The St. Louis Rams run defense is taking a beating this week on the field and in the media. Today's Post-Dispatch features an article discussing the run defense, or lack thereof, in the Rams most recent loss. In that piece Spagnuolo says it's not the scheme, but stops short of pointing to a specific issue. Yesterday, PD columnist Bernie Miklasz had another change of heart about the Rams and asked, "is there any acceptable rationalization for the Rams' pitiful run defense?"
Well, actually, there is an explanation, but it's not one the head coach can publicly pronounce without incurring a locker room mutiny and it's not related to the effort of the team as Bernie suggests. The explanation: the Rams lack talent at outside linebacker and defensive tackle. It's as simple as that. For this post, I want to get into the OLB issue, specifically, the loss of Will Witherspoon, something I think has had a pretty substantial impact on the Rams ability to stop opposing rushers.
The Rams traded Witherspoon after week six, and have now played five games without him at OLB. When the move was made, lots of people, myself included, saw the long-term benefits of the move and thought that the Spoon had been relatively quiet. In those five games without Witherspoon, it's looking more and more like the Rams miss his services. Check out these stats:
|Total rush yards||YPG||YPC|
First of all, it's worth noting that the Rams run defense was hardly elite in the six games before the Witherspoon trade. However, they had shown some real progress limiting San Francisco and Minnesota to less than 100 yards on the ground in weeks 4 and 5. In week 6, Jones-Drew gouged them for 133 yards of Jacksonville's total rushing output of 166 yards. Since week seven, the Rams run defense has, well, gone down hill. Even the lowly Lions ran for a total of 127 yards in the Rams only win of the season.
I think what's happening to the run defense, in part, is due to teams making an effort to take Laurinaitis out of plays and not have to worry about the backups playing OLB. Witherspoon may not have had the tackles that Laurinaitis had to that point in the season, but opponents had to account for both players, especially the known commodity in Witherspoon. Nothing personal Paris Lenon, but it's just not the same.
Of course, that's not the only factor at play here. The defensive line still stinks, etc. But I don't think you can discount the impact of losing Witherspoon. The numbers certainly lend some credibility to that notion.
Thinking long term, the decision to trade Witherspoon isn't necessarily a bad one. Spagnuolo has a documented approach for making good linebackers out of guys who aren't among the top tier at their position, i.e. the kind of guys that would command the big free agent contracts. Right now, though, the Rams are trying to make it work with role players, deferring the acquisition of "their guys" for next season. Good decision or bad, that remains to be seen. Right now it means some suffering on Sundays, and that's really driving the criticism and making it tough for even the true believers to see something positive on the horizon.