Jared Cook, Jake Long, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Barrett Jones and Zac Stacy all have [at least] one thing in common: they surround Rams' QB - Sam Bradford - with talent. In doing so, they aid in making a relatively vanilla offense far more explosive. And that’s the 2nd best piece of news…
The Rams’ roster is really starting to take shape heading into the upcoming season, but the timing - for those who yearn for to see the team play in MetLife Stadium next February - is far from ideal. The NFC West is the toughest division in football, and the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are two of the most well-rounded organizations in the game. Both made the playoffs in 2012…one played in the Super Bowl. Neither look worse for wear in 2013.
Winning in the NFL requires near flawless execution in all phases of the game. The offense - for the 49ers and Seahawks - is loaded with weapons, lead by young, mobile Quarterbacks, but it’s far from the dominant unit on either team. Their success[es] are due - in large part - to having two of the most stifling defenses in the NFL. The 49ers [3rd, 294.4 ypg. 2nd, 17.1ppg] and Seahawks [4th, 306.2 ypg. 1st, 15.3 ppg] defense’s help justify the adage "Offense wins games. Defense wins Championships." And despite the outcome for the 49ers in SB XLVII, the phrase still rings true. Unfortunately for them, the opposition had a great defense and an incredible offense… at least when it mattered most.
But how about those Rams? It may seem a bit of a stretch to simply throw their name in amongst the NFC West’s most adored coast-dwelling franchises. Or is it? The Rams' 7-8-1 record in 2012 isn’t anything to rave about. Heck, it’s just another non-winning season. There are subtleties, though, that a three-digit-seperated-by-two-hyphen glance won’t reveal.
A 7-8-1 record isn’t going to tell you that the replacement refs missed an offensive holding call in the final seconds of Week 1 [Lions], resulting in a Lions TD/Rams' loss. Why should it? It’s a loss. It’s not going to inform you that Brandon Gibson couldn’t properly line up against the 49ers in Week 10, thus adding the "-1" portion to the end of their season’s final record. You’d never know by looking at their record that the Rams went 4-1-1 in the NFC West - losing only to the Seahawks in the final week of the season - and had the best record in the division. You wouldn’t… unless you follow the Rams.
And IF you follow the Rams, you know the aforementioned all too well. You also know the Rams won games - more importantly stayed in them - as a result of their defense. It wasn’t often the team was leading heading into the final frame. As noted in my "Situational Sam Bradford piece," the Rams lead in only 5 of their 16 games when the clock started ticking in the 4th quarter. It wasn’t because [sans home games against Patriots and Vikings] the team wasn’t within reach of victory, but more so their inability to execute offensively down the stretch.
The Rams' defense did it’s part. Despite having the league’s 4th toughest schedule, the Rams were able to head into halftime leading - or within one touchdown - in every game except two [NE, MIN]. With only 30 minutes remaining in regulation, the Rams stood a fair chance at winning 14 games. Considering they only won half of those, it’s something to ponder. And based upon what Rams’ GM Les Snead has done in this offseason, it appears he thought about this long ago.
Progress - even for the most eager of Rams’ fans - is the minimal expectation. The defensive unit hasn’t disappointed. And though [statistically] the results don’t match those of the aforementioned NFC West foes, one cannot deny the Rams are forcing their name into the conversation of legitimate defenses. It’s been some time since the team’s defense ranked in the top half of the league in both YPG and PPG…
As you can see, it’s been well over a decade since the Rams have boasted one of the league’s more respectable defensive units. Even then, 14th in both PPG and YPG doesn’t gain the Rams defense the respect it probably deserves. Let us not forget, though, that the Rams are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Quintin Mikell (32) and Rocky McIntosh (30) were the veterans on a Rams defensive unit that also fielded two impact rookie starters [Brockers & Jenkins] and a sophomore on the rise [Quinn]. The vacancies left by those veterans look to also be filled with more rookie talent: T.J. McDonald and Alec Ogletree. The ‘old man’ amongst the Rams defensive players? Former Pro-Bowler [having recently turned 29] Cortland Finnegan. Based on what the defensive unit showed they were capable of in 2012, ‘growing pains’ doesn’t appear to be an issue.
And though being ranked 14th isn’t going to turn many heads, I’ll revert back to the toughness of the division and 2012 Strength of Schedule. It’s circumstantial, but would the Rams have been able to increase their league rankings had they been awarded the league’s 7th easiest schedule last season… like the 49ers?
