In recent interviews, three different players (i.e. James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar) have independently stated that the St. Louis Rams’ re-vamped defense could make a push into the Top 10 in NFL this season. Naturally, every team has aspirations of finishing among the top in the league, but can the St. Louis Rams truly break into that arbitrarily elite section of teams?
Well, that sort of depends on how you choose to gauge the “Top 10.” There are several different variables that could be used to derive a ranking on defense, but none is overwhelmingly more reliable than the other. For example, comparing the rankings for teams using the measures for points per game vs. total yards allowed, and you find that there are three teams who technically rank in the Top 10 in one category, but are outside of it in the other. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were top dogs against the run last season, allowing the fewest rushing yards in the league, but, conversely, were ranked dead-last in the league passing yards allowed.
Switching over to more sophisticated statistics, there is not much more clarity. In terms of “downs” allowed, the Top 10 significantly varies when alternating between total first downs allowed and third down percentage. Going even deeper into the realm of more complex variables, Pro Football Focus even differentiates defenses in four different categories; none of which help definitely separate a “Top 10″ grouping within the league.
For the purposes of consistency, the mainstream NFL media typically resorts to total yards allowed as their primary variable for measuring a defenses. Using that metric, the St. Louis Rams finished the season in the middle-tier of the league, sandwiched between the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles. So, how are they projecting for this upcoming season?
|3||San Francisco 49ers||↔|
|8||New York Jets||↓|
|9||San Diego Chargers||↔|
|11||Green Bay Packers||↔|
|14||St. Louis Rams||↑|
From last season to now, a number of teams have done some “shuffling” on their roster; some for the good and some for the bad. Most notable on the list might be the Denver Broncos, who lost Elvis Dumervil in a bizarre “faxing accident” and might be playing without Von Miller for the first quarter of the season due to an impending suspension. Other teams, like the Texans and Cardinals, will likely improve their overall defense merely through a handful of healthy stars returning to the lineup (i.e. Brian Cushing and Calais Campbell).
However, trajectory on a ranking based solely off yards allowed is difficult to decipher. Variables, like offensive production, play a massive role in the “yards allowed” category, which will inevitably skew some defenses upward. For example, the Philadelphia Eagles typically fell behind early-on in their games, which prompted opposing offenses to narrow the playbook and focus on the ground game to eat up the clock. Less focus on scoring quickly, and more focus on maintaining long, drawn-out drives can superficially produce low “yardage allowed” figures.
So, can the Rams find a way to sneak into, what most of the NFL considers, the Top 10 defenses in the league?
Maybe! The Broncos, 49ers, Seahawks, Bear, Bengals, Steelers, and Texans are certainly not going anywhere. However, it is anyone’s guess how the Bottom of the Top 10 will shake out this season, especially with massive changes to both offensive and defensive rosters on a number of teams, including the St. Louis Rams.
Instead of worrying about breaking into the maintain-stream media’s version of the top defenses in the league, the St. Louis Rams should focus more on maintaining their strengths and improving on their weaknesses from last season. If the production in those areas combine to create a perceived Top 10 defense, then so be it. If not, it should, at least, translate into fewer points on the scoreboard from the opponent and more checks in the “win” column at the end of the season.