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2015 St. Louis Rams: Pro Football Focus Shines Light On Defensive Improvements From 2014

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The Rams' defense is expected to take a big step this year, but when you look a little closer there was pretty big step taken last year as well...

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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The Rams defense had high expectations entering the 2014 season. Most of the attention was placed on the defensive line with expectations soaring as high as possibly challenging the NFL sack record. A lot of that attention stemmed from the teams very own promotion of its vaunted defensive line, coming up with hash tags like #SackCity.

While no one can deny the squad began the season slower than expected they really lived up to the hype over the final three-quarters of the season. But this defense was more than just a unit that got after the opposing quarterbacks. They were also intimidating and aggressive against the run. As the season wore on the defense became one of the more physical units in the NFL, as week after week they delivered bone-jarring hits and piled up the sacks in the process.

The defense really began to spread its wings when players like T.J. McDonald, Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, and E.J. Gaines started to really raise their performance. This gave the defense extra impact players at each level. Donald assisted Robert Quinn with the pass rush, creating consistency when it was needed the most. Ogletree began to develop into a stud linebacker finally giving James Laurinaitis the running mate he's longed for since the day of his arrival. McDonald had what was arguably the biggest improvement of any player on the team, and maybe the league last season. The issue was it occurred in only in the second half of the season.

According to Pro Football Focus, T.J. McDonald received the highest PFF grade of any safety in football between weeks 9 and 17. Even so, the young safety  finished 41st out of 87 qualifiers. That goes to show how poor he was performing overall to begin the season. Nevertheless, even while his pass defense was poor more times than not over the entire season, his run defense was some of the best in the NFL. Rodney McLeod on the other hand - McDonald's safety running mate - graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 18 cover safety. As evident by the numbers, they compliment each other very well.

Aaron Donald on the other hand, well he was just busy setting NFL records that people might not know about. We all know what Donald accomplished as a rookie, and so does the rest of the world as he made All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl. But there was another rookie that shined pretty bright himself, that did not receive as many accolades. E.J. Gaines finished the season as the teams top cover corner. He proved to have the ability to run with any receiver regardless of size and speed. According to PFF, Gaines finished 16th in the NFL in coverage for cornerbacks.

E.J. Gaines was the second rookie to make the list. Injuries in the Rams’ secondary forced Gaines into the starting line-up from Week 1, and from that point he was rarely off the field prior to picking up an injury in the penultimate week. He had some difficult days, with four games grading less than -1.0, but showed a welcome propensity for making plays on the ball, with two picks and 10 batted passes.

- Pro Football Focus

Ogletree was another player that really turned it on in the second half of the season. He juggled the second half of the season being the number two and three 4-3 OLB. That's a helluva jump after being benched in week 8. All this from these guys and the performance of players like James Laurinaitis, Robert Quinn, Janoris Jenkins, and Mark Barron have yet to be included.

At first glance, one would see the Rams PPG allowed, and think that this unit drastically underperformed. But look again and you will see a unit that 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.

Considering the youth and the implementation of a new scheme/playbook, it makes sense why the defense began the year slow. But as the unit began to jell and comprehend its concepts, you could really see a drastic difference. Though it didn't always look this way, teams really struggled to run the ball and finish drives against the Rams - as from week 7 and on - the unit was a top ten run defense. Some rough performances early in the season against Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Seattle, really skewed how well the defense performed over the course of the entire season. Oh, and let's not forget the back to back shut out performances.

Now that the unit has been kept intact completely, losing absolutely no one, expect to see the momentum carry over into this season. Also remember that there was two key additions in Akeem Ayers and Nick Fairley. I think most have forgotten that Lamarcus Joyner was not benched, but actually got hurt and Gaines performed to well to be taken off the field. Add in that Barron only played half the season with the team, and a full off-season with the Mad Scientist they call Gregg Williams, and one has to believe this defensive unit as a whole will not only prove how deep they really are - at all three levels - but also prove to how good they can be for an extended period of time.

But only time will tell, in the mean time watch the video below and remember this one thing.....

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THE

D!!!!!!!!!!!