Shoulda, woulda, coulda’s aside, the Rams defense is giving the coaching staff - and it’s fans - exactly what they want: progress. There’s no doubting that there are similarities between the hovering-around-average results of the 2010 and 2012 seasons. Both had the Rams in Playoff discussion late in the season, and both lead to a grand total of zero postseason appearances. The defensive unit [collectively] may look different - and far more youthful in 2013 - than it has in decades, but the expectation remains. Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald are expected to break the starting roster. They’re also expected to be the missing cogs that elevate the Rams’ into the "Top-10" discussion.
One statistical category the Rams’ defense excelled in last season was QB sacks. They tied for the NFL league-lead in sacks in 2012 . Nearly half of those came from two of the usual suspects: Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Long tied Chris Clemons, Michael Johnson, Julius Peppers, and Demarcus Ware for 9th in the league with 11.5 sacks. Quinn - the 1st round pick from 2011 - finished a mere one sack behind the bunch [10.5], ranking 17th. As Kendall Langford continues to gain familiarity with the 4-3 DEF and Michael Brockers improves as a result of experience, opportunities will open up for all four members of the defensive front. QB’s beware.
If you’ll revert back to the Greatest Show on Turf days - which was the last time the Rams’ lead the NFL in sacks - you’ll remember that much of the team’s success was a result of the Offense’s ability to do whatever they wanted with the ball, whenever they wanted to do it. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Orlando Pace [amongst others] imposed their will on opponents, and made winning look easy. The defense, though, certainly wasn’t holding the team back. And though the game is constantly evolving, looking at the quality of the Rams’ defensive depth chart in 1999 has to make one feel pretty good about the direction they’re headed in 2013.
The past few season’s for the Rams have shown a few glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball. Whether it was the need for a capable strongside linebacker or strong safety, breakdowns in those areas weakened the entire unit. It’s difficult to fire on all cylinders when one of your cylinders is consistently following the opposition into your end zone or watching Rob Gronkowski own the middle of the field. Weak links hinder the play-making abilities of those around them. That’s now a thing of the past.
The GM/Coaching staff appear to have addressed those concerns for the most part, leaving very few question marks in regards to how the defense will look in 2013. The eleven defenders that take the field for the Rams have proven that they can impact the outcome of a game. Maybe none more so than Janoris Jenkins in 2012. No player - dating beyond the GSOT days - has scored four Def. TD’s in a season. That is until last year, when the Rams’ rookie amassed three pick-sixes [tied for the NFL rookie record], and recovered a fumble that he took to the house against the 49ers. His four Def. TD’s lead the NFL. If not for the exceptional season that fellow rookie Luke Kuechly had, Jenkins may have won the Def. Rookie of the Year award. Regardless, he’s one of the most gifted corners to come out of the draft in the past few years, and the Rams were fortunate enough to have acquired him in the 2nd round. Team’s that passed on him as a result of his off field 'concerns’ will regret doing so if Jenkins continues to improve in the NFL. There’s little to suggest he won’t.
Perhaps the least discussed of the Rams defensive players, and one of the most reliable, is their man in the middle: James Laurinaitis. The Rams middle linebacker quietly finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in tackles over the past two seasons [6th and 8th, respectively]. Reverting back to the ‘firing on all cylinders’ idiom from a bit ago, Laurinaitis has played admirably despite being surrounded with limited talent over the course of his tenure with the Rams. Placing Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga on either side of him certainly wasn’t doing him any favors. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, being the only remnant affiliated with Gregg/Blake Williams, was a free agency blessing in disguise last year. Rocky McIntosh left a lot to be desired. If Alec Ogletree is able to make the kind of immediate impact that his rookie predecessors [Brockers and Jenkins] did, Laurinaitis should be primed for the best season of his career. Not having the responsibility of the entire second level should allow the Mike-LB to anchor the Rams’ defense, and further solidify a very respectable, potentially dominant front seven.
So while every piece of technology you own offers up healthy servings of insight on the 49ers and Seahawks, the Rams are quietly putting something special together. You can continue to stomach heaping helpings of their NFC West opponent’s playoff/Super Bowl chances, and player rankings that are void of one of the league’s best defensive ends. But keep your eyes and ears open as the season begins to unfold. As the Rams begin to tally sacks, INT’s, and wins you’ll hear those who emerge from the woodwork make declarations that they saw it coming. Snooze on them in the offseason if you must, but I wouldn’t sleep on this Rams’ defense when September rolls around.