The trick with weaknesses is how well you hide them and work to minimize the damage inflected because of them. For the oft-maligned Rams running defense that would mean doing just well enough against the run for your high flying offense to put up enough points and take the running game away as any kind of serious option for opponents facing a lop-sided score.
That's the theory anyway, and we finally got to see it played out this weekend against a sad sack group of Oakland players that would be hard pressed to beat area liberal arts colleges.
The Rams defense played solid football, the kind of solid football that's been lacking in several games this season. They preyed on really, really poor Oakland offense. The pass rush kept Brooks, and later Walter, off balance and making poor decisions. The secondary neutralized the Oakland receivers, helping to make Brooks' and Walter's day even longer. The turnovers, some caused by the Rams and some caused by the Raiders themselves, proved to be key to the Rams success though, just like they were at the beginning of the season when the Rams shocked us all by jumping out to a 4-1 start.
The makeshift offensive line also deserves some credit. Sure, sure, this wasn't San Diego's pass rush, but the Raiders have played fine defense throughout their otherwise forgettable season. The unit - only recently questioned for their commitment - gave a yeoman effort in blocking for Steven Jackson, who was not tackled for a loss all day and had only four rushing attempts out of 31 for no gain. The line's pass protection remained suspect, as Bulger was sacked 4 times for a total loss of 34 yards.
But let's get to the subject that really interests this Monday morning QB this afternoon, the run defense. How in the world did this outfit allow just 57 yards rushing, even if it was the Oakland Raiders?
At the beginning of the game, on Oakland's first drive, it looked like things were back to normal. On the first two Oakland plays, Justin Fargas ran for a total of 11 yards. A Rams penalty on the resulting first down put Oakland at 1st and 5, a prime spot for exploiting the Rams defense. On that down Fargas ran, as convention would demand, but the Rams defensive line came up big and tackled him for a loss of 2 yards, effectively erasing the penalty that gave Oakland 1st and 5 and forcing a team with one of the league's worst passing offenses to turn to the passing plays in their playbook. Spotlight on Aaron Brooks, and not the Rams defense. Brooks did complete a first down pass on the next play, but the victory was short-lived. Maybe they got overconfident in their passing game after seeing Brooks jump out to a perfect completion rate and decided to pass again. Interception.
It was a key moment in the day, even though the Rams didn't score on their ensuing drive. Had the Raiders gone the more conventional, sensible route they would have forced the Rams defense into the same "but can they do it twice?" situation that doomed Oakland on Brooks' second pass of the day.
On the ensuing drive after the interception, the Rams makeshift o-line helped Jackson pick up 9 yards on his first two carries of the day, but were unable to protect Bulger on 3rd and 1. After a quick 3 and out, the Rams defense was back on the field, and despite the confidence they started to instill after the first Oakland drive, it was easy to remain dubious. Having the defense on the field that much would lead to trouble, and the offense had put them right back out there before they could even catch their breath.
In hindsight, it may well have been a good thing that the Rams defense went right back out there, still fired up from stuffing a 1st and 5 run to make it 2nd and 7 and the interception just two plays later. At this point, though the Oakland running game was still doing well. Fargas ran for 12 yards on the first two plays of the drive, and tacked on another 6 on the next two plays. My eyes rolled in disbelief. Brooks then completed a pass to get Oakland's second first down of the drive. After a Fargas run for 3 yards, Oakland's coaches confused Brooks with a good QB and had him make two more throws. Pass incomplete, and then the Rams' defense sacks Brooks.
The tone was set, and the Rams offense ran the ball and worked off a good 12 minutes of the clock on drive for a...field goal! But still, the defense didn't suddenly become a good running defense yesterday. but they overcame that deficiency by stepping up play in other areas (the pass rush, forcing turnovers) to throw the Oakland offense out of whack. Mission accomplished. If only they could have done this against the Cardinals a couple weeks back...