Darian Stewart: St. Louis Rams Safety Is Poised for a Breakout Season in 2012

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2012

Recently, NFL.com highlighted talented middle linebacker James Laurinaitis as a potential breakout star for the St. Louis Rams. However, a better candidate might be young safety Darian Stewart.

The 23-year-old emerged from obscurity in 2011 to record 84 tackles, notch three sacks, force a pair of fumbles and snatch an interception. In a secondary torn apart by injuries, Stewart still managed to be a playmaker.

He was a useful weapon in ex-head coach Steve Spagnuolo's fire-zone pressure packages. Those blitz skills should appeal to Spagnuolo's successor Jeff Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis.

Both men have strong roots in the blitz-happy 46 defense. They should have no problem using Stewart as a key part of attack-minded eight-man fronts.

Aside from applying pressure, where Stewart might make the most difference this season is in run support. The 5'11", 214-pounder packs a real punch as a force player.

Stewart is always eager to step up and deliver a big hit and has already displayed the knack for quickly diagnosing plays. He has impressive closing speed from deep zones, allowing him to swarm to the ball-carrier before running plays have a chance to cause significant damage.

The Rams were ranked second to last against the run in 2011, surrendering a whopping 152.1 yards per game. Having a safety like Stewart with the instincts of a linebacker and the tackling force of a defensive tackle gives the Rams a great chance to improve those woeful numbers.

If free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan and rookies Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson can handle man-coverage responsibilities, Stewart will have more license to play closer to the line. That will take full advantage of his downhill, attacking instincts.

A lot of the attention regarding the Rams' new-look secondary will focus on Jenkins and Johnson. However, it is Stewart who can play the most significant role. The active, all-action safety is primed to thrive in Fisher's new schemes.

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