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It’s time to appreciate the 2017 Los Angeles Rams’ defense

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The Rams’ D has quietly transformed into a top unit. Have you noticed? BMule has.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams have taken the NFL by storm in 2017 and have set fire to any remaining #7and9bullshit that remained. On the back of an entertaining and high-powered offense, the Rams have become one of the most exciting teams to watch.

After eight games under Sean McVay, future 2017 NFL Head Coach of the Year, the Rams have positioned themselves to participate in the NFL Playoffs for the first time since 2004 and recording their first winning season since 2003. To put it in one perspective, the franchise was less than five years removed from sporting the beloved royal blue and sunshine yellow uniforms the last time those things happened.

If Jared Goff’s rapid development in leading the NFL’s 2nd highest scoring offense (Philadelphia currently leads by 20 points with a game in hand) is what makes the Rams contenders this year and beyond, it’s the defense we should be looking to in order to find out just how good the Rams are.

It wasn’t that long ago that people wondered if the Rams defense was going to ruin a rapidly improved offense’s work. It was a a 180-degree turn from the past five plus years. While RB Todd Gurley was running roughshod, the Rams were getting ran over. While the Rams offensive line kept Goff from getting breathed on, the once-feared defensive front couldn’t sniff opposing QBs. The perception was lopsided.

To get to this halfway point in the season, the Rams defense has endured calls for trades, dealt with injuries and a holdout, contract extensions, surprise cuts, and schematic questioning. And through it all, the Rams now field a top-3 defense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

For people who have no idea what DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is, it essentially considers each and every play’s down and distance and how successful or unsuccessful they were compared to the league average. For a more in depth and fun breakdown, check this out.

So...cool. The smart nerds say the Rams have the 3rd-best defense with the 9th-best offense. But we know the Rams offense is averaging the most points per game, are 5th in yards per play, and are converting the highest percentage of 3rd downs in the league so how can you trust something about the Rams defense that has the offense as 9th best? Well, you’re allowed to believe what you want.

For some fans, you don’t need fancy formulas and spells to gauge a certain aspect of a team. Raw numbers and rankings usually do it for most. The Rams defense holds up with these too and may even surprise you with where they stand.

Lets drop some stats.

Their 19.4 ppg allowed is 10th best, their 25 sacks are tied for 6th most (Carolina 29, Philly 25 have played 9 games), they’re committing the 3rd fewest penalties, their 15 created turnovers are 7th most, their 10 interceptions are 3rd most. Their 139 first downs surrendered are the 4th fewest. The rate at which opposing team drives end in points is 29.6%, the 5th stingiest rate.

They’re getting off the field quickly and efficiently with average drive times and number of plays against at 2:24 and 5.3 plays, both of which rank 6th best. What makes those impressive is that the defense is faced with the 21st best starting field position against with an average start on the opponent 28.9 yard line.

Maybe you made it through all those numbers and ranks impressed. Maybe you still feel the one cry for improvement, yards allowed (mostly rushing yards), is a hole too big to overcome. The defense has started to get a grip on yards allowed and sit squarely in the middle at 16th in average yards per play (5.2) against.

It’s true the Rams defense has played some horrible opposing QBs and offenses. It’s also true that there is a handful of horrible QBs and offenses remaining on the schedule. But the thing that has me so bullish on the Rams defense is that they’ve barely all gotten started together.

Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ defenses haven’t been historically great against the run. I find that the particular strengths of the majority of his defenses have been in the secondary, a position group that’s finally being displayed as advertised after getting back CB Kayvon Webster and DB Lamarcus Joyner from injury and implementing rookie S John Johnson into the starting lineup.

When we consider the transition from S Maurice Alexander to Johnson, the Rams starting secondary has played just three games together and the current secondary group of a starters just two. In three full games (IND, AZ, NY) with perfect DB conditions (and awful offenses), the Rams are 3-0 and have allowed 26 combined points (20 if we exclude New York Giants TE Evan Engram’s TD vs backups). Sure, someone could easily say I’m morphing this to fit a particular narrative but I’d say to look at it as evidence of potential yet to be realized.

In the 18 quarters of play since the first half of the Dallas game, the Rams defense has given up 1,284 total yards, allowed 59 points, created 9 turnovers, and recorded 13 sacks. This has not been the same defense that let Washington run all over them. This has not been the defense that got gashed by San Francisco on short rest.

The front seven has settled in with DL Aaron Donald and ILB Alec Ogletree (yes) as the two best pass rushers. To be able to legitimately question the effectiveness of the Rams pass rushers and still have the 6th most sacks in the NFL is a sure a sign as ever that the defense isn’t close to the ceiling they keep resetting for themselves.

There’s clear room for improvement statistically and effectively from guys like OLB Robert Quinn, OLB Connor Barwin, Donald, etc., and even if it never happens the Rams still have shown the defense has a very high floor.

So here we are, with a defense better than often advertised by the fans and a defense that isn’t that far behind their offensive compadres. But the season is just halfway done.

The remaining schedule is mixed with legitimate Super Bowl contenders and high octane offenses to go along with teams currently led by QBs called Tom Savage, Drew Stanton, and C.J. Beathard. I think we should prefer to face the likes of a strong Minnesota Vikings running game, an unstoppable team led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, and a dominant Eagles team with a crazy unlikely Carson Wentz offensive pace.

We’ll quickly find out whether the defense’s underrated success can be attributed to lousy opponents or if we had been watching the quiet turnaround required for a loud playoff push without even realizing it. With measurements like DVOA and the defensive acclimation, I find little reason to think the current trend is a fluke and that week’s two and three were the outliers.

The fans who blindly believed in Goff and McVay before the season are being repaid handsomely with wins, a top offense, and feasts of crow. With half a season of data to go off of, theres no reason to be incognizant of the Los Angeles Rams’ defense though.

It might be what matters most over these final eight games.