Rams defense takes a big step forward in 2010

James Laurinaitis was a big part of the St. Louis Rams defensive turnaround in 2010.

Last week, we looked the St. Louis Rams offense from this season compared to last, finding out that as painful as it seemed at times, it was definitely an improvement

Today we turn our attention to the other side of the ball to the unit that made plenty of very obvious progress, the Rams defense. Again, using Football Outsiders final DVOA numbers for the 2010 season

In short, the Rams defense made a big jump in 2010, and there's plenty of room for improvement. Follow along after the jump.

2010
Overall D: 5.9 percent (20th)
Pass D: 10.1 percent (21st)
Run D: 0.5 percent (20th)

2009
Overall D: 20.3 percent (31st)
Pass D: 30.3 percent (29th)
Run D: 10.8 percent (32nd)

Wow. You could tell the defense was better just by looking at the score board and watching the games, but those numbers reveal a pretty significant jump. Even more remarkable about this is that the Rams, for the most part, did it with the same group of players on the roster last year, albeit with fewer injuries and more experience. 

The performance jump in the pass defense tells the story of the entire unit's improvement. In the secondary, the Rams had two healthy starting cornerbacks with Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher. Bartell played through an injury last year that drastically limited his effectiveness, and Fletcher's promising rookie season ended early with an ugly hyperextended knee. Both players were at full speed this year and it showed. It's notable that the Rams had by far their worst outing for the pass defense in week 10 against San Francisco, when the coaches made the decision to start Kevin Dockery in place of Fletcher, making Troy Smith look like an all-pro while he completed almost everything longer than 10 yards. 

Oshiomogho Atogwe gets credit here too. Atogwe made a name for himself being asked to focus on his ball skills, get the turnovers to help a struggling defense. When Spags came that changed, and it paid off this year as his coverage ability, tackling and role in run support were essential to the Rams' success. And the ball skills were still there as he forced two fumbles and had three INTs. 

Up front, a more aggressive, successful pass rush played a key role in the defensive turnaround. This year the Rams had 43 sacks and a 7.1 percent sack rate. Last year, they had 25 sacks and a 5.4 percent sack rate. Chris Long and James Hall led the way, and the addition of Fred Robbins, and a full season of healthy DTs, finally gave the middle of the Rams line some stability. The unit still struggled against some of the league's better offensive lines.

Still, the defense wasn't without holes. I suspect we'll talk more about the situation at outside linebacker, particularly on the weak side, but it's safe to say that there was no bigger gap in the defense. That made the outside parts of the field a very attractive target for opposing runners and quarterbacks. It also negatively impacted the other parts of the program as the Rams would often use an extra defensive back to cover that spot or occasionally drop a defensive lineman back into coverage, throwing the defense out of balance. 

As mentioned above, the personnel changed little on defense for the Rams; one of the most important factors behind the jump in production was just another year of experience. Players knew their roles better, allowing the coaches to use more and more of the playbook, so to speak. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis captained the operation, using his football acumen and a year of seasoning to switch calls at the line, confusing opposing offenses and getting the right matchups. Even against some of the league's better offenses, the Rams defense was able to play well enough to keep their team in the game. 

Expect more improvement from the defense next year. Addressing the OLB situation will make a big difference. Still, the Rams will probably need to add some pass rushing ability up front, maybe even another run stuffer since Gary Gibson is more of a rotational player than starter and Fred Robbins is another year older, insurance essentially. 

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