EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the struggling St. Louis Rams, the return of linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar from suspension this week was just in time.
Dunbar was suspended four games for substance abuse. Meantime, the Rams spent four games being abused by opposing offenses. Dunbar rejoined the team Tuesday and was practicing with the first unit Wednesday.
Dunbar's strength is run defense, where the Rams are currently ranked 30th in the league, allowing 133.5 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per rush. They have been especially vulnerable the last two games, as Dallas' DeMarco Murray rushed for 175 yards on 26 attempts (6.7-yard average) and San Francisco's Frank Gore ran for 153 yards on 20 carries (7.7-yard average).
Murray had runs of 36, 41 and two of 14 yards, and Gore had gains of 27, 34, 17 and 18 yards. That's 201 of their combined 328 yards on just eight attempts.
The timing of Dunbar's return is even more critical because linebacker Will Witherspoon, signed in July when the Rams knew the Dunbar suspension was coming, injured a hamstring against the 49ers and didn't practice Tuesday.
So Dunbar is expected to start at strong outside linebacker against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
"I'm just going to play the way Jo-Lonn plays, which is with hair on fire and just get after some guys and just be Jo-Lonn," Dunbar said. "That's the only thing I can be."
And his teammates were obviously glad to see him return to practice Tuesday, when he was first greeted by defensive end Chris Long.
"It means a lot to have him back," Long said after the team's first practice following last Thursday's 35-11 beatdown by the San Francisco 49ers. "He was an integral part of what we did on defense last season. Everyone welcomes him back with open arms."
Dunbar did his best to own up to letting down the team.
"I'm upset that I put myself in this position, but I really came to appreciate what I have," he said. "It was hard watching games during the time away.
"It's been great to come back and just see smiles on people's faces. It felt good to know I'm back around some of the guys and they wanted me here as much as I wanted to be here."
Asked what is special about Dunbar, Long said, "His experience. His energy. His effort. His skills. He's a helluva football player and one of my favorite teammates. He's a sparkplug for us. Some people gravitate to others, and Jo-Lonn is one of those guys.
"It was an unfortunate situation, but he handled it the best he could. He told us he'd be back, and he is."
Said linebacker James Laurinaitis, "It will be good to have that extra edge out there. It's like playing with another MIKE (middle linebacker) next to me. I love playing next to Jo-Lonn. He is a fiery, passionate, angry football player. It's good to have another guy that helps keep guys accountable. He is very vocal and the more of those kinds of players you can have on defense, the better."
Coach Jeff Fisher echoed the sentiment of players.
"He's really excited. We're excited. We're glad to have him," he said.