The St. Louis Rams are now 2 games into the season, sporting a 1-1 record. The Rams' defense is currently ranked 24th in the NFL statistically, and 25th in points allowed. What's happening to a defense that many thought had the makings of a top-ten unit? Most of the blame, for the less-than-stellar performance of the defense, is being placed on the coaching staff, primarily defensive coordinator Tim Walton. The criticisms of the coaching staff have centered around the pass coverage schemes used in the first two games, schemes that have allowed 661 passing yards to-date [27th in the NFL]. Are the criticisms fair? Accurate? Reasonable?
Despite being a Rams [and football] fan for over 40 years, I make no pretense about being a football expert. I could watch miles of film, and come away as no more than an interested observer. I'm no Greg Cosell. Nor do I have coaching experience, or extensive knowledge of which defensive scheme best suits a football team. Some things just make more sense to me than other things do. My observations are based solely on that axiom.
The Rams defense gave up the 9th most big plays in the league last season. A "big play" or "explosive play" is defined as a 10+ yard rushing gain, or a 20+ yard passing gain. The defense gave up 88 big plays last season, an average of 5.5-per-game. How important is the prevention of big plays?
From Mike Sando - ESPN:
"Last season, NFL teams averaged 0.7 points per drive without an explosive play and 3.8 points per drive with at least one of them"
The impact of big plays on scoring is evident. Could the prevention of big plays be influential, and instrumental, in the Rams' coaches determination of an appropriate defensive scheme? Especially given the Rams youth and inexperience in the back seven? And two safeties with virtually no game experience?
Cortland Finnegan. Chris Long. Kendall Langford. James Laurinaitis. On average, they count $35 million-per-year against the Rams' salary cap, approximately 30% of total Available Cap Space. Although they are all very good football players [with talent and upside], one could make an argument that suggests their performance/production does not warrant the amounts they are being paid. Are any of these defensive veterans "elite", or considered top-five at their positions? Do the Rams have even one defensive player that would be considered "elite" or top-five?
Geno Atkins. Patrick Willis. Richard Sherman. J.J. Watt. Collectively, they average $20 million-per-year against their respective teams' salary cap. They are all defensive stalwarts for their respective teams. All are considered top-five players at their positions. No one should be mistaking the aforementioned Rams defenders for any of these four players. For the Rams to develop into a consistent, top-ten defense, these four veterans must reach the next level, where the performances match the size of their contracts.
The 2012 Season
Quarterbacks influence the passing game more than any other position. In 2012, the Rams had the good fortune of playing 12 games against opponents who had either first year starters and/or mediocre quarterbacks. In those 12 games, the Rams defense allowed 223 points, an average of 18.6-per-game. In the remaining 4 games [facing Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matt Stafford] the Rams defense allowed 125 points, an average of 31.3-per-game.
The accompanying chart presents the results for the 2012 season:
Opponent QB Points Allowed Detroit Stafford 27 Washington Griffin 28 Chicago Cutler 23 Seattle Wilson 13 Arizona Kolb 3 Miami Tannehill 17 Green Bay Rodgers 30 New England Brady 45 San Francisco Smith/Kaep 24 NY Jets Sanchez 27 Arizona Lindley 17 San Francisco Kaepernick 13 Buffalo Fitzpatrick 12 Minnesota Ponder 36 Tampa Bay Freeman 13 Seattle Wilson 20
The defensive results from the 2012 season created unrealistic expectations for this year. Those expectations were too high...and too soon. The Rams opened the 2013 season against QB's Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan [plus elite wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones]. Ryan is a top-ten quarterback, and Palmer is better-than-average. The Rams allowed 55 points in the first two games of the season. This should come as no surprise, if looked at realistically, irrespective of defensive scheme. A cursory look at the Rams' schedule this year reveals a complete reversal of 2012. The Rams face only 3 quarterbacks that are first year starters and/or mediocre: Josh Freeman, Jake Locker, and Blaine Gabbert. The Rams defense will likely be better than last years, and it might not be reflected in passing statistics, due to the quality of the opponents quarterbacks. The Rams' defense will improve as the season progresses, and will be dominant, in the not-too-distant future. It's just a matter of adjusting the time-frame. And adjusting to a league-wide trend:
"Part of it can be attributed to the increasing talent teams all over the league have at quarterback and receivers. There’s no doubt that numbers are up in the entire NFL for a reason."
Youth And Inexperience
In the Rams' standard nickel package, the LB's are James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree - the CB's are Cortland Finnegan, Trumaine Johnson, and Janoris Jenkins - the safeties are Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald. Ogletree and McDonald are rookies, McLeod a first year starter, plus Jenkins and Johnson are second year players. 5 starters with 2 years experience combined. That's a lot of youth and inexperience on the field at the same time, especially at the safety position. As young as the Rams were on defense last year, it's insignificant compared to how young they are now. Is the defensive scheme a reflection of this youth and inexperience? Are the safeties being protected? As the younger players gain more experience during the season, it stands to reason the defensive scheme will evolve, in step with the growth of the players. The same will hold true for the defense becoming speedier, and more aggressive, as the season progresses.
The Stewart - Delmas - Giordano Factor
Did the Rams want to end up in the position of having two safeties starting, without experience in doing so? Likely not. Remember Louis Delmas? The Rams tried to sign him during the free agency period, but could not come to terms. The Rams re-signed Darian Stewart, who can be effective when healthy. Unfortunately, Stewart has not been healthy enough as of yet, to be a significant contributor. The Rams signed Matt Giordano in the summer, as a veteran presence at the safety position. Giordano missed the entire preseason due to injury; he is still not 100%, and well behind the younger safeties as a result. One can't help but think that the defensive scheme would be different, if one of the three had made a significant impact at the safety position.
The Learning Curve
As Ryan Van Bibber's article (September 18, TST) (link) pointed out, the younger players in the secondary are still learning their positions, technique, and the fundamentals of the game. That learning curve extends to defensive schemes. As the season progresses, expect the Rams to mix zone coverage's, and add more man coverage, to the defensive alignments. Patience is key to this process. It's a delicate balance between trying to give a team the best chance to win, and doing what's best for the youngsters, as they progress along the learning curve.
Nick Wagoner of ESPN looked at the pass defense issues the Rams are encountering (link). The main focus of the article is on technique and fundamentals, and how they are affecting the Rams' pass defense. There are encouraging signs to point to:
"There also have been some good signs in terms of the pass defense over the past two weeks. In addition to a pass rush that is one of the league’s best, the Rams are third in the league in pass breakups with 12 and lead the NFL in batted passes with five."
None of the Rams' defensive troubles are lost on the Rams coaches. They, and the players, will be working hard to improve on the results of the first two weeks, as noted by head coach Jeff Fisher:
"Jeff Fisher promised Wednesday that his team was working on the pass defense, which has struggled to start the season."
"We're working technique," he said. "We're working fundamentals. We're working communication. We're working scheme. We're doing everything."
Tim Walton's September 19 press conference, where he places some of the responsibility for the pass defense woes squarely on his own shoulders. (link).
Sounds good to me. Well worth showing patience for, in addition to a healthy dose of belief in the Fisher coaching staff.