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St. Louis Rams defense leads the league in sacks

Take away the slightly disappointing losses that have contributed to the St. Louis Rams 4-5 record, the progress of a team that only last year was a 1-win outfit is pretty impressive. Look up and down the roster, go unit by unit and it reveals some very tough units that figure to be among the league's best in the coming years. This may still be a flawed team in many respects, but there is at least, finally, cause for celebration. 

Sam Bradford most obviously exemplifies this, but you have to give the Rams defensive line credit for being the most improved unit on the team. 

After their five sack performance against San Francisco last week (which should have added one more on that painful third and fourth down series to end the game), the Rams are tied with the Green Bay Packers for the most sacks in the league, with 28. 

More numbers and thoughts about what lies ahead for the DL after the jump.

Using more advanced stats from Football Outsiders, the Rams have a 7.1 percent sack rate, that's tied for 8th best in the league. Spagnuolo and Flajole's aggressive approach with their defense has paid big dividends, helping mask big weaknesses at outside linebacker and a plethora of in-the-box safeties that invite the attention of opposing QBs, tight ends, running backs and slot receivers. 

With those five sacks last week, the Rams exceeded their 2009 sack total of 25. Last year, the team had a sack rate of 5.4 percent, ranked 27th in the league. That's an impressive jump, especially when you consider that the team has only made one addition to the unit, bringing in veteran DT Fred Robbins

And how about the run defense? This year's unit has a DVOA of -6.8 percent, ranked 18th, versus a league worst 10.8 percent DVOA against the run last year. 

St. Louis is winning the battles in the trenches against the run. They a 44 percent success rate, the league's second best, against runs in power situations, runs on third or fourth down that result in another set of downs or a touchdown. Flajole's bunch has the third best percentage of runs stuffed, stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, at 23 percent. 

Obviously, those in-the-box safeties and MLB James Laurinaitis deserve a share of the credit for success in the trenches. The weakness in the Rams run defense is what you would expect it to be, giving up the third most second level yards (runs between 5 and 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage). They're in the middle of the pack, 18th, for open field yards, yardage gained by RBs at least 10 yards beyond the line. Those second level yards can be attributed the hole at OLB, especially weakside, where the Rams lack rangy players with the speed and recognition skills to close that area for business. 

Given that, I'm not sure why the Rams don't use David Vobora more at OLB. The former Mr. Irrelevant didn't even dress last week...against a team headlined by Frank Gore. I wonder why they don't at least give it a shot with Diggs on the weakside and Vobora on the strongside. Diggs is versatile enough to play both spots, though nothing special at any of them, but Vobora has consistently been one of the team's better run stopping LBs since last year. In part, their reluctance to use Vobora might have something to do with the coverage skills. As bad as those runs have been on the outside, opponents have done much more damage with intermediate passes there. 

Back on track... 

The emergence of Chris Long has doubtlessly been a high point of the season and a key to the defensive resurgence. A reborn James Hall and a rebounding Fred Robbins have been a big factor as well. And, of course, the other guys deserve some credit too. C.J. Ah You has been useful getting some reps opposite Long. Darrell Scott has been part of the team's success in the trenches, and Gary Gibson, who missed most of last season on IR, has been a quiet but crucial role player next to Robbins as the other starting DT. 

What about next year? Hall and Robbins will both be a year older, 34. Age compromises effectiveness, and as defensive linemen creep into their thirties, their careers usually start to sunset. That's really noticeable with tackles, whose drop off seems more sudden than gradual.