UPDATE: Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher are both currently nursing injuries. Urlacher is listed as “probable,” fully participating in practice on Wednesday. However, Peppers has been tagged as “questionable” and was held out of practice due to foot soreness.
Yesterday, we look a close look at the offensive side of the ball, comparing the quarterbacks and offensive linemen, as well as the running backs and wide receivers. However, in the NFL, games are not merely won by having a dynamic offense, unless you are the 2011 Patriots or Green Bay Packers. For the rest of the league, a potent defense is key to staying in the game, keeping points off the board, and maintaining the lead at the end of the game. Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens continually win games year in and year out because they always put out a Top 5 defense onto the field to keep them in games. St. Louis has demonstrated this concept twice already in the young season. Against the Lions, the offense converted on less than 30% of third downs, stalling on a number of drives and failing to get anything other than field goals until the fourth quarter. However, the defense, with its three interceptions in the first half, kept the Rams in the game until the final seconds. Against the Redskins, St. Louis quickly fell into a 21-6 hole after a series of unfortunate events involving fumbles, poor officiating, and the reluctancy of Jeff Fisher to throw the challenge flag. Again, the defense stalled the Washington offense, allowing Washington to convert on only 4 of 13 third down tries, and picking off Robert Griffin III at midfield. The point is, the defense cannot necessary put the points on the board to win the game, but they do play a pivotal role, especially on a teams without a dynamic offense that cannot win the game in a shoot out. Chicago has always been known for their defense, with players like Lance Briggs and future Hall-of-Famers Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers manning the field. St. Louis, on the other hand, has recently made waves in the NFL with their impressive secondary and high-motor defensive ends, not to mention defensive minded head coach Jeff Fisher. So, how do the two compare when you break down each position…
The St. Louis Rams defensive line is definitely strongest on the outside, with Chris Long and Robert Quinn manning the two defensive end slots. Chris Long is an all-pro talent that demands a double team on every snap, leads the league in quarterback pressures on a yearly basis, and can beat opposing tackles with speed around the edge or through his signature bull rush. Robert Quinn is purely a speed rusher, who can easily beat his man around the edge with deceptive quickness and quality footwork. Both play with an unrelenting motor that wears out an offensive line, which often leads to more hits, pressures, and sacks in the second halves of games. However, Quinn is sometimes a liability in the run game, getting baited up the field and creating a massive hole off on the left side of the field. Both Washington and Detroit exploited that weakness, forcing Jeff Fisher to thrown in Eugene Sims on the end, who is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. In the middle, Kendall Langford has been carrying the bulk of the weight on his shoulder, especially wtih first-rounder Michael Brockers being sidelines for at least a couple more weeks. In Brockers place, the Rams have employed a defensive-tackle-by-committee mentality, although a majority of the reps have been handled by Jermelle Cudjo and Kellen Heard. Heard has struggled, but Cudjo has held his own for the most part, recording half a sack and 13 solo tackles on the year. St. Louis’ line has gotten good pressure on both Stafford and Griffin in the first two games, although the stats sheet might say otherwise. They are getting pressure that is forcing quick throws , which, in turn, is leading to a ton of interceptions. Griffin, in particular, was forced to scramble out of the pocket for a majority of the game, which results in Washington’s pathetic 3rd down efficiency and Redskin’s lack of offense outside of RGIII running the ball.
The Chicago Bears have a solid pair of bookend defensive ends on the roster as well, between Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers. Peppers is a pass rushing monster that will likely demand a double team on every play just to “hold” him to one sack per game. Idonije is a run stuffer that understands the position, sets the edge for the defense on his side of the field, and can occasionally get to the quarterback. Peppers has already recorded two sacks so far this season, the same as the Rams’ Robert Quinn. Chicago’s interior line is comprised of a couple of relatively young tackles, highlights by sophomore Stephen Paea. Paea got the nod as the full-time starter this year, after playing in only 11 games last season for the Bears. They defensive line terrorized Andrew Luck in Week 1, and was able to get some good hits on Aaron Rodgers in last weeks loss to the Green Bay Packers. The unit as a whole has been able to get some good pressure on the opposing quarterback, although having Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher behind you to clean up messes is a nice safety blanket. Both squads have quality defensive ends and moderate talent at defensive tackle. Neither have generated a ton of sacks, although the Bears have the slight end in total sacks along defensive linemen, with Henry Melton recording 2 sacks in the opening bout against the lowly Indianapolis Colts. The St. Louis Rams have a slight edge at defensive end, taking Quinn over Idonije and calling Peppers and Long a draw, but give the Bears the nod at defensive tackle.
Advantage: Tie, 3-1-1
The St. Louis Rams biggest pickups of the off season have clearly been Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Cortland Finnegan. Dunbar has been all over the field on defense, playing every snap for the Rams in both games so far this year. The former New Orleans Saint has amassed a quality 13 tackles and an interception, while bringing a new swagger and chippiness to the Rams defense. He is a big body outside linebacker, and loves to talk and get into the heads of opposing quarterbacks and rusher, although he is fairly limited in the pass rush. In the middle of the defense, James Laurinaitis calls all the shots for the St. Louis defense. Laurinaitis is one of the more underrated middle linebackers in the NFL, but has been relatively quite so far this season. Laurinaitis has 19 tackles so far, but his real contributions have come in reading the opposing offense and managing the defense accordingly. He is the quarterback of the defense, and on nearly every play you can see him making calls to the secondary and shifting the defensive linemen into new gaps. Although the Rams run out of the traditional 4-3 base defense, Coach Fisher has relied heavily on the nickel package to slow the passing game of the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. This has been a combination of the coaches confidence in Bradley Fletcher as the nickelback, and the lack of confidence in Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh as cover linebackers. Against Washington, Fletcher was in the game on 39 snaps, or about 62% of the time on defense. To compare, McIntosh and Haggan combined for only 29 snaps, while Dunbar and Laurinaitis were in for all 63 defensive plays.
Chicago also plays out of the 4-3 base defense, although they heavily employ the three linebacker sets. Head Coach Love Smith and the defensive coordinator trust Briggs and Urlacher to anchor the middle of the field, while played a majority of snaps in a Cover 2 zone, at least thus far in the season. Briggs in the only genuine threat as a pass rusher, but all three are solid in run support and excellent in coverage. This combination has helped the Bears to the 9th best rushing defense, allowing only 84.5 yards to opposing rushing attacks. However, they have yet to face a Top 20 running back in the NFL, unless you count the hot-or-cold Cedric Benson as an elite back. This week, they will likely face a running back tandum where both backs can put up single game numbers of 75+ yards, and will be playing against the first team that relies more heavily on the run game than the passing game. However, to this point, the Bears have dominated as a front seven, and considering they maintain the “3″ in the 4-3 defense, they have to get the nod over the Laurinaitis-Dunbar duo.
Advantage: Chicago Bears, 3-2-1
Next we will breakdown the safety and cornerback position for the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams. Stay tuned for more previews and updates leading up this weekends matchup.