St. Louis Rams Defense: Breaking The Trend

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

For the St. Louis Rams’ opposition, it’s become clear that the recipe for success - offensively - is to snap the ball, and hand it off to the guy in the backfield. Is that all about to change?

In 2012, the 49ers, Seahawks, Steelers, Bears, and Broncos - all of whom had Top 10 [Defensively] seasons in Rush YPG and Pass YPG - were stingy about giving up yardage to the opposition. Teams that have that kind of success typically find themselves in the playoff discussion towards season’s end as a result. But looking at End of Year [EOY] rankings can also be slightly misleading...

Finishing in the Top 10 [or even Top 5] in one statistical category doesn’t necessarily equate to on-field dominance. It’s possible that one aspect of a team’s defense is so easily exposed, that it casts a positive light on another. The St. Louis Rams - over the course of the past decade - have shown that on more than one occasion.

Year
Rush YPG
Rank
Pass YPG
Rank
Record
2012
117.5
15
245.4
19
7-8-1
2011
152.1
31
222.6
8
2-14
2010
113.1
17
241.8
22
7-9
2009
137.6
27
244.6
23
1-15
2008
154.7
29
229.8
19
2-14
2007
115.3
20
240.4
24
3-13
2006
145.4
31
203.1
4
8-8
2005
136.1
28
226.2
22
6-10
2004
136.2
29
213.4
11
8-8
2003
123.8
20
210.2
14
12-4
* Green shading denotes highest EOY ranking

A Few Takeaways

* Last season’s defense unit is the first in the last decade to have finished the season ranked inside the Top 20 in both Rush YPG and Pass YPG. Those figures may not be staggering, but if progress is the expectation, the results are more than encouraging. Add in the fact that this defense is one of youngest in the NFL [ >25 years old; avg.], and the future is looking bright.

* The Rams finished 15th in defending the run in 2012, which was their most respectable performance in recent memory. In 2010, the Rams finished the season ranked 17th, but faltered in defending the opposition’s aerial attack. To be fair, it was a defense that featured Justin King as a starter.

* A Top 10 ranking in Pass YPG game doesn’t mean the Rams were fielding Pro Bowl corners and safeties. What it means - as aforementioned - is that teams were able to get a lead quickly, maintain a lead against the Rams often average-to-subpar offense, and then continue running the ball to kill the clock. It worked. see: "Record" column. The Rams finished 8th in 2011 and 4th in 2006; in both seasons the Rams finished next-to-last in the NFL in stopping the run.

* Averages: Over the course of the past decade the Rams have allowed [avg] 133.2 Rush YPG. In 2012, that would’ve finished 26th in the NFL. They allowed 227.8 Pass YPG [avg] during that span, which would’ve been good for 7th. This is more of the same. For ten years, the opposition hasn’t had to devise much more of gameplan than "Get the lead. Manage the clock by the running the football." And though finishing 7th in Pass Defense sounds appealing, it wouldn’t at the expense of achieving the usual results. A more balanced defense - like the one witnessed last season - is far more preferable.

If you’re looking at average rankings for the past decade, the Rams averaged 25th [24.7] in stopping the run, and 17th [16.6] in defending the pass. As you could imagine, it’s difficult to win when that’s the case...especially when consinstently finishing in the bottom quarter of the league statistically [against the run].

* In only three of the past 10 seasons have the Rams been better at stopping the run than the pass [2012, 2010, 2007]. Again, this past season is the only one in which the Rams were able to finish Top 20 in both categories. In the remaining seven seasons, the Rams finished [descending] 31st, 27th, 29th, 31st, 28th, 29th, and 20th against the run.

* A solid run defense isn’t going to hinder a team’s chance of winning, but it’s also no guarantee. In 2007 - one of the Rams’ finer performances - they allowed 115.3 Rush YPG [2nd best in the past decade], yet finished with a final season record of 3-13. Possibly more exception than norm, the Rams win percentage when their defense performs better in stopping the run than the pass throughout the season is .469, as opposed to the alternative... when their win percentage drops to .304.

