4 Reasons the Rams Defense Will Take a Big Leap in 2012
More than anything, the center of the nightmare that was the 2011 season for the St. Louis Rams can be traced back to one basic element---the defense. More specifically, the run defense.
If the Rams were a universal galaxy unto themselves, the run defense would be the Higgs boson particle of the franchise---key to the understanding of everything.
The NFL has no doubt been a passing league now for a long time. But when NFL QBs know all they have to do is turn around, hand off the ball and watch the chains move down the field, it makes every team’s defense ripe for the picking.
Stop the run, and you force the offense to pass. Limit the offense to just one method of attack, and more often than not, you have a recipe for success, especially in a league where the line between 6-10 and 10-6 is blurred beyond recognition.
The Rams seemingly had it all figured out entering the 2011 season. From 2009 to 2010, the Rams had improved markedly in every important defensive metric.
Yards allowed per game went from 372 (29th overall) down to 336 (19th). Rushing yards per game improved as well---137 in 2009 (27th overall) down to 113 in 2010 (17th). Points allowed was arguably the biggest improvement in 2010, with the team moving almost 20 spots in the overall rankings (31st to 12th) just by shaving off a touchdown per game (27.3 down to 20.5) from 2009 to 2010.
Instead, the Rams regressed in 2011, and heavily. The Rams run defense was slaughtered by the likes of DeMarco Murray (25 rushes for 253 yards), Beanie Wells (27-228), Ryan Torain (19-135) and Marshawn Lynch (23-115). Even former Rams castoff Chris Ogbonnaya (19-90) took part in the massacre.
What needs to happen for the Rams defense to make a big leap (again) in 2012? Here are the top four reasons…
1. Young, Aggressive Defensive Line
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What better way to stop the run than up front?
Since the end of last season, it's been out with the old and in with the new for the Rams. The team said goodbye in the offseason to the likes of James Hall and Fred Robbins.
That means larger roles for Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims, Darell Scott and yes, even first-round pick Michael Brockers.
The Rams project a defensive line with an average age under 25, with Long serving as the elder statesman at just 27. With the addition of Brockers, that makes three first-rounders in the rotation.
For better or worse, this will be the Rams' defensive front for the foreseeable future. The success of the defensive line is key to improving the Rams come Week 1.
2. Improved Depth in Defensive Backfield
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Head coach Jeff Fisher surely noticed the obvious when he took a look at the Rams roster from last season. The defensive backfield was embarrassing.
Injuries certainly played a role, but too many times, the Rams were forced to use DBs who had no business being on an NFL field.
Remember the Al Harris experiment? Justin King? Rod Hood?
The Rams were lucky over the years to have established veterans like Ron Bartell and O.J. Atogwe man the defensive backfield. The stability ended up being problematic, as the Rams front office got lazy and failed to keep the supply of DBs fresh.
From 2008-2011, the Rams selected only two DBs within the first three rounds (Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy). Granted, the Rams had many other holes to fill on the roster during that time, but what was once an ignored area at the draft was finally given its just due this year by Fisher and his staff.
The team selected two cornerbacks in the first 65 overall picks---Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. With the signing of unrestricted free agent Cortland Finnegan in the offseason, the Rams now have enough depth to comfortably handle 4- and 5-wideout formations.
The learning curve will be steep for the rookies, but I trust that this next guy will keep them in line.
3. James Laurinaitis
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In the mold of all the great defenses, you must, must, must have an awesome linebacker.
When you say Baltimore, you think of Ray Lewis. When you say Pittsburgh, you think of James Harrison. San Francisco and Patrick Willis. Green Bay and Clay Matthews. Chicago and Brian Urlacher. Denver and Von Miller.
The list goes on and on. Great teams have great captains in the middle of the field.
Laurinaitis needs to be that guy for St. Louis. He must be.
The Rams gave up 152 yards per game on the ground last year. Only Tampa Bay was worse. It is impossible to be a legitimate defense if every opposing team's running back turns into Jim Brown.
Laurinaitis cannot be everywhere on the field, although it seems like he often is. Last year, he finished third in the NFL with 105 tackles.
But for Laurinaitis to make the jump to superstar level, he needs to add that extra element to his game---forcing turnovers. Laurinaitis needs to learn how to simultaneously strip the ball and tackle, as he has yet to force a fumble in his NFL career.
Terrell Suggs and Willis have mastered that art. If Laurinaitis can continue to stop ball carriers and force fumbles, he and the Rams defense will take the NFL by storm.
4. Improved Offense
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Call it a cop-out, but in today's NFL, oftentimes the best defense is a good offense. By that, I mean an efficient offense.
Looking at 2011, the Rams were anything but efficient.
Rams QBs last year completed only 53.2 percent of their passes (30th overall). And don't think this was because A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens saw extensive playing time last season. Sam Bradford's completion percentage (53.5 percent) was right in line with the team average.
In 2010, as a rookie, Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes, which is about average for an NFL team. That number must improve for Bradford in order to give the Rams defense any chance at success.
There is no reason Bradford cannot be as efficient as Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo or Philip Rivers, all QBs with completion percentages between 63-66 percent last season. That's the number Bradford and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must shoot for.
The Rams must stop the three-and-outs, convert more third-downs (28 percent last season, dead last in the NFL) and stay on the field longer (29th last season in time of possession).
If the offense improves in those areas, it will give the defense more opportunities to make plays and keep the opposing team off the scoreboard.