Continuing our mid-August assessment of where the remade, rebuilding St. Louis Rams stand as they head into the 2009 season, we turn to the defense today. I'll spare you the lengthy intro we had in yesterday's post for the offense, though the "Get low and stick 'em" seems to be especially relevant to today's discussion.
Starting with the questions facing the entire defense and continuing with a snap shot of each unit...
Will the run defense improve?
After a good outing versus a Jets team missing 60% of their starting offensive line, the Rams run defense looked much like last year's against the Falcons last week. But digging below the surface, is it really the same problem as before? The lack of personnel was primarily to blame for much of the Rams troubles against the run in recent seasons. Among other things, the defense dearly missed a true middle linebacker, some size in the middle of the d-line, and a physical strong safety. You could argue whether or not the Rams are any better in the middle of the d-line, but they have made significant upgrades to the other two positions.
Last week's problems against the Falcons and RB Michael Turner were two fold. First, the defense got beat as a unit via misdirection and some strange alignments. That's what got the party started, so to speak, on Turner's 43-yard run on the Falcons first drive of the game. The defense, especially the quarterbacking MLB, needs to do better picking up that kind of stuff. That could be the difference between 5 yards and 43 more often than not. Second, fundamentals, i.e. "getting low and sticking 'em," were notably absent among the first teamers last week. MIssed tackling, poor wrapping, it was all there.
The good news about those two issues is that they can be resolved. The first team will have two quarters to get it right against the Bengals this week. Watch for improvement in those areas.
Will the pass rush be more ferocious and more frequent?
Given their surprise at the blitzes used by Rex Ryan and the Jets in game one, it's safe to assume that the Rams coaches aren't calling the same amount and style of pass rushes that they would otherwise employ in the regular season. Still, you have to wonder why we're not seeing more of those aggressive plays we've heard so much about.
The personnel leave some questions about the pass rush. James Hall and Leonard Little are the main guys up front, and they're also two of the Rams oldest players. We'd also like to see some better pocket crashing from the defensive tackles. Witherspoon will figure more into the pass rush now that he's been set free on the weakside again. I don't know that we've seen any blitz packages featuring safeties or corners through the preseason, but we're likely to once the games count.
Will the secondary be adequate and able to adapt to the more physical version of man coverage the Rams play to use?
The jury is still out this one too. The secondary displayed some of that poor tackling mentioned above. Against the pass, Rams defenders have been beaten more than once by well-made throws and catches, pure and simple. The WR was covered, but it was just one of those plays where the CB really can't do anything about it save for a penalty; Mark Sanchez's throw exemplifies this. I wonder though about the jams at the line, when the defenders can throw lesser receivers off their timing and route? I expect to see more mileage out of that technique. (See this post from Rams Herd for more discussion on the secondary). There's a balance question here. Are we not seeing more pass rush up front because the Rams coaches don't trust the secondary enough to leave them on their own? Or is it just more of a playbook thing and the team still being in evaluation mode, especially for the cornerback gig?
Position by position...
Defensive end - Little and James Hall have looked great in practice and in the game, save for Turner's afore mentioned 43-yard run between Little and the rest of the defense. Chris Long had a bad night against the Jets, and started slow against the Falcons. He did show improvement and got off the ball faster and generally displaying the high motor that's his biggest asset; he has to do more.
Defensive tackle - MIA with an ankle injury through the first two outings of the preseason, Adam Carriker will likely return to action this week. The 2007 first round draft pick has lots to prove. Supposedly, this scheme is a better fit for his skill set by putting him a 3-technique rather than miscast as a nose tackle. In camp's early work, he was speedy and impressive. Now, he's competing for a starting job. Gary Gibson, who Carriker is competing against, established himself as more than just a camp body with a good outing against the Jets. I was impressed with this year's fourth round pick Darell Scott against the Falcons last week, where he picked up a sack crashing the pocket. The addition of Hollis Thomas has yet to be very noticeable, but an if we see an improved run defense that could change.
Linebacker - The linebackers have looked better this year than in previous seasons...until those ugly missed tackles and misreads last week. Even the usually solid Chris Draft failed to bring his man down. James Laurinaitis is bound to have some rookie moments. He has, supposedly, been picking up the defense well and made some nice plays in his preseason work. Animal Jr. has been promising. The SLB spot remains unsettled. Draft is still the guy at this point, but strong preseason performances from Larry Grant, David Vobora, and Chris Chamberlain are making it a horse race. At the very least, those three seem to give our LB corps better depth than we've had in the past.
Safety - The starters make this a good unit. Atogwe has been better in run defense in the preseason, except for some ugly missed tackles last week. Butler didn't do much to distinguish himself against the run, but who did? Todd Johnson still looks like a good depth guy to have. It's probably a good sign that we're not hearing much about this unit at this point. Atogwe leads the team in preseason tackles, but that's because far too often he was the last man between a running back and the goal line against the Falcons.
Cornerback - Sheesh. Where to begin. The big story here was who would claim the spots behind Ron Bartell. So far, nobody has done much to distinguish themselves. Tye Hill is, ostensibly, still the starter opposite Bartell, but he's not looked great in his last two games. He was waaay outmatched against Tony Gonzalez last week. In coverage, he's been able to stay with his man often, but unable to read the play, leaving the play's outcome to be determined exclusively by the QB and his receiver. Justin King has looked decent, but hardly a standout. He had the misfortune of covering Clowney on Mark Sanchez's first NFL pass, a beautifully threaded 48-yarder. In my opinion, King didn't get burned so much as the Jets QB and WR made a nice play. Quincy Butler has made some nice plays in practice, but hasn't been seen much playing against second teamers in preseason games, save for a pass interference penalty against the Falcons. Jonathan Wade has been consistent. This is still a big issue for the Rams to solve.
The defense has lots of work left to do, saddled with heavier expectations that the offense, given the coaching changes. We'll have to see better tackling and better reads this week to have some confidence going forward.