The St. Louis Rams face another Super Bowl winning quarterback this week. How do they stop Tom Brady?
Two weeks, two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Prior to Week 7, the Rams had faced a trio of rookie quarterbacks. This is not an easy stretch for the St. Louis Rams, who face the New England Patriots this week as part of the NFL's European folly, just seven days after being dissected by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
"I had to be reminded and remind our defense that in three of the first six games we played rookie quarterbacks," head coach Jeff Fisher said when asked about the success of his defense. "Now, they are going to be very, very good quarterbacks and they are playing well but there's still a difference and we saw the difference between those quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers last week so I think we have to keep things in perspective and continue to try to improve."
Half of Rams nation spent the last five days wringing their hands over the state of the defense, pointing out each little mistake and thinking "if only" over each decision. Lost in the discordant sounds of armchair coaches was the fact that quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers have a tendency to slice and dice even the best defenses. Green Bay did that to the Bears, who have the league's best defense my most measures, earlier in the season.
"They're playing as a group probably as good as they've ever played and that's over the years, that's going back a few years," Fisher said of the Patriots.
"With the weapons that (QB Tom Brady) has now, the healthy tight ends, the versatile backs that he has out of the backfield and of course the receiving corps and he's playing at a much faster pace than they have. It creates problems; it puts lots of pressure on the defense."
But those kinds of quarterbacks and their teams can be stopped. It isn't easy, but it does happen from time to time, maybe even more than that.
"Getting pressure on good quarterbacks is essential if you can get it but you can't manufacture it because Tom is too smart," Fisher explained. "He'll see it and get rid of the football. You have to do it with a consistent four-man rush."
The four man was a man short last week against Green Bay. Defensive end Chris Long had an uncharacteristically bad outing against Bryan Bulaga. From Pro Football Focus' recap of the loss to the Packers:
Chris Long (-4.3) may be the more experienced of the pair, but it was Quinn (+4.3) who shined in this game while Long found himself struggling to even make an impact. In 38 pass rushes, Long was completely blanked by the right side of the Green Bay line, and the only time he really showed up in the game was when he was jumping offside, trying to gain an advantage in a battle he was badly losing.
Is was the only time this season Long has drawn a negative grade from PFF, and the only time he has had fewer than three pressures on the quarterback.
That he struggled against Bulaga was a surprise. Green Bay's tackle had been struggling all season. This week Long faces Sebastian Vollmer, who has allowed just one sack on Brady this season. Long has gotten the better of the game's best right tackles before, so the odds are that last week was just an off day.
Behind Long and Co. the secondary has to be as sharp as it possibly can be, assignment sound as well as physical. Brady is a master of reading safeties and burning them. The Rams are getting good play from the starting safeties. Oft-maligned Craig Dahl has the team's third best grade in pass coverage.
There's something else the Rams defense has to do that would help tremendously: get the turnover.
"I have been pleased with a lot of the things we are getting from our defense," Fisher said. "We haven't had a turnover, however, in two weeks and that's been a factor in us not being successful."
Stopping great quarterbacks or rookies or shitty vets like Kevin Kolb also means scoring points and chewing up clock time. For at least the third season in a row, the Rams are struggling in that area. Last week's production on the ground might be the best sign of hope.
"We've got to make sure that we help our defense out and once we get into the red zone, we've got to put up touchdowns," Steven Jackson said. "We've got to take advantage of chewing up the clock, as well, because their offense can put up points at any given time. Particularly on offense, we've got to make sure that we carry our weight."
Fisher's team faces a tall order this week. The Pats are favored by a touchdown for a reason, but New England has shown time and time again, especially since the 2004.