Fun with numbers: Signs of progress and areas of concern in the Rams' stats

Visible signs of a better Rams team: Na'Il Diggs #53 of the St. Louis Rams forces a fumble against Santana Moss #89 of the Washington Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome on September 26 2010.

Oh statistics, you say so much while saying so little. Sitting at third place in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams look like they've finally started to see some results from the franchise's massive turnaround efforts. Without a doubt, play on the field has improved, especially in the wake of this week's win. A better Rams team is now showing up in the stats as well as away from the numbers (I had to work in a reference to post punk heroes, The Jam). 

Here's was Football Outsiders' DVOA stats for the Rams after three weeks of play. It's important to note that these numbers have not yet been adjusted based on quality of opponents; that happens after this week's games. DVOA and ranks listed below.

Offense: -15.2 percent, 23rd
Defense: -5.3 percent, 14th
Special teams: -2.9 percent, 23rd

What does it all mean? Digging deeper into the numbers after the jump...

Let's start by comparing those numbers to last season's. 

Offense: -26.4 percent, 32nd
Defense: 20.3 percent, 31st
Special teams: 1.6 percent, 11th

The defense has made the biggest jump of all, something that's been evident in the first three games of the season. The offense is better as well, but until last week, the team continued to struggle when it came to actually putting points on the board. Hopefully, the progress seen last week continues in the weeks ahead. 

Sticking with the offense, breaking it out by rush and pass reveals some positive signs for the Rams.

Pass DVOA
2010: -6.1 percent, 22nd
2009: -33.5 percent, 32nd

Rush DVOA
2010: -15.3 percent, 25th
2009: -4.7 percent, 25th

Reasons for improvement in the passing game should be fairly obvious. Sam Bradford, even as a rookie still prone to the classic rookie mistakes, gives the Rams a big bump at the QB spot. That was never more evident that in the second half of last week's win over Washington. Pass protection also gets credit here.

The drop in the performance of the running game is a concern, especially for a team with Steven Jackson as the feature back. Prior to last week's game, we discussed this issue at length, citing problems in the run blocking, play calling and wondering about the status of several players. 

To an extent that improved this week. Jackson and Kenneth Darby both broke out for touchdown runs, and the offense made better use of runs on the outside. Tweaks to the offensive line, most notably the use of John Greco at RG, made a difference as well.

We'll keep an eye on the Rams running game. Despite the complete lack of a passing threat last year, the Rams still managed to scratch out an effective run game against stacked defenses. Those familiar 8 man fronts plagued the Rams in the first two games. Like I mentioned above, a more effective use of Bradford's ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage overcame the stacked box pretty effectively and balanced out the offensive attack. That should really benefit the Rams when Steven Jackson gets back on the field, but until then, that rushing DVOA stat might not budge much. 

Here's the breakdown on defense.

Pass defense DVOA
2010: -1.7 percent, 12th
2009: 30.3 percent, 29th

Run defense DVOA
2010: -9.9 percent, 15th
2009: 10.8 percent, 32nd

That's a pretty impressive jump all around. I suspect those numbers will change when adjusted for opponents, but it's still a marked improvement. 

The biggest reasons for the jump, besides the obvious one of a healthier team, are:

  1. Better pass rushing. We've seen this weekly, the Rams using a wild array of blitz packages, trickery like sending two men, often not linemen, through the same gap. There may be some questions on the other side of Chris Long, but the team is making up for it. I'd also point out the fact that Chris Long still has not recorded a sack, but he's terrorized opposing QBs and his play has allowed his teammates to pickup the actual sack. The addition of Fred Robbins has also paid dividends so far. 
  2. Strong play in the secondary. To me, this is the best unit on defense. Ron Bartell is playing up to expectations, Bradley Fletcher looks even better than where he left off, the safeties have been solid too. Play in the secondary has certainly helped the front seven.
  3. James Laurinaitis and better linebackers. The outside linebackers haven't been perfect, but they are a more athletic bunch than last year. More to the point, James Laurinaitis is playing at an incredibly high level, not to mention his role as captain of the defense. He's also improved in coverage, his biggest weakness as a rookie. 
This is not a conservative defense. On more than one occasion opponents have beaten an aggressive rush for big plays. Some of that is reflected in the unit's biggest weakness, runs on the outside, particularly at left end. At that spot, the Rams have allowed an adjusted line yards rate of 6.87 yards, 29th in the league. I think part of that has to do with the aggressiveness mentioned above, but a couple other factors are at play, namely LBs getting out of position and corners getting blocked by receivers. Go look at the tape on some of those runs and you'll see what I'm talking about. Larry Grant usually plays on that side, and though he's not a rookie, this is his first season as a starter and seeing much playing time period. Grant's a good player, so keep an eye on whether or not he improves in that area. I did see the Rams were using David Vobora on the outside some last week. Vobora excelled against the run last year, so that rotation might continue going forward. 

It's not enough, however, to look at these stats and settle for the obvious improvement they reflect. The task now is maintaining those gains going forward and making additional strides. 
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