At times in 2014 the Rams' Defense took its play to levels that the world had not seen from the team in over a decade. Putting together performances that - at times - not only made them look impenetrable, but also capable of outscoring an opposing offense. This group started the season a bit slow as it took most of the players - compared to others - more time to adjust to the newer, and more complex system. But once everyone began to get more comfortable the improvement was vast. If this group can learn to play with their heads and not their emotions more, they will be one of the best for years to come.
The defense actually only allowed 30 touchdowns all season, which is tied with the Ravens for fourth in the league. The other 10 touchdowns came from the offense (8) and special teams (2). The defense only gave up 18.3 ppg, which is fifth in the league. Also, this unit finished in the top 12 for turnovers with 25 forced, and over the final 11 games - once the line got it rolling - averaged 3.4 sacks a game. The most impressive area of this defense's game was the red-zone. This unit epitomized the bend but don't break theory.
Sack City could not be located anywhere on the map to start the season. It was almost like a deserted island that no one wanted to visit. The unit only garnered two sacks in its first five games of the season. Now in all fairness teams were releasing the ball faster in games against the Rams, than in any other game throughout the season, which says a lot of positive things about this unit. But this lasted all season, so what changed? Well, for starters the D-Line really started to do an excellent job with their stunts and movements. Numerous times they got to the quarterback before his foot hit the ground for the third time on a simple three step drop. That means you are getting to the point of attack in under two seconds. That's very impressive.
The loss of Chris Long was huge, while his return was minuscule at best. He returned nowhere close to 100%, and it showed. He had no burst, and played using brute force only. There was zero quickness to his game. He has never been the fastest guy on the team, but he has always had a pretty good get off. That was not the case this time around. William Hayes performed about as well as we all would have expected of him. The far less talented version of Chris Long was very good at getting pressure on the QB, and played the run well. Hayes was solid for most the season, but he was far too susceptible to read option plays. The same plays that Chris Long excels at defending. Robert Quinn really regressed. Not because of his sack total, but because of his play and technique. I personally thought he was undeserving of the Pro Bowl, which says a lot considering how I feel about him as a player. He played way to high all season long. One thing you learn very early on is the low man wins in this game, especially down in the trenches. He also rarely used his hands to get defenders off him. Yet he finished with double digit sacks which further verifies why I have the admiration for him that I do. Eugene Sims remained a model of consistency. Not too flashy, very low key, but always producing. His versatility is something that may only be matched by a certain rookie phenom...
Speaking of which, Aaron Donald was easily the best on defensive rookie in the NFL. I can recall myself resembling a 13 year old school girl with a crush when scouting him last off-season. I caught a lot flack for mocking him at 13, but I didn't care, because as I always say the film never lies. To start the off-season he was number 22 on my big board, by the end of March I had him at number five. He lived up to the hype in a big way. Virtually unstoppable, Donald exhibited a keen ability to dominate in the run and destroy quarterback's in the pass. He was theoretically a four down player that the Rams' chose to use less, as he could play special teams if they needed him to. Next to him was the always quiet but consistent Michael Brockers. There was a bit of a regression to start the season, but he was one of the guys to right the ship sooner than others. Brockers continues to be terribly underrated as he has displayed the ability, to shut down runs up the middle, rush the passer, and even drop in coverage. He also almost never takes a play off, and will chase plays down 15 yards down field. He is the Lance Kendricks of the defense. With that being said, if Brockers is the Kendricks of the defense, than Kendall Langford is the Chris Givens. The lost man this season in the trenches, Langford was quickly overshadowed by Arron Donald - though he continued to play a key role in the rotation - there is no denying he became an afterthought once the things got rolling up front. Still a productive player, there was not nearly enough production in the early parts of 2014, as it took him longer than any other defensive lineman to stand out on film. The best player in this group was without a doubt, Aaron Donald.
Positional Grade - A-
The linebackers were a terror this year. They played a huge role a forming a stout run defense. James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree are starting to look like a tandem that will be feared for the next several years. While James Laurinaitis has the fan base split - due to a lack of athletic ability - his on field play should not be questioned. This is another case of people wanting more potential than production. There seems to be a lack of knowledge of how hard it is to be a good middle linebacker in the NFL. There's so much asked of them, and yet James continues to do it all. He's not flashy, and he's not fancy, but he doesn't allow touchdowns. Isn't that the ultimate goal? Just think, how many times can anyone look back and say "Laurinaitis blew that play and they scored"? Without him, Ogletree would not be where he is now. Speaking of which Ogletree started the season about as poor as one could. He missed a lot of tackles. His tackling was down right pathetic through the first six games. He was also exposed and abused by Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in back to back weeks. His worst performance was his coverage, as he blew about two coverages a game, pretty badly. But something happened in the Chiefs game. He got better, and by the following week against the 49ers he was the linebacker that we saw finish the season. Once he got on track he never looked back, and finished the season playing some of the best football amongst all NFL linebackers. Jo-Lonn Dunbar has officially been replaced by the nickle package. The secondary is suddenly loaded - more on that below - and there's no place for a third LB. But if there was, it probably should be Daren Bates rather than Dunbar out there. The best player here came down to consistency, James Laurinaitis edges out Ogletree.
