Now that my "semi-rant" on why Sam Bradford isn't the problem for the St. Louis Rams is out of the way, let's turn to a more pressing issue. The defense for the Rams should be one of the best in the NFL. Currently, it's ranks 24th among the NFL's 32 teams. Against the pass, they rank #18, but their rating in rushing defense is what causes me to groan: #30... They're just ahead of the Washington Redskins (#31), and this Sunday's foe the Jacksonville Jaguars (#32).
The list of issues with the Rams' defensive unit are many. They are tied with the New York Giants in penalties, with a #4 ranking, and are #28 in tackles. Interceptions? They're tied with the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets at #28. In 2012, the Rams tied with the Denver Broncos for the league lead is sacks with 52. So far this season, they rank #20.
If we cut a little deeper, and look at player rankings, the picture gets a little clearer. James Laurinaitis ranked #6 among linebackers in 2012. He's sitting at #32 currently among his peers. Rookie Alec Ogletree is ranked #23. Taking a look at the left side of the Rams' defensive line, Chris Long and Kendall Langford are tied, with a ranking #103. On the right side, Robert Quinn ranks #31, and Michael Brockers comes in at #57. Right outside linebacker Wil Witherspoon? He comes in at #98.
Is it just me who sees a decent visual of where opposing teams are focusing? They're attacking the left side of the Rams defense, and - more likely than not - aiming at Ogletree; given his high tackle numbers. Chris Long has been bothered by a hip injury, so it makes sense for the strong side of an offensive line to press for a possible advantage here. Last season, safety Quintin Mikell spent a good deal of time in "the box" on the left side. This season, with the Rams inexperience at safety, additional help on the left side has been sparse. Add in the soft corner back coverage we've seen thus far, and a soft zone has been created.
So if what I surmise is right, it presents two problems. First, it tells me Jeff Fisher put a huge amount of confidence in this defensive line to take on a heavier load, with less backside help. With a 100% healthy Chris Long, the concept is do-able. He's not though, so the left side has turned into a house of cards that depends on a rookie outside linebacker to keep it standing. Depth on the Rams defensive line is good, but whatever mix 'n match defensive coordinator Tim Walton comes up with, it doesn't seem to alleviate the issues on the left side. This is also why the Rams have had a tough time covering tight ends who line up on the strong side. The soft zone I mentioned earlier, is there for the taking after the tight end give Long a quick chip block. Ogletree comes up in play action, and the tight end releases to draw him back a step or two.
I can't find fault in James Laurinaitis here. His multiple responsibilities at middle linebacker will always cause a second or two to lapse before he can close to either side to make a play. Kendall Langford is a very good defensive tackle, but his scheme needs to be changed by Walton. He needs to provide a push-back, and not stand his ground. Against a team like the San Francisco 49ers - which uses elaborate trap blocking schemes - the only way to stop it is to press into the backfield to inhibit pulling guards. I see this on both sides of the Rams defensive line, with Brockers doing a better job of pushing into the backfield a yard or two than Langford.
The second problem I see, is the lack of defensive personnel near the line. If the Rams want to stop the run, they need to take off the protective training wheels they've placed on their inexperienced safeties. I've long thought the "soft" corner back coverage the Rams have shown thus far this season, had more to do with adding underneath help for their safeties. What's more, "man-coverage", and fewer "nickle-packages" may be key to improving the Rams' run defense. I'd almost lean toward replacing a safety with a corner back, and not an outside linebacker as the Rams currently do in the "nickle" schemes they show.
I know I'm a neophyte, when compared to the vast knowledge and experience Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff possess. Yet, the issues facing this obviously talent defense aren't going away without some augmentation in the Rams' defensive game-planning. We heard the word "vanilla" often in the preseason. It described a "walk before you run" take on how the Rams were easing inexperienced players into the many complex schemes and assignments at the NFL level. Don't get me wrong here. I think it was an absolute must, but at some point - especially given the battering the Rams defense has taken of late - the kid gloves have to come off. The lack of imagination the Rams defense has shown on the field, and how opposing teams are taking advantage of the flawed "bend-don't-break" philosophy currently being employed isn't helping these young player grow, or evolve.
None of us really know just how much of the Rams' defense game planning is up to Tim Walton, or if he's just a game plan manager sticking to what he's been told to do. I've always been a fan of coordinators - on either side of the ball - being independent; loose cannons if you will... I like a head coach to be a moderating influence, not an overlord. Maybe it's time to see what Tim Walton can do? If he's just a manager for Jeff Fisher's defensive ideal, why not give Walton a "go wild and crazy" day against a weak opponent like Jacksonville? At the very least, the players would have fun, and we'd know just how good or bad Walton is leading an NFL defense. Thoughts?