St. Louis Rams: Defensive Growing Pains

Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

The St. Louis Rams began this season with an ace hidden up their sleeve. Over the course of the last four years - involving two different franchise administrations - the Rams began acquire the pieces to build a top flight NFL defense. Say what you want about Steve Spagnuolo, but he found a few defensive gems during his tenure. Chris Long, Robert Quinn and James Laurinaitis were added to a team that only had loses on their horizon...

On the current roster, there are ten players on defense who are hold overs from seasons past. Two aren't big names, and they in fact rarely see the field during games outside of special teams duties: Josh Hull (the second to last pick in the 2010 draft) and undrafted free agent Darian Stewart. Some are players brought in as free agents due to the previous coach's linkage to the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. The much maligned Craig Dahl from the Giants, and safety Quintin Mikell of the Eagles have both become part of an ever improving whole. In the same draft - 2009 - that brought James Laurinaitis to the Rams, Bradley Fletcher was chosen in the third round. Free agent Jermelle Cudjo arrived in 2010, the same year Eugene Sims was taken by the Rams in the sixth round of the NFL Draft...

These ten players have been in a battle since arriving in St. Louis. They've endured being on losing teams, and seeing their teammates slip away as is the wont of the NFL. They were waiting for something to change, and it did in early 2012 when the Rams shifted gears. They turned from a habit of hiring "hot" team coordinators as head coaches, and signed Jeff Fisher. Each NFL coach calls either offense or defense their strength, and Fisher is no different. He spent his playing years as a defensive player, and continued that trend throughout his entire NFL coaching career. He became synonymous with putting together tough defenses during his time with the Tennessee Titans. When he stepped through the doorway of the St. Louis Rams headquarters, he brought with him a coaching staff that literally contained many who'd been defensive coordinators themselves. Every Rams fan knew that when Fisher was hired, the work begun by Steve Spagnuolo to build the team's defense would be completed.

In a merging of the minds with new team General Manager Les Snead, the Rams new head coach attacked the 2012 NFL draft with a simple mission: Finish the defense. He added defensive tackle Michael Brockers in the first round to go with free agent Kendall Langford from the Miami Dolphins. Fisher drafted players with off field red flags like Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to fill the secondary along side big money free agent Cortland Finnegan. He signed a trio of free agent linebackers - Mario Haggan, Jo-Lon Dunbar and Rocky McIntosh. Then he brought in William Hayes from the Titans as well as Kellen Heard and Matt Conrath. The final piece of Fisher's 2012 defensive picture was the signing of linebacker Justin Cole from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

The unit gelled quickly, even though the team didn't have a defensive coordinator per se. Gregg Williams, hired soon after Jeff Fisher came on board, was part of the "pay for play" Bounty Scandal, and was banned indefinitely by the NFL. It was announce the team would run the defense "by committee" since the team was filled with coaches who knew Fisher's defensive mind.

In the first game of the season, the Washington Redskins were stunned by a defense that played at both a high level of energy, and featured players who turned NFL pundits' heads. Over the course of seven weeks, the Rams defense found itself in the NFL's Top 10.

The Rams have had a tough schedule so far in this 2012 season. While half the teams didn't feature powerful offenses, they all have had good defenses who've forced a great many "3 and out" scenarios. Its had the effect of keeping the Rams' defense on the field more than any coach would like to see. Let's face it, the more time on the field, the more film there will be for opposing coaches to study as they prepare to play the Rams. NFL coaches are a wily group, and spotting problems in the St. Louis defensive scheme didn't take them long.

While the Rams secondary played well in the first six games of the season, they started to come off the rails in week #7 against the Green Bay Packers. I don't blame the Rams defense for the loss to Aaron Rodgers and Co. like many do. The Rams offense wasn't up to the task of scoring to keep up with the Packers, and all to often spent too little time on the field. Sooner or later, given the time, Rodgers was going to take advantage of a young corner back like Janoris Jenkins. He'd proven in prior games he had trouble making decisions if the pocket moved his way, or the quarterback looked his direction. Jenkins bites on the first look, allowing a second move by a receiver to break him open. Rookies, right? Not really, since it's the job of the defensive coaching staff to recognize a potential weakness and move players to mend a potential breach. Time and again, Jenkins was left in single coverage, and that just wasn't going to end well.

The play of the Rams safeties so far this year has been concerning at best. I can't really understand why the better of the two safeties in pass coverage - Quintin Mikell - is constantly moved into the defensive box, while the weakest pass cover player on the entire team is left deep in the secondary? To make matter even more bizarre, Craig Dahl is a better run defender than Mikell, so why isn't he the one moved closer to the line? These reversed roles have cost the Rams dearly. Dahl simply isn't capable of helping Jenkins with umbrella coverage over the top.

The linebacker corps, while vastly improved over last season against both the run and pass, isn't where it needs to be. Time and again against the New England Patriots, the Rams linebackers were caught out of place. The game plan appeared to be stopping Wes Welker in the short over the middle routes. James Laurinaitis, who plays 7 or even 8 yards off the line, was caught reacting to play action fakes by Tom Brady. While he made quite a few tackles during the game, his first contact - for the most part - was three or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Patriots used a Guard/Fullback trap blocking scheme to great effect. They ran at a player they knew from his days in Miami - Kendall Langford - while taking advantage of Chris Long's strong outside move. I'd seen this work well on Robert Quinn's side of the field earlier in the year, but the Patriots flipped it to Long's side and did so for consistent gains. This caused a shift by Laurinaitis to his left, and that's when Rob Gronkowski started to get quicker releases. He'd make a slight move on Jo-Lon Dunbar like he was going to cut toward Laurinaitis, then double move straight up the field. It worked well as we all know. This is just my opinion, but I think this was Laurinaitis' worst game of his career. He spent the game in reaction mode as the Patriots challenged him from two directions. With Mikell playing up, and often on Quinn's side of the line, there wasn't any help deep for Laurinaitis on the defensive left side. This is where great middle linebackers succeed or fail. They make adjustments to both position and coverage on the fly.

Jeff Fisher's plan to have a "Co-Op" defensive coordination of the Rams defense has done well against the rookie quarterbacks they've faced. Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson all failed to some extent against the Rams defense. Matt Stafford, in the Detroit game, was well handled until the last couple minutes of the contest. Fisher's plan to emphasize the defensive front line works well in most situations. Adding in a blitz or two, and the front seven of the Rams excelled. Yet, what has begun to nag me most is the lack of latitude the Rams defense appears to have in its game planning? With few exceptions, this defense has played the exact same packages, in the same situations, all season. How can anyone be surprised when future Hall of fame quarterbacks dismantle it? They study the game film, and find tendencies. Tendencies are established based on repeated behavior. It becomes the whole "If it looks like a Duck..." scenario, and for players like Rodgers and Brady it's Duck season.

This entire group of Rams defenders is talented, and has so much promise. This gathering of young players will improve each week. They'll hopefully expand their repertoire of defensive looks (Leave the Brockers in pass coverage one out though?). At some point this defense will need to be let off the leash. But before that can happen, a defensive coordinator needs to be clearly defined. This group is one or two players away from being special, and by that I mean the best in the NFL. A player like Jenkins will have to start playing the player, and not the look. Linebackers will need to expand their adjustment base. Safeties will need to play safety, and let the rest of the team know they have their backs. The Rams' defense needs a leader on the sidelines Jeff Fisher trusts to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

This unit, this part of the Rams, has come together through drafts and free agency to where they are right now. Years of panning the draft and player lists has cleared the dross away to show the shiny stuff; that gold dreams are made of, and championships won. What a great time to be a Rams fan...

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