This isn't going to be an incredibly long post, but it should be enough to get a discussion going about how we have play defense against the best teams and, more importantly, how we need to play them in the future to win. At the core of this is a simple question: what is the best way to limit effective, efficient offenses that move the ball as well as anyone in the NFL?
Yesterday's defensive approach reminded me of a game we played last year against a very talented quarterback. And yet in these two games, the opposing offenses did exactly what has frustrated so many Rams fans looking for deep passes and sideline catches when we have the ball: dink and dunk.
In late October of last year, the Rams hosted the Indianapolis Colts in the midst of a six-game losing streak. The Spagnuolo-led era had gotten off to a horrendous start, going from Bulger to Boller and back to Bulger (in quarterback terms, that's going from bad to worse to "shoot me where it hurts the most"). Like yesterday's game, it was a contest in which the Rams were horribly outmatched, although the 2010 Rams would likely mop the floor with last year's version. Still, competition with any team is never out of the question in the NFL. Except for that game.
Peyton went 7 of 10 in the first quarter throwing two TDs, and coasting the rest of the way. He wasn't sacked. He averaged just 6.9 yards per attempt. It was as cool and consistent a performance you can get out of an offense when the longest pass you get is a 27-yard strike to TE Dallas Clark (conversely, the Bulger hit Donnie Avery out of the gate on a 50-yard flea flicker). After the game, Colts HC Jim Caldwell said this of Peyton Manning:
He functions pretty well within the system. He does a great job leading our team and being a field general. I don't think he reached 300 yards, but nevertheless he was very effective.
And that right there said it all. Peyton Manning doesn't give a shit about 300 yards or this many TDs. He wants to win, and the 42-6 soulpoking he handed down that day was a great victory by any measure.
Yesterday, Matt Ryan flipped the ball all over the field to any and everyone willing to sit in the many holes available in the middle of the Rams' defense. Seven different receivers had a reception of at least 12 yards. Matt Ryan threw four more times than Peyton did more than a year ago, but averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. In that Colts game, Peyton connected three times with TE Gijon Robinson for 38 yards. Ryan introduced Rams fans to Justin Peelle to the tune of two catches including a momentum changing touchdown near the end of the third quarter. And in case you're wondering how opposing top WRs did in those two games? Reggie Wayne had seven catches to Roddy White's nine, both for just 83 yards (though Reggie did nab a TD).
The bottom line is this. When the Spagnuolo Rams face a talented, diversified passing attack led by a skilled quarterback who is more concerned with where to attack the Rams defense than who to attack them with (see: avoiding taking advantage of the Roddy White-Jerome Murphy matchup when Bartell went down), our gameplan is simple: rush four, drop the rest and hope for turnovers.
And I can see why that makes sense on its face for now. We blitzed Matty Ice a couple times yesterday, and he just threw over and around the pressure. To be fair, we have to credit Atlanta's O-line - they picked up every blitz but one, by my count, flawlessly. So you rush four to keep defenders behind the receivers. And you keep a couple deep to prevent White or Wayne from breaking the game open. But I'll quote the former President Woodrow Wilson, who though flawed will always hold a place in my heart for having the balls to buck the rising popular sentiment and veto Volstead (although it still passed), in saying:
I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than to triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail.
So I ask you, how much risk can the Rams afford to take defensively against the better teams in the NFL in 2011? With an improved pass rush, the equation changes fundamentally. But I think to expect a single rookie addition at either tackle or end to complete the upheaval of the defensive line is asking for a lot. Without a rush, how do we attack quarterbacks and the passing attacks they spearhead? What parts of the field do you leave open to QBs like Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan? Do you take a "live by the sword, die by the sword" approach? The Pats did last night, giving up 4 TDs to Peyton and Co., but forcing three picks as well. Or do we continue to play conservative defense, preventing gamebreakers while allowing huge pockets underneath?
There will never be a right answer, but looking at how easy it was for Matt Ryan yesterday, I can't help but ask the question.