THOUSAND OAKS, California. – Dawg – d-a-w-g – work: Either you are better or not.
No explanation required if you are on the Los Angeles Rams Line of Defense.
“It’s a mindset,” said Aaron Donald. “It’s a mentality.”
It’s dirty. It’s tough. According to Cornerback, it’s about “leaving someone behind, working and playing with great techniques, foundations, energy and effort” Jalen Ramsey, an honorary member of the pack.
It’s the ethos of sophomore defensive coach Eric Henderson whose group sets the tone for a defense that ranks second in terms of efficiency. The work starts with how Henderson treats the best defensive player in the league.
When Rams coach Sean McVay was looking for a defensive coach after the 2018 season, he sought input from Donald, who had been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second time and had had a 20.5-sack season.
“I just said, ‘I just want to be trained,'” Donald recalled when he said to McVay. “Let him know you are not holding anything back from me. Find ways to make me better.”
Enter Henderson, an energetic, football-loving technician who doesn’t gloss over anything but inspires his players to achieve anything.
“He’ll be 100 percent real with you,” said the defensive veteran Michael Brockers said.
Donald vividly remembers a spring training session in 2019 when Henderson first told him to repeat a replay.
“We did drills and we did the drills at full speed and everything was very quick,” said Donald. “When he said it, I ran right back and went back to another set.”
Henderson said, “He said, ‘Oh … no doubt,’ and he immediately got back on the scene and did it again.”
Teammates quickly saw that Henderson was very careful about details and was doing everything 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 me training him hard it’s easy to coach everyone else because they already know, ‘Oh f —, Coach came up with AD so now you know I have to get it right, because he’s the best and he’s chewed his a–, “said Henderson, adding that Donald isn’t often yelled at,” he’s just so good. “
Defensive Tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day – a selection from Rutgers’ sixth round in 2018 – has bought in and is now a second year starter at Nose Tackle.
Defensive end Morgan Fox, who was taken over by Colorado State-Pueblo as an unoccupied free agent in 2016, is making an important contribution with two sacks this season.
“If he can help someone as talented as AD and willing to share that knowledge not only with AD but also with people who are not necessarily beginners,” Fox said. “It definitely means a lot.”
Be a morning get yourself a shirt
A pit bull with pinned ears and a spiked collar on a tattered human body sits on one side of the line of defense’s bespoke fit. On the other hand, a less friendly reminder: “Either you are better or you are not.”
“I always tell these guys that we are dogs, we don’t eat with cats,” said Henderson. “There’s nothing nice about that.”
Rams defensive coach Eric Henderson leads the players through bag drills during training. Video by Lindsey Thiry
In fact there isn’t.
The Rams’ line of defense has fought against their opponents this season.
Last Sunday, the Rams (6-3) dismantled the Seattle Seahawks and sacked Russell Wilson six times while producing 12 quarterback hits. They’ll try to do the same against the three-time NFL MVP quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) on Monday night’s football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The defense of the Rams has brought the opponents to a league low of 4.8 meters per game. They take third place with 31 bags and have generated 124 pressures, which is in the top 5.
“You just can’t say enough about what they’ve done consistently,” said McVay. “Our defense has been strong all year.”
It starts at the front.
With nine sacks and 32 presses, Donald sets the tone for the defense. He’s the toughest worker. The best player. He wants to be trained. And above all, he wants to be successful.
Henderson, who played defensive at Georgia Tech and spent three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before switching to coaching, breaks off techniques, studies how to defeat blocking schemes, and tries to find new one-on-one situations, a must for Donald – who is double team on 68% of his pass rushes.
“I definitely feel like it took my game to another level,” said Donald.
No detail is too small for Henderson, which has helped Donald and Brockers improve further in their seventh and ninth seasons, respectively.
“You usually get into a situation where a lot of the coaches aren’t playing the game, but they know the game very well mentally, where he played the game.” said Brockers, who has three sacks this season. “He played the position so he understands what we’re going through.”
Henderson usually grabs some pads during each exercise during workout, yelling at his sturdiness and the players’ quick feet, and telling them to knock him over.
“His natural ability to have energy every day is just what drives us,” Brockers said.
Dawgwork is hard, but there is a lot of laughter that comes with it.
On the practice field, Donald and Joseph-Day break out dance moves when hip hop pops up in the early 2000s. Brockers can often be heard laughing, a distinct roar from all over the field.
Position meetings are focused and informative as Henderson targets not only opposing quarterbacks, but often opposing defense as well, where his unit is supposed to outperform every game, even when they’re not head-to-head.
“When we talk about the opposing team, I speak differently,” said Henderson with a deep chuckle. “From that point of view, I know I’m not holding anything back. It’s raw, it’s uncut.”
Meetings often turn into brainstorming sessions as Henderson solicits feedback and ideas from players. He dismantles the film and gives feedback, speaking in terms that the players grasp and withhold from them – good or bad.
“He’ll call me in a room like everyone else,” said Donald. “But that’s exactly what I want. I want to be able to be trained.”
And sometimes the meetings get off the rails with witty one-liners, nudges, puns, and “loads of inside jokes that have accumulated over the years”.
“As a D-Line, you have to be able to talk rubbish,” said Joseph-Day. “You have to be able to think quickly and hand it out.”
Donald teased that Brockers and Fox are “idiots” who “hold nothing back”.
Joseph-Day named Donald and Brockers the best trash talkers, while Fox said 29-year-old Donald was “a big little kid” who “jokes all the time and always pokes at people, always having fun”.
“It’s like a real brotherhood”
When Henderson put the twilight shirts in the defense line lockers at the start of training camp, they each had something to say.
“Brock joked that it was A.D.’s body,” said Joseph-Day with a laugh. “That it was a dog’s head and that it was A.D.’s body.”
Fox said, “This is what Coach Henny wants to look like when it comes to his muscles.”
And Donald got his two cents in: “So I’m the one who picked this picture,” he said with a chuckle. “You can get it out of 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 Dawnwork, 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 in this group too long.
“There are days when I come to work and something personal could happen in my life that made me feel a little down,” said Donald. “But somehow one of these guys always makes me laugh when I don’t want to laugh and feel better. So this kind of group isn’t just for football – it’s like a real brotherhood.”
And everyone wants a piece of it.
security John Johnson III will yell, “I want a Dawnwork shirt!” when the line plays. This also applies to cornerback Darious Williams, who leads the team at interceptions.
“It’s pretty stupid,” said Joseph-Day.
The line’s work isn’t always perfect, but players try hard to get there.
It’s about the grind. The filth. And love their morning work.