Drafting a QB with the first overall pick should be enough to define a team. Exceeding even the most optimistic expectations, Sam Bradford is breathing life into a moribund St. Louis Rams offense, one that scored more than 20 points just twice last season. The Rams are Bradford's team by almost any measure, except they're not. Another unit is quietly emerging to inform the Rams identity: the defense.
When the Rams hired Steve Spagnuolo last year, he came with expectations formed by his impressive Super Bowl run as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo's aggressive style of defense would change the look of the Rams, so it was thought. The "Greatest Show" would soon be on the other side of the ball.
As you may recall, that didn't happen last year as the Rams defense ranked 31st in points allowed and 29 in yards allowed. The run defense was particularly atrocious, and the pass defense was nothing special either. Both ranked among the worst in terms of DVOA last year. More surprising was that the Rams defense managed a barely noticeable 5.4 percent sack rate...this from the guy who won a Super Bowl based on terrorizing quarterbacks.
And here are the 2010 Rams, with a marquee talent at QB and the amazing Steven Jackson in the backfield, developing a closeted identity as that of a defensive team. Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole, a man who has flown under the radar for his amazing work thanks largely to working for a defensive guy, deserve recognition for what's happened to the Rams' defense through 6 games, enough to identify a trend. The question is, how'd they take one of the league's worst defenses and turn it around in such short order?
Obviously, plenty of work goes into a Herculean task like this. Look at the Rams defensive DVOA since 2006:
2006: 12.7 percent (30th)
2007: 9.1 percent (25th)
2008: 23.4 percent (30th)
2009: 20.3 percent (31st)
Through five games (not including this week's win), the Rams' defense had a 1.9 percent DVOA, which compares very favorably to the years past, even after a 44-point Lions performance against them. I suspect they'll move up after this week, especially with opponent adjustments for a San Diego team that had ranked among the league's best in offensive propensity. On to the reasons for the transformation...
Reshaping the roster
Spags, Flajole and Devaney worked closely to reshape the defensive roster, a project still incomplete. That was a two-pronged effort that included ridding the unit of lost causes, e.g. Tye Hill and Adam Carriker, and decent enough players who just didn't fit the system they wanted to develop, e.g. Pisa Tinoisamoa. The Rams' defense before the new regime's arrival was in existential crisis. Jim Haslett was making the best of what he had, but leadership conflicts continued choking off sensible personnel acquisitions. Case in point, the decision to make Will Witherspoon a middle linebacker, when clearly he was best suited to play on the outside.
At the same time, they brought in solid players who fit their system. SS James Butler helped quarterback a defense and bring along the rookie MLB James Laurinaitis last year. This year, there's perhaps no more important personnel move than the acquisition of DT Fred Robbins, who has proven to be the presence in the middle so long needed by the defensive line. Of course, you can't discount the draft in this process. Guys like Laurinaitis and Bradley Fletcher have become essential contributors to the 2010 unit. You can even call Laurinaitis the cornerstone of the unit.
The roster turnover, which produced more than a few incidents of headscratching, is the most important factor in the turnaround, but a the role of a few individual players has contributed as well.
Long had an adequate rookie season -- nothing spectacular, but nothing to indicate that he was a bust. What it did do was put tremendous pressure on him to perform as a sophomore, and through the first half of last season, it looked like the returns on the 2008 second overall pick would disappoint. Then something clicked.
Through the second half of the year Long had 4 sacks. More tellingly, he was among the league leaders in QB pressures, a positive indicator of success. This year, Long has dominated opposing offensive lines, getting to the QB to set up sacks for others and thwart the passing game. Long finally had the sacks to go with his efforts this week against the Chargers.
Bartell was the Rams most sought after free agent last year. Even the blockbuster signing of C Jason Brown didn't include quite as much courtship. Drafted in 2005, the Howard product started flashing his skills as he emerged as a starter in '07 and '08. He could have walked and probably would have, upset about the team's decision to discount Jim Haslett as a head coaching possibility. Devaney pursued.
They did finally get him back in blue and gold, but dealing with injury all through the 2009 season, his effectiveness was limited. Not so this season. Bartell has smothered some of the biggest names in the receiving business, including Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, who could have easily run away from the Rams and was instead limited to 4 catches for 54 yards and a TD. The secondary and the defensive line have fed off each other this year, and much of it starts with Bartell's ability to cover receivers.
I know we've talked about this before. It has a ring of urban legend even, but there's a tale of Spagnuolo preaching belief to a Giants defense that got mauled in his first two games as coordinator. As you know, that unit almost singlehandedly won a Super Bowl that same year.
Though a Super Bowl is a long way off (not as far out as it used to be, though) for the Rams, it is clear that the players have a clear belief in themselves and the system they execute. Perhaps most impressive has been the ability of this unit to bounce back from a bad outing. Granted, we've only seen one glaring example of that this year with this week's win following a thumping. It was there last year, even for a unit that struggled overall.
After a disastrous season opener in 2009 that featured a defensive DVOA of 30.1 percent, the same unit came out the next week with a much better outing reflected in a 16.3 percent DVOA. It was the same thing all season, a rough outing was followed by a dramatically improved performance the next week. This with a unit that was consistently overmatched and constantly hindered by injuries.
Now, we're seeing the results of that on the field, the players who suffered through a rough year now more experienced, healthy and determined not to be the same old Rams defense opponents had grown accustomed to over the years.
Credit Spagnuolo and Flajole. It's not exactly a miracle turnaround, but it's pretty damn close when you consider where the Rams defense was in recent years.
It's taken a team effort to get to 3-3 this season. However, improved offense or not, the defensive identity of this team has propelled the Rams into a team that can win games.