In 2012, St. Louis finished with the 14th-best defense in the NFL. And in 2013, it finished with the 18th-best defense in the NFL. Both of those numbers are extremely impressive when you examine the level of offensive inefficiency, the youth of its roster as a whole and the countless injuries the Rams have had to deal with over the last two seasons.
Yet, two top-20 finishes are only the beginning for the Rams defense. With the additions of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Fisher is expecting St. Louis’ defense to be one of the top units in the league.
For those of you who are familiar with Fisher’s core beliefs, this should come as no surprise. He loves to build his defenses from the inside out. He did it in Tennessee with the Titans, and he’s doing it now as the head coach of the Rams.
Given that Fisher wholeheartedly believes the key to defensive success runs through the defensive line, one has to wonder if the Rams pass rush can become the league's most fearsome unit in 2014?
Obviously, the answer to that question isn’t an easy one considering the plethora of talented defensive fronts in the NFL.
Yet, the numbers from years past, the change at the defensive coordinator position and the crop of talented pass-rushers leads me to think St. Louis’ pass rush will be the most formidable group in the league at the end of the 2014 season.
And no, the Rams’ front won’t get there by deploying Robert Quinn more often in the hopes of him setting the single-season sack record. They will get there because of Williams’ exotic, up-tempo scheme and Donald’s pass-rushing ability from the 3-technique position.
Some of you may be wondering how an undersized (6’1", 285 pounds) defensive tackle can transform an already stout defensive line, yet the answer is quite simple. Over the course of Williams’ long-standing tenure as a defensive coordinator, he has always had a thing for disruptive tweener types at the defensive tackle position.
For a case in point, look at Williams’ most recent stop in Tennessee.
Karl Klug, an undersized (6’3”, 275 pounds) rusher like Donald, thrived as a situational player from the 3-technique position. In fact, Klug tallied the 13th-highest rush grade at his position (plus-10.7), according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Being the 13th-best player at anything may not sound like an outstanding feat, but it is when you take into account the fact that Klug only garnered 330 snaps in 16 regular-season games.
On a per-snap basis, Klug actually registered the same rush grade as Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. That’s saying something since Suh finished with the second-highest rush grade (plus-36.1) from the NT/DT position.
Let's take a look at Klug’s tape and study how Williams helped him have a career year in 2013.
On this second-quarter play from the Titans’ Week 13 contest versus the Indianapolis Colts, Klug displayed a quick first step, a powerful swim move and the ability to eat up a blocker in a one-on-one situation.
Also, pay attention to No. 99 Jurrell Casey. Casey was lined up at the defensive tackle spot next to Klug. And as you can see in the GIF above, his primary assignment on the play was to eat up space so Klug would have the opportunity to win a one-on-one matchup against the left guard.
That play right there is a perfect example as to what Williams and the Rams want to do with Donald and Michael Brockers. St. Louis wants to put Donald in a position where he can rush the passer freely while Brockers eats up multiple blockers on double teams.
Here’s a play of Donald’s that is similar to Klug’s sack from the Colts game.
On this play from the Pittsburgh-Flordia State game, Donald was lined up at the 3-technique position. His sole purpose on this play was to beat up on the right guard while the other defensive tackle took on the center and left guard.
It’s clear the play worked out perfectly. Donald used a rip move and good acceleration to attack the quarterback, and the other defensive tackle provided a solid anchor as he battled both blockers (center and left guard) at the line of scrimmage.
This was just one simple comparison, but the more you watch both players the more you realize they do a fantastic job of winning at the line of scrimmage by firing off the ball and properly using their hands.
Let’s take a look at another play of Klug’s that compares well to Donald.
In this clip, Klug (No. 97) was lined up at the right defensive tackle spot. His responsibility on the play was to slip the left guard and work his way upfield to pressure the quarterback.
Lo and behold, he was able to slip the left guard with good leverage and an inside power move. Klug wasn’t able to amass a quarterback sack on Russell Wilson, but he did impact the play with a quarterback hit.
Here’s a quarterback pressure from Donald that is eerily similar to Klug’s quarterback hit.
Like Klug’s play versus the Seattle Seahawks, Donald was lined up at the right defensive tackle spot against New Mexico. Moreover, Donald’s duty was the same as well. Pitt’s coaching staff was expecting him to split the center and left guard with the hopes of him applying pressure on the quarterback.
Coincidentally enough, he had no trouble finding his way into the backfield. The end result was a quarterback hit from Donald and a quarterback sack from his teammate (No. 93).
Based on the film review and comparison of both players, it’s easy to see why the Rams drafted Donald with the 13th pick in this year’s draft. They felt he was the best schematic fit of any defensive tackle, and they are certain he will take St. Louis’ defensive line to a whole new level.
A source close to the team told me that Williams and defensive line coach Mike Waufle felt Donald was too good to pass up at No. 13 overall, because they are confident he has all the tools to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014.
If that truly is the case and Donald does end up winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, is there really any question as to which team’s pass rush is the league's most fearsome unit?
As Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in his column on May 9, Fisher has declared war on the NFC West. The Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals have officially been put on notice.