Rams head coach Jeff Fisher built the majority of his coaching staff with men who have defense featured prominently on their resumes. It's helped change a unit from one that began to emerge as a force in 2011 to a defense every opponent needs to prepare for each week this season.
Some positions are still a work in progress. The much maligned play by the Rams safeties has garnered the attention of fans, but there's a position few have noticed that'll feature prominently this Sunday. This position will mean the difference between success and failure for St. Louis against a powerful San Francisco offense. It's also a position the Rams may have to use one of their two first round draft picks on in either 2013 or 2014 if they want to take the next step toward having an elite defense.
While the Rams linebacker corps has improved over last season, the strong side linebacker position is alarmingly weak. For those who may not recall, the strong side linebacker (Sam 'backer) plays on the side of the line where tight end lines up. Strong side of the offensive line - strong side linebacker.
The Rams acquired Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan in free agency to fill the "strong side" position. Haggan is huge for a linebacker at 6'3", 275 lbs, and he'd need to be since taking on offensive tackles and tight ends is his position's primary responsibility. After playing for the Denver Broncos, Von Miller sealed the deal on the strong side so it made Haggan expendable. Never a great pass rushing threat, Mario offered the Rams an opportunity to improve their rushing defense.
Charts and stats courtesy of StLouisRams.com
Rocky McIntosh played for the Washington Redskins, and in his six seasons there showed himself to be an able rush defender. Again, never much of a pass rushing threat, but he capably held his own against some of the best tackles in the NFC East. At 6'2, 242 lbs., he has the size to play the position well.
The problem here, and what makes this position a glaring weakness for the Rams, is the lack of pass rushing skills by both of these players. Defensive ends like Chris Long and Robert Quinn can only wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks if they aren't double teamed. While both Long and Quinn started off the year with top 10 sack and hurries numbers, they've fallen off as teams have begun to game plan them each week. If there's a knock to be found with Long, it's that he's not all that big for a defensive end. At 6'3, 274 lbs, he has the speed, but lacks the bulk to bull rush top offensive tackles if they're getting help from a tight end. This brings the "Sam" into the discussion, and the need for at least a threat to complicate blocking assignments for an offense.
What's currently happening with Chris Long, and to a small extent to Quinn, is they're being doubled or chip blocked on every play, especially in third and long situations. If the tight end shifts to the right during a play, a running back is assigned the duty to help slow Long. The Rams currently lack a "Sam 'backer " who gets line penetration and can still cover a tight end release or running back in the flats. This situation has also necessitated the Rams moving a safety up into the defensive line "box" instead of playing back to help cover in pass coverage.
Haggan and McIntosh have helped the Rams change from one of the worst teams against the run in the NFL in 2011 to #13 according to NFL.com. While they've vastly improved, the Rams still have problems in the OG/OT gap. The San Francisco 49ers have the best offensive line in the NFL, and they excel at getting to the next level. The "next level" is the linebackers, and they use a variety of blocking schemes. They have one of the best tight ends in the NFL with Vernon Davis too. Sunday will be a busy day for whoever the Rams start at "Sam 'backer", and how they play will have a great deal to do with the final score. The New England Patriots hit the left side of the Rams defensive line hard in London. Kendall Langford was a known quantity for the Pats since he played for Miami last year. They hammered him, and the "Sam" for big yardage. Teams know that if you can control Chris Long, there are opportunities to be had to the strong side. The 49ers will be pulling guards to hammer Haggan or McIntosh (Josh Hull has seen a few plays here too), and unless they step up to collapse this hole, Frank Gore is going to have a huge day. A great deal will depend on how Langford plays, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis will need to focus less on pass protection and more on the run; his playing 8 yards off the ball isn't going to cut it Sunday.