* The quality of Rams defensive player has drastically increased, at least in terms of draft selection. In 2003 - the season in which the Rams had their best record - they boasted a plethora of highly drafted players...
especially across their front seven: Three 1st round picks, two second rounds picks, one third round pick, and a 5th round pick. The 2012 starting roster also has an impressive bunch of highly drafted players: Four 1st round picks, one second round pick, one third round pick, and an undrafted free agent. In the middle of it all [2008], the Rams proudly fielded: One 1st round pick, one 2nd round pick, one 3rd round pick, one 4th round pick, two 5th round picks, and an undrafted free agent.
So, if I were going to create my own scoring system based upon when a player was drafted and their ‘numerical value’ to the players that comprise the "4-3" portion of the Rams defense, I’d to it as such [also, please realize that I understand this doesn’t hold any true value or imply expected results]:

1st Rd = 7points , 2nd Rd = 6 points, 3rd Rd = 5 points, 4th Rd = 4 points, 5th Rd = 3 points, 6th Rd = 2 points, 7th Rd = 1 point, & UDFA = 0.5 pts [they can’t equal nothing]. The results of the three aforementioned seasons would score out like this…

2012
2008
2003
39.5
28.5
41

Again, I realize that this scoring proves nothing concrete, and certainly doesn’t suggest results. What it does, though, is highlight that for the first time in a long time, the Rams are fielding players who should excel at the next level... or at least their draft stock would lead you to believe they would. The 2013 Rams defense may not help lead the team to 12 wins, but it’s quite plausible to think it could at least aid the team in diverting a losing record for the 7th consecutive season.

The Rams are certain to find themselves down early in some of their 2013 matchups. But handing the ball off and assuming you’ll continue to chew up clock might just be a dated game plan when it comes to playing the St. Louis Rams.

In Summation

It’s a relatively small sample size, but the past ten years of Rams’ football has left a bit to be desired on the defensive side of the ball, and the chart above - along with their loss column - shows for it. It is a team game, though, and neither the offensive or defensive units have been reliable enough to secure victory when in crunch time.

The fact that the Rams have a run-stuffing defense superior to their pass defense won’t suggest that they’re in a better position to succeed or imply easy entry into the playoffs. What it may allude to is the Rams having a more well-rounded, competitive defensive unit. In seven of the seasons where the Rams ranked higher at defending the pass, five of them placed the Rams in the bottom four teams in the entirety of the NFL in defending the run. It wasn’t happenstance that they were facing team’s who preferred not to ask much from their Quarterback. It was as a result of fielding a defense who found themselves down early, and then having no answers offensively or defensively that put the opposition in a spot where throwing the ball was a necessity.

What happens in 2013 will be telling. I think it’s general consensus that the Rams’ defense should be improved this season. It will also be much younger. As it stands, the Rams will be replacing 23 years of NFL experience [Mikell, Dahl, McIntosh] with two years of experience between Darian Stewart, T.J. McDonald, and Alec Ogletree. The drop off in NFL-ready talent may be minimal... it may be non-existent. You cannot teach experience but, as you’ve seen, sometimes experience puts the Rams in the hole early in games. If history’s any indication, that would make for a long day for their opponents Running Back - as he’s asked to continuously chew up precious clock - and a longer one for the defensive line.

The product you’ll see on the field in 2013 is a far cry from that of 2011, when the Rams finished 31st in the NFL in defending the run. Chris Long and James Laurinaitis will be the only familiar starters from that season, while Robert Quinn and Darian Stewart will be asked to contribute far more. It’s good news. Having also added two more 1st round picks [to their front seven], and two solid free agent acquisitions puts the Rams in prime position for a second consecutive year finishing inside the Top 20 in both statistical categories.

Listen up, Rams foes. Go ahead and take the lead early in the game. Then tell yourselves that you’ll maintain it by punching it up the gut or occasionally bouncing it outside the tackles. Consuming time in an effort to maintain the lead is still a very good idea. Just be prepared to live with the consequences.
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