The St. Louis Rams have many problems. That’s expected when a team is entering Week 7 with only one win.
But one problem is far more disturbing than the rest. Let’s see if you can guess which one it is.
Protecting the quarterback is a problem, as Austin Davis has been sacked 15 times. That’s tied for the third-highest total in the league, even though Davis has started only four games and made his first appearance at halftime of Week 1.
The running game is now a problem. The Rams are averaging a decent though pretty yawn-inducing 106.0 rushing yards per game, and running back Zac Stacy has plummeted. His most recent night of nothingness came Monday against the San Francisco 49ers with 17 yards on eight carries. Not good.
The pass rush is a problem. The Rams ended 2013 with 53 sacks, third in the league and one of only five teams over the past two seasons to reach the 50-sack plateau. In that same stretch since 2012 the Rams recorded 102 sacks, a league high during the two-year period.
Your time is up. The correct answer for the most disturbing and at first downright baffling problem facing the Rams after five games is a woefully inept pass rush.
Notice the amount of times a certain number appears in the table below.
|St. Louis Rams pass rush after five games|
|Total sacks||Sacks by team leader||Sacks from interior D-line|
The Rams’ lone sack came from defensive tackle Aaron Donald. In a cruel, comedic twist, the football powers above seem to be mocking the Rams with Donald proudly owning that single sack.
The rookie is likely going to make many interior offensive linemen eat grass. But right now he's still developing and only just started his first game Monday night. Prior to that he was only a situational pass-rusher, averaging a mere 27.3 snaps per game. He bottomed out in Week 5 and was on the field for only 34.2 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Yet despite that minimal playing time for much of the season so far, Donald has been the team’s most productive pass-rusher instead of defensive end Robert Quinn.
Surely you recall how many soiled undergarments Quinn caused among opposing quarterbacks in 2013. He had the second-highest sack total with 19, only a half sack behind Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis.
The next table has even more impact if you read it while doing a whistling sound. The kind that mimics a large falling object.
|Robert Quinn after five games|
|Sacks||QB hits||QB hurries|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
It's especially important to note the lack of any pressure whatsoever coming from the Rams’ most imposing pass-rushing presence.
Sacks are the sexiest metric to measure production from a pass-rusher, but they can also be deceiving. For example, a sack can fall into a defender's arms after his teammate flushed the quarterback out of the pocket in his direction.
That’s why quarterback hits and hurries are closely scrutinized too. If a pass-rusher is disrupting the timing and rhythm of a quarterback and forcing him to either throw before he wants to or leave the pocket prematurely, he’s done his job.
But the Rams aren’t even getting that far. As a unit the defense is currently on pace for 131 hurries this season, down significantly from its 175 a year ago. And of its 18 total quarterback hits six have come from Quinn, which has established another frightening pace.
In fairness, Quinn has been playing without his primary wingman.
Fellow defensive end Chris Long lasted only a little over two quarters before he crumbled in the second half of a Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. His ankle was rolled over, and shortly after he required surgery. The projected recovery time for Long is eight to 10 weeks, which led to a placement on the short-term injured reserve.
Long optimistically won’t be seen on a football field in a meaningful role again until Week 10. For most teams, being without a major source of pass-rushing muscle for that long would be a death blow. Long has 33 sacks over his past 49 games, a threat that contributes to Quinn’s production because offensive lines can't focus their protection in one area.
But the Rams aren’t most teams. Including the 14th overall pick in 2011 used on Quinn, general manager Les Snead has invested heavily in youth to power his defensive front. That's resulted in pass-rushing talent oozing from every area of the depth chart.
In 2012 the Rams held the 14th overall pick again and selected defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Then this past spring they called Donald’s name, bringing the tally to three first-round picks used on the defensive front over the past four drafts (Long was also a first-rounder going back further to 2008).
