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Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 Preview Q&A: Los Angeles Rams’ defense rising

In part II of our preview Q&A with FO, we look at Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ new-look defense.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re partnering with Football Outsiders again this year to promote the release of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2018. FO continues to raise the bar for quantitative analysis, and the 2018 almanac is proof positive. In our five-part preview, we’ll look at how they modeled the 2017 Los Angeles Rams and what they’re looking at for 2018 with FO’s Bryan Knowles (@BryKno).

Pt. I: An offense renewed

Last year, the projection was for the defense to jump to 2nd defensively in DVOA from 15th. They about halved that getting to 6th. What was foreseen in terms of defensive improvement that didn’t take place that could take place this year and close that gap even further?

While it’s true the Rams didn’t quite hit the ranking we projected last year, they did pretty much hit their rating. We projected them to have a -7.0% defensive DVOA; they actually improved on that slightly to a -9.8% DVOA (negative numbers are better for defense). The fact that a few other teams slipped between them and second place shouldn’t hide the fact that Wade Phillips had a great first year in Los Angeles.

This year, we have the Rams projected as the best defense in football. The big improvement that would be needed to achieve that would be in run defense. The Rams had the third-best pass defense last season, but only the 21st-best run defense. They specifically had issues on third-and-short; only the Jets had a tougher time getting off the field there.

Adding Ndamukong Suh, even playing an unfamiliar position, is likely to help that area out a lot. In addition, it’s way, way more important to defend the pass than it is to defend the run in the modern NFL. The top five rushing defenses in the league included Arizona, Denver, Cleveland and Carolina, all of whom sat at home in January last year. The only top-five pass defense to miss the playoffs was Baltimore, who was one play away from making the playoffs. The Jags, Saints, Bills, Chiefs and Patriots all had bottom-ten rush defenses, and made the playoffs. Don’t stress too much if the Rams continue to be a below-average rush defense in 2018.