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Reading the stats...and the tea leaves

The statistics won't tell you anything about the 2009 St. Louis Rams that you would not have otherwise been able to pick up after watching a few games: they stunk, really, really stunk. However, the numbers do confirm some interesting trends about the Rams and the direction they're headed.

Checking the Numbers, a nice little stats blog, has a review of the Rams 2009 season that I would highly recommend to you. There's one thing that really stands out to me in Larry's analysis. Even though they were still among the worst in the league, the Rams defense performed much better than the Rams offense. A couple points of note:

The Rams defense held opponents much closer to their average points scored, while the Rams offense scored far fewer points than opposing defenses allowed on average. That same pattern held true for total yardage gained.

For me, the one truism that this underscores is how badly the Rams need talent on offense. We saw that all season long, not just late in the year as the injury list filled up with key starters. Had the offense been more effective - and when I say offense here I really mean the passing game - the win-loss record would have looked a little different.

The biggest weakness on defense was against the run, where the team made every running back look like Eric Dickerson. Obviously the Rams' need for a DT had something to do with that. However, I think play behind the front four had as much to do with the porous run defense as anything. Back in December, this post looked at the performance of the Rams run defense before and after the team traded WLB Will Witherspoon. I still think the lack of a real threat on the weakside hurt the Rams run defense as much as the lack of a run stopper at DT. Opponents were able to put men on MLB James Laurinaitis, and run wild with him covered up. The fact that blockers were able to get to the second level indicts the offensive line, but a better OLB would have still made the going tough for running backs even with Animal Jr. out of the play.

I would also add here that the Rams cornerbacks didn't do well in run support either, and opposing running back too often were able to get too far down field once they got past the 5- and 10-yard mark beyond the line of scrimmage. You'll note the run defense stats from Football Outsiders show a Rams defensive front fairing as poorly on the edges as they did in the middle.

So what does this tell us about the Rams' needs and likely direction as we approach free agency and the draft? While the team has lots and lots of needs, the biggest holes are on the offense. While the defense isn't necessarily "close" they are better positioned to get a big boost next season. I think specifically that they can find a better group of supporting players that would compliment the key defensive players the team has in MLB James Laurinaitis, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe and DE Chris Long

Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole were able to get some pretty solid performances out of their players, especially guys that are probably best suited as role players and depth that found themselves starting with the Rams. This head coach made a reputation for himself making those second tier players into household names. That should give you some insight into what course the Rams will follow in free agency and the draft. I'd be really, really surprised if they jump into the bidding for any of the A-list free agents on defense and concentrate on the players just behind them. Think James Butler.

And if you want an early start on reading the draft tea leaves, keep an eye on what moves they make, if any, at DT and DE. Given the return of Adam Carriker and their common practice of using DEs in the middle, I wouldn't be shocked in the least bit to learn that they're making DE a priority over DT. And if that's the case, they might try to find an experienced specialist DT to play against the run or look for a DT in the second or third round of this draft, which is deep with DT talent that should go well into the second round...especially with so many 3-4 teams just looking for NTs.