Last year it became evident the Rams would win football games because of two key factors: effectively running the football, and the front four putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They faired better when they pounded the ball with Zac Stacy, and when "Sack City" was in the opposition’s backfield causing errant passes, tallying sacks, forcing turnovers....wreaking havoc.
At the onset of the 2014 season, the aforementioned components of last year's game plan don’t appear to be what they’re heavily relying on to win. And that’s not to say they’ve "abandoned" either, but from an outside perspective it appears they've decided to stray from their strengths.
Over the past two years, the Rams have lead the NFL in sacks, totaling 105. A fierce pass rush - lead by Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn - has enabled the Rams to put opposing QB’s on their back, shorten drives, and create turnovers. Narrowly missing the inaugural Deacon Jones [Sack] Award, Quinn finished last season with 19 sacks.
After the first three games of the 2013 season, the Rams had amassed 11 sacks. Quinn accounted for four of those. After three games this year, the Rams have only one sack. The team's best pass-rusher is nearly a quarter of the way through the regular season without a sack...
Team accolades and individual honors aside, the defensive front deemed "Sack City" ranks dead last in the NFL in sacks after three weeks. They won’t be closing the gap between themselves and the 31st ranked team this weekend, with Week 4 being their bye week.
Last week’s matchup against the Cowboys highlighted how the aggressive approach from 2013 had changed. The Rams often used a three-man rush, minimizing the ability for the defensive line to get to Tony Romo, and providing him with plenty of time to make critical plays; enough to assemble a comeback, despite being down 21-0 early in the game.
Three-man rush by the Rams and Romo beats it with his feet. 16-yard run.— Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) September 21, 2014
So what gives?
The Rams ousted rookie defensive coordinator Tim Walton in the offseason, ultimately nabbing the guy they wanted when Jeff Fisher took over the team: Gregg Williams. Known for his aggressive style of play, you’d think the Rams would - minimally - be in the mix with the league leaders in sacks nearly a quarter of the way into the season. Yet they find themselves nine sacks behind the league-leading Jaguars, Jets, and Redskins.
Right behind the defenses you expected to be outperforming them in that statistical category...right?
Stacy, a 5th round selection from 2013, wouldn’t immediately make his impact on the team in a starting role last season. As a matter of fact, he only had one carry in the team’s first four games. It was just prior to Week 5 [when the Rams boasted a 1-3 record] that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer saw how ineffective the Rams’ run game was with Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead, and made the switch to their rookie.
It wouldn’t take long for Stacy to make a name for himself in the NFL, and more so as a staple in his own offense. From that point on, he consistently staked his claim as the team’s starter, and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 12 games.
The first three [full] games of action for Stacy in 2013 - as an unproven rookie - featured him more frequently than they have to begin the 2014 season. Stacy carried the ball 49 times [14, 18, 17 respectively] at the start of his rookie year. That’s not an excessive workload by any stretch. Yet despite the impressive, near-OROTY consideration rookie campaign, he’s only been handed the ball 42 times in 2014 [11, 19, 12 respectively].
Stacy carried the ball 12 times in Week 3 vs. the Cowboys. 21 other rushers carried the ball more times than he did. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick had as many attempts.
The Rams have made it clear, dating back to the offseason, that they’d be utilizing a running-back-by-committee approach to their rushing attack. Most likely in an attempt to keep Stacy fresh and injury-free, fellow RB’s Benny Cunningham and rookie Tre Mason were told they’d also see plenty of time in the Rams’ backfield.
And as understandable as trying to limit the wear on their lead back may sound, in a game where you’re up three touchdowns and your stud back is rushing for 5.6 yards per carry [7th in the NFL amongst RB’s with 10+ carries in Week 3], that’s not the time to cut into his workload.
Less Than Desired Results
The Rams are putting less pressure on opposing QB’s. They’re featuring Zac Stacy less than they did last year. And as a result, the outcomes have been less than desired.
If the Rams want to start stringing together wins, amidst the toughest part of their schedule, they need to get back to what they do best: the Sack Attack, and the Zac Attack.