Going back to basics has worked wonders for the St. Louis Rams defense. The unit has the talent, but lacked the results to match it in recent seasons.
Five games into the 2012 NFL season, the Rams defense has been the driving force behind the team's 3-2 start, and keyed the 17-3 manhandling of the previously unbeaten Arizona Cardinals to begin Week 5.
Adopting a simpler approach has been the decisive factor in the unit's turnaround, following three seasons of wild inconsistency operating the complex system of ex-head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Under Spagnuolo, the Rams played a fire-zone scheme, calling for a complex blend of blitz pressures and coverages.
In 2009, the group ranked 29th, but registered sharp improvement a year later. In fact, the defense played its part in taking the Rams one game short of capturing the NFC West crown in 2010, ranking 19th overall and 12th in scoring. It appeared Spagnuolo's plans had taken shape.
However, the defense regressed in 2011, falling to 22nd. A rash of injuries in the secondary didn't help, but the real issue was the 31st-ranked run defense.
The 152.1 rushing yards surrendered per game revealed a defense that had become too bloated by scheme and had forgotten the basics. That picture has changed under new head coach Jeff Fisher, who has quickly moulded an aggressive unit that still respects sound fundamentals.
Fisher and his defensive crew, led by long-time assistants Dave McGinnis and Chuck Cecil, have scaled back the scheme in favour of a simpler system. The key to their approach has been to rely on a basic man under, two-deep coverage concept, allowing the defensive line rotation to provide the majority of the pressure.
That's as basic as it gets for pro 4-3 defenses, but the affects are obvious. Fisher has eliminated most of the pre-snap movement and lengthy blitz signals the Rams were calling during the last three years. His defense simply concentrates on playing downhill and swarming to the ball.
New arrivals have certainly aided this transformation. In particular, free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan can usually be relied upon to take away the opposition's best receiver, which allows Fisher to trust press coverage on the outside.
Linebackers Rocky McIntosh and Jo-Lonn Dunbar were also smart additions. Their athleticism on the outside allows aggressive mike 'backer James Laurinaitis to concentrate on attacking A-gap to A-gap.
However, the real driving force behind the Rams defense is the line, a group as deep and talented as any during the team's stay in St. Louis. Fisher added top rookie Michael Brockers and low-key free agents William Hayes and Kendall Langford to arguably the best young duo of rush ends in the league in Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Rotation players like Jermelle Cudjo, Kellen Heard and Eugene Sims have also contributed. The group devoured the Cardinals, enabling the defense to collect a whopping nine sacks.
Previously, Rams defensive linemen often exchanged gap and rush responsibilities and alignments, or dropped into zone coverage. Now they are simply tasked with getting behind the line of scrimmage and destroying plays at their source.
The Rams are now able to create consistent and heavy pressure up front without relying on complicated and risky blitz packages. Along with Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins locking down the outside, usually with deep safety help, that simple formula is proving a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
The Rams' back to basics defense is providing real hope that the Fisher era won't be just another false dawn in St. Louis.
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