With the entire offense (quarterbacks and running back and offensive line and receivers) and defensive line has been broken down by Ramblin’ Fan over the past week, leaving the only the linebackers and secondary units to cover on defense. Although St. Louis has been renowned for the offensive prowess in the past, the new-look Rams’ specialty is a dominating secondary. The Dolphins have had big names players in their back seven since the league started, including Yeremiah Bell, the only player from my high school, George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, Kentucky, to ever make it to the NFL. So, how do the two teams stack up against one another?
They teach you from pee-wee football on that the linebackers primary assignment is to bring the ball carrier to the ground before they gain any yards. In recent years in the NFL, linebackers have been transformed into primary pass rushers or coverage linebackers, but the pure breed, elite linebackers are the best at one thing, tackling. The Miami Dolphins are ranked 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, which should be attributed to the defense as a whole, but mainly the linebackers. The defensive lineman set the edge and clog the holes in the middle of the line, corners play contain on the outside and push the runner back towards the middle of the field, and the linebackers tackle… that is how it is supposed to work. It is not surprising then that the top three tacklers on the Dolphins team are the three starting linebackers. Karlos Dansby leads the team with 37 combined tackles, 1 sack, and 3 pass deflections. Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi man the outside of the second level, the 55 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and 3 forced fumbles between the two of them. Of course, none of their linebackers are anywhere near the top of the leader boards in terms of any particular statistics, they are not dominating in the pass rush, and not likely to fool any quarterback in coverage. However, they do their job, and do it well.
The St. Louis linebacking core is tough to analyze because the team plays so little in their traditional 4-3 base defense. At least thus far in the season, the Rams have opted for the nickel package, primarily on second and third down, leaving only James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar the field. Jeff Fisher has clearly demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice yards on the ground in favor of shutting down the passing game, which has been relatively successful so far this season. As a result, the St. Louis Rams have allowed 586 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground, compared to the 307 yards and 2 touchdowns given up by Miami. James Laurinaitis is not only the leader of the linebackers, but the overall defensive leader of the team. He leads the NFL with 38 solo tackles, and leads the team with 49 combined tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 2 tackles for a loss. Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been a surprisingly-pleasant acquisition from the New Orleans Saints, contributing 33 total tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, 3 pass deflections, and 1 interception. However, the other ‘backers, primarily Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh, have not played well in their limited roles, combining for only 19 tackles, 1 tackles for a loss, and 1 interception (which was a jump ball, from a Russell Wilson pass disrupted by Janoris Jenkins, that any one of the 5 players around the ball could have caught).
Advantage: Miami Dolphins, 4-3
Whatever the St. Louis Rams lack in rush defense, they have more than made up for in pass defense so far this season. While ranking 13th in passing yards allowed, they have given up only two passing touchdowns the entire season, which is second to no team in the NFL. The Rams have 8 interceptions (T-3rd), held opposing signal callers to a 66.6 quarterback rating (3rd), and allowed only 6.5 yards per pass attempts (7th). They have also only allowed teams to convert on 32.8 percent of their third downs (8th) and have given up only 2 receptions for longer than 50 yards, with only one counting for a touchdown. The secondary is excellent in run support, which is exemplified by four of the top six tacklers on the team playing either corner or safety.
Alternatively, the Miami Dolphins have traded off a dominating rush defense for a less-than-stellar pass defense. The Dolphins have allowed 1409 yards through the air, which notches them at 27th in the NFL, behind the lowly Buffalo Bills defense that has given up nearly 600 yards in two consecutive games. They have allowed 7 passing touchdowns (T-17th), but have held opposing passers to a 75.0 quarterback rating (9th) and 55.8 completion percentage (4th). Their starting secondary is actually much better than the statistics would indicate, but they are bare-bone if they need to send in the nickel or dime package. Coincidentally, that was happened, with Richard Marshall nursing a back injury sustained a couple of games ago. Marshall will likely be out against the Rams, and in his place will be R.J. Stanford, a second year player with little to no experience in a starting NFL secondary.
When it comes to depth, pure talent, and even the raw statistics, the St. Louis Rams are superior in every to the Miami Dolphins’ secondary in every way. Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan are as dynamic a tandem as any group in the NFL, combining for 60 tackles, 1 sack (although Jenkins should have been given one against Russell Wilson), 3 tackles for a loss, 14 pass deflections, and 4 interceptions, one being returned for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions. The two might be the most potent man-to-man cover duo in the NFL, bar none. The Rams have also had significant contribution from rookie Trumaine Johnson and Bradley Fletcher, who would be a starter on nearly any other team in the league, and haveDarian Stewart returning to the lineup after missing most the regular season with soft tissue injuries.
Advantage: St. Louis Rams, 4-3