Yesterday, Ramblin’ Fan gave our predictions for who in the St. Louis Rams’ offense had the best chance of making the 2014 Pro Bowl roster. Today, we will switch over the defensive side of the football. The Rams’ could easily make a case that they already have Pro Bowl players in the defense; name like Chris Long and James Laurinaitis that have yet to get the recognition they deserve in the NFL. Will this be the season of change?
After starting off the season red-hot, tallying 6 sacks in the first 5 games of the season, Quinn tailed off at the end of the year. He would finish the 2013 season with 10.5 total sacks, slotting him in the Top 10 among 4-3 defensive ends. However, the introduction (and dominance) of William Hayes into the defensive line rotation marred the overall production of Quinn, rightfully being replaced in nearly any short yard or run situation. That will likely not change this season, but with a more dominate linebacking corps, Quinn might spring free and up his sack total in 2013.
Had Brockers not been injured for the first quarter of the season, we might be talking about him returning to the Pro Bowl instead of getting invited for the first time. The Rams’ rookie was a monster in the middle of the field, racking up 5 sacks and 21 tackles, while only playing 615 defensive snaps. To put that in perspective, Gerald McCoy made the 2013 Pro Bowl with 5 sacks and only 17 tackles on 968 defensive snaps; a whopping 353 more plays than Brockers. McCoy did “pressure” the quarterback more, in terms of hurries and hits on the quarterback, but the name of the game is actually getting to the quarterback and making stops.
“Hi, my name is Chris Long, and I have led the NFC in total pressures on the quarterback and been Top 5 in sacks in both of the last two seasons…”
Defensive end is one of many positions where playing in a “big market” and having name recognition are more highly correlated with making the Pro Bowl than actual performance on the field. For the second year in a row, Chris Long has led all NFC player in quarterback pressures, tallying 11.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 55 hurries. Long was not the perennial defender against the run, but adequate enough to wrangle up 18 tackles in an NFC West filled with some of the most elusive running backs and quarterbacks in the NFL. Oh… and he only missed 2 tackles all season. With a healthy Michael Brockers and, for the first time, a full set of linebackers playing behind him, Long should finally break through the glass ceiling.
The linebacker position falls prey to “big name” voting more than any other spot in on the field. The fact that Daryl Washington only made the Pro Bowl as a “replacement” player, after leading all inside linebacker in sacks, with 125 combined tackles to boot, is utterly baffling. James Laurinaitis was 3rd in the league last season in tackles, with 136 on the year. He was also the only inside linebacker in the Top 20 who did not allow a receiving touchdown in coverage, allowing only a 72.4 passer rating (3rd in the NFL) when quarterbacks threw the rock his way. He was also Top 10 in hits on the quarterback (2nd), stops (T-8th), interceptions (T-5th), and pass deflections (T-9th). However, until voters can shy away from the idea of voting in both the inside linebacker from San Francisco, or stop themselves from voting for a “hot” name like London Fletcher, Bobby, Wagner, or Brian Urlacher, players like James Laurinaitis will continue to get snubbed for the Pro Bowl.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Alec Ogletree
Much like Laurinaitis and Long, one could easily make a case that Jo-Lonn Dunbar should have been invited to the 2013 Pro Bowl. Dunbar had 120 combined tackles (5th among 4-3 outside linebackers), 5 sacks (5th), 5 hits on the quarterback (5th), and 62 defensive stops (2nd). However, Dunbar did struggle in coverage, despite snagging 2 interceptions and knocking down 3 passes. However, the insertion of Alec Ogletree into the linebacking corps should move Dunbar over to the strongside, where his “downhill” tackling style and aggressive, line-of-scrimmage play can be utilitized more effectively. Ogletree is a former safety, and possesses the speed and length necessary to dominate as a weakside linebacker. Backside contain and underneath coverage at the second level were two major flaws in the St. Louis Rams’ defense that prevented it from breaking out into the a consensus Top 5 unit. Moving Dunbar to the strongside and Ogletree to the weakside should set both players off for highly productive years. With all of that said, the obsession by the general public and sports media with “sacks” will likely always give the nod to 3-4 outside linebackers, regardless of how horrid their play is in other key aspects of the game…
Janoris Jenkins was the Rams version of Jekyll and Hyde, recording some of the greatest and worst performance in a single game by any individual player on the roster. Against Miami, one of Jenkins’ mental lapses got him staring into the backfield as his man jogged behind him to catch a lob from Tannehill in the endzone. Other times, such as the games against Arizona and San Francisco, Jenkins’ was the MVP for the Rams’, scoring 3 defensive touchdowns in a two game stretch. Maturity and progression by Jenkins during this offseason could transform him into one of the most dominate, play making cornerbacks in the league (if he already isn’t in that category). With upgrades at both safety and linebacker, and a year of experience under his belt, Jenkins is primed to take the reins as the best corner on the roster and, hopefully, the first Pro Bowl defensive player the Rams have had in quite some time.