughing. "That it was a dog head and the body was AD's."

Said Fox: "It's what Coach Henny wants to look like, as far as its muscles."

And Donald got his two cents in: "So I'm the one that picked that picture," he said, chuckling. "You can put it out there."

For the record, "it's AD with a dog face," Henderson said. "We know how much this guy means to our group."

Jokes aside, Donald softens when he talks about dawgwork, the grind, but also what it brings out in his teammates.

Even the best defensive player in the NFL can have a bad day. But he can't stay down too long around this group.

"There are days when I come to work and there might be something personally going on in my life that I might be down a little bit," Donald said. "But there's always some way, somehow, one of these guys make me laugh when I don't want to laugh and make me feel better, so having a group like that that isn't just for football -- it's like a real brotherhood."

And everyone wants a piece of it.

Safety John Johnson III will holler, "I want a dawgwork shirt!" when the line makes a play. So will cornerback Darious Williams, who leads the team in interceptions.

"It's pretty dope," Joseph-Day said.

The line's work isn't always perfect, but the players strive to get there.

It's about the grind. The griminess. And loving their dawgwork.