Positional Grade - B+
The secondary was greatly improved this past season. So improved that while the defense was going through an adjustment phase - as a whole - to start, this group played the best football from start to finish. There is no question the front seven stole the spotlight eventually, but as far as how one group started the season and finished the season, the secondary was the best. They came out and played very well to start the season. They only allowed 224 ypg the first eight games. Only twice did a quarterback throw for more than 220 yards against them. The total ypg for the season was 241.3, which ranks 19th in the NFL. And if not for the Manning brothers - 377.5 ypg between the two of them - this unit would have finished in the top 13. Oh and by the way, it took those Manning boys 86 pass attempts to reach those numbers. And exactly how much of that can you really blame on the secondary? When watching the two games - and the other 14 while we are at it - it was only the Giants game which saw the secondary struggle. That struggle stemmed more from playing angry, than just getting beat. Far too often they were looking for the kill shot, or trying to jump the route. Other than that game, most of the passing yards that were accumulated in the 6 games that saw the Rams allow at least 240 passing yards, came from dump off passes underneath the coverage.
Janoris Jenkins had a nice rebound year after playing well as a rookie and then not quite as well as a sophomore. He took a lot of flack for a few touchdowns, but by my count two were entirely on him. The other three resulted in the safety not playing over the top twice, and once the safety tripping and falling. Although, if you let Jeff Fisher tell it, he will put all the blame on Janoris only once, as he will say the touchdown against the 49ers was on the coaches. Whatever the case may be, Jenkins was not abused the way it may look. In fact he delivered more good - and at times outstanding - coverage than not. There were times when his positioning was jaw dropping, and he just barely missed on a whopping six interceptions. Yeah, that's right. He was a few millimeters away from 8 interceptions. Trumaine Johnson was an absolute stud once he got healthy. He played some outstanding coverage - as I expected - upon his return. It's a shame he could not play the entire 16 games, but on the other hand that would have meant that we might not have seen the second best defensive rookie performance on the team and probably third best in the NFL....
E.J. Gaines was sensational, and he did not receive nearly enough recognition for the season he had. There was a great write up and with screen shots to breakdown his game this season over at BR. According to the coaches tape he finished with over 100 tackles, 14 deflections, and two interceptions. He actually only gave up one touchdown all season, and it was the first game of the season on his sixth series as a pro. The touchdown was allowed to Greg Jennings, when Jennings - being the savvy vet he is - ran a nice route which he faked inside towards the safety and E.J. thought the safety would take him, but Jennings went back to Gaines' side and slipped behind him for an eight yard touchdown reception. That was the worst play of his rookie season. That says a lot. Receivers really struggled to beat him. He displayed unbelievable reaction and cat like reflexes as he broke on passes, and either breaking them up or delivering a well timed hit. Lamarcus Joyner struggled a bit with the mental aspect of the game. When he knew what he was doing he was very good, and there just aren't enough words to describe his physicality. Having a full off-season should allow him to play more consistently.
The safety position was the most improved on the team. Rodney McLeod was very good for most of the season. He did have 3 hiccups that resulted in long touchdowns, but he played fast, physical and smart. Mental lapse - not to make excuses - are kind of expected for any player playing under a new playbook. But when watching the film you can see McLeod playing all over the field. T.J. McDonald played very well and might have been the most improved in the secondary. He still has some ways to go coverage wise, but his tackling was so much better than his rookie season. It didn't even look like the same person. Like his "Mc twin" he played fast and physical, but he has to start playing more in control, hence the smart part was left out. They look like a pair of safeties that will be feared for years to come. Mark Barron was a nice addition. With the defense playing more and more nickle, we began to see more and more formations with three safeties. He brought an immediate tenacious attitude to the secondary. There was one already in existence, but it seem to amplify with his addition. Barron excelled in blitzing the quarterback and playing underneath routes. This was - low key - one of the best moves any team made all season. The best player in the secondary was without a question E.J. Gaines. His future might be the brightest of any defensive back.