I have little regard for preseason football. Still, the urge to try and jumble around the statistics from these four meaningless games - to divine any kind of trend or portent - is almost impossible to resist. Yes, St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher stated time and again his team played "vanilla" packages throughout the preseason so he could evaluate his ridiculously young players. While this in more than likely true, there were a couple statistics to give me pause...
Look at this number: 357.75. It's the average yards the St. Louis defense gave up per preseason game. Divvying this number up between "pass" and "run" defense, it gave me three more numbers: 31, 5, and 28. The Rams' defense ranked 31st against the pass, 5th against the run, and 28th overall. The rest of the NFC West - including the Arizona Cardinals who most have mistakenly written off - ranked as follows in total defense: San Francisco #1, Seattle #3, and Arizona #15. Hmm...?
"The sky is falling! Armageddon! Republicans are kissing Democrats! The end is nigh!" You may not think Rams world is ending - and neither do I - but just in case, I've moved my stockpile of Cheetos and Zena DVDs to an undisclosed location.
Since the Rams have a new defensive coordinator - Tim Walton - fresh from "Motor City" Detroit, I reached out to Sean Yuille, managing editor for Pride of Detroit. I asked if he could offer a few observations about Walton's aggressiveness (or lack thereof) as a coach. I knew his time in Detroit didn't mark any of his secondaries as being all that good. Was it the talent he had, or a lack coaching? Did he encourage "ball hawking", or did he focus his guys on playing the receiver? I was trying to get a feel for how he'll steer the Rams defense, which had underachieved in preseason. There were glaring flaws peeking out, like bad tackling and an almost invisible ability to cover tight ends. I wanted to know if Walton is an "x-s and o-s" guy, or a "thinks on his feet" coach who knows how to adjust to changing game situations? He'd replaced Fisher's original choice of Gregg Williams, who was a balls-to-the-walls, blitz and play like your hair's on fire kind of defensive coordinator. Yet, in interviews I've seen with Walton, he appears to be really laid back, and a "we gotta work on..." kind of guy?
"I definitely think it was a lack of talent more than anything. Chris Houston has reliably been the Lions' No. 1 corner back since 2010, but a lot of different guys have come and gone at the other corner back spot. Especially last year, the talent wasn't very good across from Houston.
"The Lions had a bunch of young guys who couldn't stay healthy, and Walton really didn't have much to work with. The feeling amongst Lions fans was that he did quite well given what he had at his disposal. As for the other questions, it's tough to say, mainly because it's just not clear if decisions on playing style would have come from Walton, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham or head coach Jim Schwartz.
"There have been a lot of debates over who truly controls the scheme/style of the defense, and when it comes to in-game adjustments or poor tackling, I'm not exactly sure where Walton fits into the equation. Sorry that's not more in-depth, but the Lions aren't very open with their assistants, so we rarely, if ever, get to hear from them about this kind of stuff." - Sean Yuille
Hmm? Note to self: Buy more Cheetos, and think about moving more DVDs to the bunker (which is actually a half buried Yugo).
Walton's resume is filled with college coaching time, but little pro experience, and none as an NFL defensive coordinator. This isn't a deal killer for me, in that his time coaching has been spent learning how to bring along young defensive backs, which the Rams have in absurd numbers. Jeff Fisher's staff is chocked full of former head coaches and coordinators, so this could be a great environment for Walton to blossom in. The choice of the former Lions' defensive backs coach was a bit of a gamble, but his reputation as a "players coach" will fit well with Fisher's ideal. What's more, I can't find a single instance where anyone has had a bad thing to say about Walton.
I come away with varied thoughts as I ponder these preseason statistics, but one seems to be clear: The Rams' defense is young and inexperienced, but so is the coach guiding them. To me, it makes this group more fun than ever to watch. While I'm all but sure the "defensive coordinator by committee" approach of 2012 isn't gone, the plan to unleash a guy like Walton makes me smile. I think Jeff Fisher wasn't just hiding what his offense can do this recently past preseason. While teams stare at guys like Sam Bradford, Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and Jared Cook, the Rams' defensive pot is going to go from simmer to furious boil in the blink of a first regular season game eye.
So what do you think of these numbers: 375.75, 31, 5 and 28? Cause for concern, or simply preseason dross with no meaning at all?