Once thought to be the great equalizer of the team, the defense has fallen on hard times these last couple weeks. This is the unit I was expecting I could present a shining review of. To paint it as the saving grace. Between the first 6 games and the last two, however, it's been a tale of two defenses. Best explanation is... up until now, with exception to the Redskins, they hadn't really faced an offense of note. And they even gave up 28 points to the 'Skins. The Packers and Patriots, however... certainly qualify as "of note". So, let's take a look at what we've got and see if anything can be salvaged from the last two, less than stellar efforts.
DEFENSIVE END: This is one unit that is closest to actually being "stellar". The Rams boast one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league, in Rober Quinn and Chris Long. Even with a recent drop off in production, the duo has combined for 11 sacks. And sacks aren't the only thing they do. They continually harrass QBs with hits and pressures. They're relentless, and were by far the driving force behind the D's early successes. The reason they've had a difficult time getting to th QB the last two weeks, hasn't been them... it's been the QBs themselves. They play smarter and get the ball out quicker. I don't see these two slowing down anytime soon, though. William Hayes and Eugene Simms provide decent depth, but there is obviously going to be a significant drop off when Long and Quinn are on the sidelines. Grade: A-
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: The interior line, is better than last year, to be sure. But, still not on par with the ends. Kendall Langford has done a decent job, and Michael Brockers has collapsed a few pockets, since his delayed debut. They're also good at absorbing blocks for the LB unit. There have been a lot more tackles in the backfield this year, than I can recall from previous seasons. But, the Rams still haven't quite gotten a handle on the finer points of rushing defense. Good RBs still find a way against these boys. And while 14th in the league against the run is respectable, in the run heavy NFC West, they've got to do better. Marshawn Lynch got off on them and Frank Gore is right around the corner.Jermelle Cudjo has proven to be a decent backup. Behind him, however, there isn't a boatload of talent. Grade: B-
LINEBACKERS: The linebacking corps has been a pleasant surprise. No need to spend too much time on James Laurinaitis, who currently leads the NFL in tackles and remains one of the best MLBs in the league. We already know what he's all about. Rocky McIntosh has been servicable, at best, but, certainly not awful. However... the guy I really want to talk about is Jo-Lonn Dunbar. This guy has been an absolute godsend. He's been nothing short of fantastic since he got here. Especially considering the expectations of him. I was actually shocked to see that his tackle totals weren't closer to Li'l Animal's... because he's all over the field and it almost seems as if he's in on every tackle. At age 27, his guy is an absolute keeper and Les Snead should be drafting this guy's next contract right now. Great call on that guy. McIntosh is still a weak spot, though. and lack of any kind of depth, kills their score. Grade: C
CORNERBACKS: Here's where things tend to get a bit dicey. The Rams appear to be set at the CB position for years to come. Cortland Finnegan was a huge get, in free agency. His talent and leadership are un-questioned. Beyond that, though... the rest is (a VERY promising) work in progress. Janoris Jenkins has the talent. He has the physical tools and tremendous football instincts. There's no denying that. But, he's still a rookie... and prone to rookie mistakes. When he's good, he's good, he's great. When he's bad... he's spectacularly bad. Not to say this happens on a regular basis. But, enough to cost us a TD or three. He's still learning, though, and he's got it in him to be one of the greats. Expecting him to be there already, though, just isn't fair. It's a baptism by fire, for Jenkins. But, I think he's up to the task. We haven't seen as much of rookie, Trumaine Johnson, But, what we have seen has been pretty good. He hasn't given up much ground. It's doubtful he surpasses Jenkins, but he could be paired with him for a long time down the road.
Bradley Fletcher... well... I don't know what got into him last weekend. It's not like he's been terrible this year. But, he couldn't keep up with Dion Branch to save his live. I'm hoping this was just a hiccup, because we need Fletcher for the depth. Fletcher has it in him to be a good nickel guy... he just didn't show it... at all... last week.
All told, though... I think the pass rushers up front made these guys look a lot better than they actually are. Not to say they're not good. That couldn't be further from the truth. But, with the way Quinn and Long had been getting to passers, the corners had it pretty easy on the back end. And as much as I'd like to revel in their first 3 games, we still have to take into account, their last three. They still need work, but the sky is the limit for this group. Grade: C+
SAFTIES: No two ways about it... this is, by far, the weakest link on the entire team, let alone the defense. I mean, let's be real... any unit that includes Craig "I don't know how I'm holding down a job in the NFL" Dahl as a starter, is in serious trouble. Craig "I have incriminating pictures of Stan Kroenke" Dahl is an absolute liability. He is routinely out of position, and even when he does manage to be in the right place, he fails miserably. My question is... where the hell is Darian Stewart?? Is he not yet back up to speed on the defense? Does he really need to be, in order to beat out Craig "I'm not even sure what exactly a safety does" Dahl? My guess is "no". But, apparently, the powers that be, feel otherwise. The other half of this tandem is Quintin Mikell. He's still quite football savy, knows the intricacies of the defense better than most, and can still somewhat impact a game, but, at age 33 his best days are behind him. The safties are the last line of defense against the big play, and the big play is absolutely killing the Rams. You do the math. Grade: F
SPECIAL TEAMS: As bad as the safties are... the special teams are equally as good. Greg Zuerlein has been phenominal and is destined to break records before his career is over. Save for the Redskins game, every game the Rams have won, or taken to the wire, can be directly credited to the rookie phenom. Another rookie, John Hekker has been equally spectacular in the punting game. Setting francise records for gross punting average and continually tipping the scales in the battle for field position in the Rams favor.
The return game has been better than in year's past, but not by a whole lot. Although, with Danny Amendola on the mend, both Janoris Jenkins and Austin Pettis have tried their hand at returning punts, to mixed reviews. Isaiah Pead and Chris Givens have been so-so on kickoffs. Neither unit is really breaking out. Then again... neither is really killing us either. So, that's a good thing. On the strength of the big legs, special teams retains high marks. Grade: A
The totals give them a solid "B". Which I think is about right... for now. If they lay anymore eggs, like last week, that grade will change, fast. I don't see the bye week affecting the defense all that much. There could be some minor personnel shuffling, but nothing to get excited about. My guess is Trumaine Johnson will get more work at the nickle spot. And if we're lucky, Craig "Every wide receiver I face is on my fantasy team" Dahl, will be ousted by Stewart.
Get the rest, get the reps and get things going again, because the 49ers will be ready, come week 10. They're no offensive juggernaut, though. And Smith can still be confused into making mistakes by good defensive play. This could be a huge redemption game for the D, if they're up for it.