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Outside looking in: talking Rams with Ned Macey from Football Outsiders

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Ned Macey has been kind enough to answer some questions concerning his week 10 "Any Given Sunday" column at Football Outsiders, focused on the Rams/Saints game this week.

An outside perspective on the team we watch and discuss on a daily basis adds a great deal to the discussion, and in the wake of the Rams win after 8 straight losses, I think a different, more global perspective adds much value to the ongoing conversations about the Rams. My questions primarily dealt with last week's game, but the answers reveal a great deal about the Rams overall.

One highlight, Macey's answer to the last question, about the Rams defense and Haslett, really gives us a good example of thinking about the Rams, I hate to say it, outside the box we make as fans. We've seen, all season, much better play from our defense, but if you look at a statistical fact Macey cites there's a major first half/second half discrepancy, which explains why the stats for the 2006 and 2007 defense are so similar despite our perceptions of it being much better. To some extent, I would assume that psychology plays a role in the different half performance, i.e. so many times the offense had ceded the game, leaving a hopeless situation for the defense and exposing them for more minutes of playing time than the coaches intended for them to have. However, that certainly wasn't the case against the Saints, and the fourth quarter porousness of the defense that we saw. Anyway, it's something to think about, and it's a perfect example of how nice it is to get an rational, outsider perspective.  

According to your analysis in this week's Any Given Sunday column, you credited the Saints poor pass defense as a key factor in the Rams offensive success. However, the Rams have lost to and played poorly against other teams with poor pass defenses with a makeshift offensive line similar to the one on the field this week. Can you give us a little more insight into what you saw from Bulger and the other 10 offensive players in this game that allowed them to work around the pass rush in this game versus, say, the 49ers?

I think I would argue that a few plays skew our thinking about the difference between the Saints game and say the 49ers or Browns game.  Those three teams are the three really bad pass defenses the Rams have played, and Bulger threw for over 300 yards in all three. In the 49ers game, the Rams lost three fumbles including the devastating Holt fumble through the end zone.  They also stalled out twice in the red zone (really a continuing problem for them).  In terms of the Cleveland game, the Jackson re-injury killed them, as they just could not run the ball with Leonard which allowed Cleveland to drop people into coverage.  They also missed on two fourth-and-1 runs with Leonard in Browns territory.

Still, I agree there was some difference.  Obviously, Barron is getting more comfortable at left tackle (although he did get beat once on Sunday).  Play-calling wise, I think it was smart to emphasize McMichael down the middle of the field which forces the safeties to stay honest and not cheat towards Holt and Bruce.  Also, I think they called a number of plays where Bennett was the primary target in the flat which both is effective at combatting a blitz and forces extra defensive backs to stay closer to the line opening up downfield passes to Holt.

The Saints managed four sacks that you point out all came on the blitz. Sacks have derailed Bulger all season, why did these sacks prove to be so inconsequential?

This gets to what I think was the heart of the game.  Both teams have pretty bad defenses who rose up and made a few big plays.  The Saints plays happened on early downs, and they were unable to capitalize on the third-and-longs they created.  The Rams got two interceptions out of their pressure because Brees almost refuses to be sacked, and they held on the third and long after they forced the intentional grounding.  Bulger always got sacked on second down, and twice the Rams were able to convert the third and longs.  The Rams two sacks came on third down, forcing punts.  Against most teams, you are not going to be able to consistently convert third downs of 12-15 yards which will make the four sacks more damaging.

The Rams still face three teams with a pretty imposing pass rush. What lessons might the Rams coaches derive from this game that can at least allow Bulger and Co. to play somewhat competitively against the Steelers, Seahawks, and Packers, not to mention the four other games against middling quality pass rushes?

The Rams offense is still built to run the Mike Martz offense which complicates the issue.  Bulger is very accurate throwing the ball 15-30 yards down the field.  He also has been trained to always keep his eyes down the field.  Holt excels at deeper routes.  Last year, they were very successful pushing defenders back with their receivers then dumping to Jackson as a safety valve.  Unfortunately, with poor blitz pick-up, they will be forced to leave Jackson in for protection.  Even Bennett is better at intermediate and deeper routes.  This team desperately needs an Az Hakim/Wes Welker type, and weird as this is to say, I think they sort of miss Shaun McDonald.

That's sort of a negative answer, but things could be better with the helathy players they have.  I mentioned some positives above with involving McMichael and finding receivers in the flat.  Also, the offensive line did appear to do a better job in one-on-one blocking.  Holt also looks to be running better which can allow them to do more max-protect and rely on him to get open down the field.  Things can be better, but the offense is just built a certain way.  One key would be to run the ball better...

What impact did the return of Steven Jackson have on this game, and how did the Rams running game figure into the win? Is this something they can build on for some success in their remaining games?

Jackson's actual touches didn't have a huge impact, but I thought his presence opened up other opportunities.  I thought Jackson still looked like he lacked explosiveness, but even if he is not his best, opponents are going to scheme for him.  He should get better as he gets healthier, and pounding the ball on the ground is a great way to open up the passing game.  I don't know enough about groin injuries to project him going forward, but I suspect the threat of him will be extremely beneficial. Jackson also must be accounted for by opposing defenses in the passing game which should free up receivers.  I also thought Pittman ran well (and didn't realize the Rams had picked him up).  I'd also note that the Saints actually have a pretty good run defense, so Jackson could find bigger holes in future games.

The Rams defense has been much maligned this year, but, from our - the fans' - perspective, they've shown some improvement over last year. Their one goal was to disrupt Brees, and they seemed to do that well, until lapsing a little bit in the fourth quarter. Give us a little more insight into your take on the play of the Rams defense. How much effect did moving around the talent (i.e. Witherspoon as an outside rusher) effect the game?

Our advanced statistics at Football Outsiders has the defense at exactly the same level as last year, but I agree that they looked good against New Orleans.  They blitzed extremely effectively.  I agree with you about Witherspoon coming from the outside.  Didn't they also have a sequence of two plays in a row where Chillar came free on roughly the same blitz?  The real key when you go blitz-happy is not giving up the big play, and that was a credit to the secondary.  They only made the one big mistake on the PI call on the first drive, and even then, they had double coverage.

When you're watching on TV, it is hard to tell what exactly they were doing in the secondary, but the fact that they took away the big play and still blitzed a lot is certainly impressive.  As a result, the times when they came free were able to make a huge difference.  I would expect a similar game plan against San Francisco, but I think they could be hurt badly by Seattle if all the Seahawks' receivers are healthy.

The Rams defense has still gotten a lot of criticism this year - and I suspect they'd have gotten more this year had the offense not been so bad - did they demonstrate some progress against NO? What do they need to think about in order to be more successful next season?

This obviously ties in with my previous answer.  Their pass defense has had some real problems this year, at least according to our numbers.  One trend I've sort of noticed is that they are playing much better in the first half.  Our main statistic is DVOA where a positive number is a bad defense.  In the first half, their DVOA is 6.9% which would rank 22nd overall if they maintained that level.  In the second half, it is 20.8% which would only be better than the Jets.

It is as if Haslett has identified a way to attack the opposition, but once they adjust, the Rams have no answer.  I applaud his effort to adjust for opponents, but at some point, you need to have plays that you run well no matter the opponent.  The cornerback position remains weak, and the injury to Hill obviously hurt.  Little's injuries also hurt the pass rush.  They now do have some building blocks on defense, but the whole is not equaling the sum of its parts for a full 60 minutes.  Axing the d-coordinator is often too easy an explanation, but the last good defense Haslett coached was in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s.  

Thanks agian to Ned Macey and Football Outsiders.