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Suspension of Jo-Lonn Dunbar Big Blow for St. Louis Rams

Absence of Starting Linebacker Will Test Depth

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | On Wednesday afternoon, St. Louis Rams starting outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 regular season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.

This will be a tough loss for the Rams. Although he went largely unnoticed by most outside of St. Louis, Dunbar had a fantastic season for the Rams in 2012.

He was second on the team in tackles with 115, and he chipped in with 4.5 sacks and two interceptions. Best of all, he was consistent and healthy. He played in all 16 games, and he only had fewer than five tackles in a game twice.

He was also showing improvement as the season wore on, as he had 10 or mores tackles four times in the last six games. I realize that tackle totals aren't the be-all and end-all, but I don't think it's anything to scoff at, either. Dunbar made a habit of being around the ball at all times.

Certainly, with another offseason with the team under his belt, the Rams were expecting him to take another step forward and even provide some leadership for a defense that is looking to go from middle of the pack to elite.

He can still have an impact in the 12 games that he plays, but he will likely have a lot of catching up to do to get back up to game speed. On top of that, the games where his team needs him most may very well be the games he is going to miss. The opener is an always-important divisional game against Arizona. That will be followed up by games against two teams that should be pretty good, Atlanta and Dallas, and then a game against the defending NFC champion 49ers.

In his stead, the Rams will ask for a little more from the other members of the linebacking corps.

Most notably, this applies to Will Witherspoon. The Rams brought in the veteran linebacker about three weeks ago for depth, some veteran leadership, and as an insurance policy in case something happened to one of the starters.

Now the Rams find themselves making a claim on that insurance policy, and Witherspoon will likely find himself starting come Week 1.

Witherspoon is going to show up ready to play, that's for sure, but it's unclear just how much he has left to give.

The Rams traded him to the Eagles during the 2009 season, thinking that his best might be behind him. He was productive in his two-thirds of a season in Philadelphia and in his first season with Tennessee after signing as a free agent, but the Rams were right for the most part.

His production has waned since the end of that 2010 season with Tennessee, and he certainly hasn't come close to replicating the heights that he reached early in his first tenure with St. Louis.

I think the other part of this equation is rookie Alec Ogletree. With the depth issues at hand, the Rams are going to need him to play solid assignment football. As a rookie, he is going to make mistakes, but, now, there is one fewer player that you trust to help clean up after those mistakes.

Ultimately, I think Witherspoon is a good enough stop-gap measure to keep the defense going, and Ogletree will be helped by having such a good group around him.

But that's not to say there won't be struggles along the way. You may not see much difference in their games against Arizona and Dallas, both winnable games, but I think you may see some cracks when they are pushed by the good offenses of Atlanta and San Francisco.

Joseph Healy lives in the St. Louis area. His work has been featured at BleacherReport.com, TheFanManifesto.com and Scout.com.

You can follow Joseph on Twitter @Joe_On_Sports.

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