So while having Long healthy is much better than not having him healthy, a single injury isn’t why the Rams pass rush has been about as relevant in the football kingdom as unicorns are in the animal kingdom. No, the reasons are fundamental and go beyond Long, and they would need to be remedied even without his injury.
Part of the problem is that opposing offenses are scheming to get the ball out quicker on pass plays. That’s been done by either utilizing shotgun and spread formations more often or by slowing the aggressiveness of Quinn and Company through quick screens and swing passes.
It's a game plan that started in Week 1 when Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel took an average of only 2.24 seconds after the snap to release the ball, according to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner. A week later against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it was more of the same, with Josh McCown letting it fly after only 2.22 seconds.
Prior to his team’s win Monday night, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh hinted strongly that he would instruct quarterback Colin Kaepernick to follow a similar script. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Harbaugh said the talent along the Rams' defensive line hasn't changed.
Instead, the offensive approach to neutralize the collective speed up front has evolved.
"Teams have respected [them] and they’re very conscious about getting the ball out quick," Harbaugh told Eric Branch of the Chronicle. "You see that on tape. Opponents of the Rams understand how good that front is."
Predictably, Harbaugh’s offense then put those words into practice. Kaepernick was often in shotgun with a spread formation that allowed him to get the ball, drop back just a few steps and then fire.
When you watch the game film from Monday your mental stopwatch barely gets past the two-second mark on every passing snap. When the ball is in flight that quickly an offensive line can prioritize its protection, knowing the window of opportunity for the pass-rushers its responsible for is extremely brief.
An example came early in the first quarter when Quinn was owned by 49ers left tackle Joe Staley with the help of guard Mike Iupati. The play ended with a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
On 2nd-and-15 the Rams pursued Kaepernick with a standard four-man rush, which was more than sufficient the majority of the time last year. Quinn was lined up wide on the left, with defensive end Williams Hayes on the right. Donald and Brockers were the tackles on the interior.
At the snap Donald shifts to his right to engage with center Daniel Kilgore. With no other primary responsibility now Iupati is faced with a decision: Does he help with Donald or Quinn?
Selecting option No. 2 was pretty easy.
You may be thinking that’s an example of Long’s absence at work, and you’re not entirely wrong. With Long present on the other side similarly quick decisions have to be made so that he’s accounted for, with protection shifted. In turn that leaves Quinn in more one-on-one matchups.
Those are ideal because taking on two men who weigh a combined 646 pounds usually looks like this…
But as the play develops it shows how much Long’s injury matters in one sense and how much it doesn’t in another.
Again, note the scary depth along the Rams’ defensive line, with many large men capable of inflicting pain. When Iupati leaves Kilgore—who was making only his sixth career start—alone to handle Donald, the center is beaten easily.
But it doesn’t matter, because with the ball out so quickly the rush is controlled, and the play instead ends in a significant gain. The ball went from Kilgore’s hand to Kaepernick’s right mitt and then started its journey to Johnson at warp speed.
Only 1.85 seconds elapsed between the snap and Kaepernick’s release. Had Donald been given even two whole seconds (which is still turbo speed between snap and release) he would have had a chance to disrupt the play and possibly sack the quarterback. Instead he was left watching another ball sail away, as the Rams’ defensive line has done often early this season.
Of course a run defense that’s leaking awfulness everywhere isn't helping. The Rams are currently allowing 139.8 rushing yards per game, a weakness they keyed in on by stacking the box Monday and holding 49ers running back Frank Gore to only 38 yards on 16 carries.
Overall that soft spot has limited the amount of pass-rushing opportunities given to the Rams’ menacing front four. There’s little need for opposing offenses to throw at high volumes and expose their quarterback when the ground gashing is so frequently. As a result the Rams have had to defend only 241 pass attempts (28.2 per game), a league low.
So much of the Rams’ pass-rushing spiral is removed from the hands of the pass-rushers themselves, which is a frustrating and hopeless existence.
Those two words—frustrating and hopeless—will become familiar in St. Louis if pocket pressure isn’t generated somehow.