Five plays, five lessons

Laurinaitis had a strong rookie season for the St. Louis Rams. G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

Whether they know it or not, all great football players are exceptional listmakers.

Take Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who in 2009 became just the second rookie in Rams history to lead the team in tackles (Pisa Tinoisamoa in 2003 was the other). Ever since his high school days in Plymouth, Minn., he's kept a three-ring binder that contains charts and analysis on every play he's ever studied on film. Now, as the quarterback of the Rams defense, the 6'2", 250-pound Laurinaitis relies on catalogs of knowledge -- written and mental -- more than ever. Why? Most Mike linebackers are given the team's in-helmet communicator so they can receive and relay the play calls. The Mike also is the one defender who's supposed to be in on every tackle: stuffing the run from sideline to sideline, blitzing from any of six gaps across the line, shadowing shallow pass routes by tight ends and backs, and covering the deep middle seam in the Cover 2. In other words, before Laurinaitis can put his physical skills to use, the second-rounder from Ohio State must first process and disseminate an avalanche of information.

No wonder his weeks begin with film study, game-planning and note-taking on Monday morning. His intel gathering peaks six days later, a millisecond before each snap, when he runs through his presnap reads: down and distance; "keys" -- clues on the play to come based on personnel, formations or tendencies; field position; game situation; team morale, etc. If, somehow, you could see his in-play thoughts like bubbles, you'd see multiple checklists swirling above the field as he spins and churns through multiple inputs (the movement of the line, the tells of the QB, the eyes of the running back) before locking into a single course of action (attack, shadow, drop back).

Ultimately, every game is a chance for Laurinaitis to draw from his three-ring binders -- and to add to it for the next one. To see how that process works, here are the five moments from Laurinaitis' rookie year that opened his eyes and made him say a-ha.