The preseason is a magical time of the year when all 32 teams in the NFL can revel in uncapped optimism and unbridled expectations for the upcoming year. As of this moment, every team in the league in on “equal ground,” and every one of them has likely been projected to be a “Top 5″ something or other at some point during this offseason. But, heading into Week 2 of the preseason, reality is slowly starting to creep back into the picture. Injuries will mount, weaknesses will be exposed, position battle will be won and lost, players will be cut by the hundreds.
For the St. Louis Rams, the highest accolades being throw in their direction have largely been directed towards the defensive line. Touted as arguably the top front-seven in the NFL, according to a multitude of analysts and pundits, many are projecting the Rams overall defense to rank somewhere in the Top 10 in the league this season, if not higher. But, are those expectations realistic?
Last year, the St. Louis Rams ranked 15th overall in fewest total yards allowed, which the other three teams in the NFC West all finished within the Top 5. The defense allowed 242.1 passing yards per game (19th), but only 102.9 rushing yards per game (9th), which is an impressive feat given the shear amount of top ranked running backs they faced last year. They also ranked near the top of the NFL in forced fumbles (T-9th), but ranked in the bottom half of the league in interceptions (T-24th) and, subsequently, in total turnovers (T-21st). Moreover, in arguably the most important defensive category, points allowed per game, the Rams still finished outside of the Top 10, ranking 13th overall (22.8 points per game).
However, the issue with the defense was not necessarily their “final rankings,” but, rather, the inconsistency they showed on a week-to-week basis. In some games, the defense looked impenetrable, most notably in their stonewalling of the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. Other times, the defense looked downright pathetic, especially early in the season versus some of this more high-caliber offensive units.
So, what has really changed that would take the Rams from a borderline Top 15 unit to being in the conversation for finishing in the Top 10, or higher?
Well, for starters, they did not lose any of their vital defensive pieces from last season. Unlike the San Francisco 49ers, who will be without Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, and the Arizona Cardinals, who lost Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, the St. Louis Rams lost only one defensemen who played over 250 snaps last year; that being Cortland Finnegan, who was demoted early in the year and eventually placed on IR after Week 10. Defensive pillars, like Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and James Laurinaitis, will all be ready to go by the season opener.
Not only have they retained their entire defensive starting roster, they significantly bolstered several key areas during the 2014 NFL Draft. Aaron Donald was the top interior defensive linemen prospect in the class, and fills the only arguable “need” on the Rams already-top ranked unit; a true 3-technique, pass rushing specialist. The Rams also snagged, arguably, the most versatile defensive back in the class, Lamarcus Joyner, who figures to upgrade either the nickelback or free safety spot during the regular season. Lastly, they added a bevy of talent to compete for snaps in the secondary, including University of Missouri standout, EJ Gaines, one-time Florida St. stud, Greg Reid, and, when he was healthy, the top cornerback out of the University of Florida, Marcus Roberson.
There are also several factors, aside from player acquisitions, that could play a massive role in the effectiveness of the defense in 2014. One of those is the return of Sam Bradford, who missed a majority of last season after tearing his ACL against the Carolina Panthers. While some detest the “conservative” nature of Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, one of Bradford’s best attributes as a quarterback is his decision-making with the football. The former-No.1 overall pick currently holds the longest active streak of games with one or fewer interceptions thrown (20). Less turnover from the offense typically limits the number of times the defense is placed in a bad situation (i.e. the field position game), and should allow the defensive players to stay rested on the sideline, with Sam Bradford and Co. generating longer drives.
Lastly, the biggest acquisition of the offseason for the St. Louis Rams might not be a player, but, rather, the signing of Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. Last year, Tim Walton struggled to adapt to his role as the defensive signal caller, regularly misusing players (particularly in the secondary), and relying far too heavily on the defensive line to generate pressure on the quarterback. His counter-intuitive four-man pressures combined with the dreaded “soft zone” coverage led to Jeff Fisher eventually taking over the defensive reins after the Bye week. The introduction of Gregg Williams marks the first season in the Fisher/Snead-era with a proven defensive coordinator calling the shots. Williams is consider by most to be a defensive mastermind, specializing in applying pressure on the quarterback, with “aggressiveness” as his calling card. With the freakish athleticism on the St. Louis Rams defensive roster, the addition of Gregg Williams could be the missing key to unlocking the Rams potential as a unit.
So, could those offseason changes really bump the St. Louis Rams defense from a middle-of-the-pack unit into one of the Top 10 in the league?
The St. Louis Rams certainly have the defensive talent, which, paired with a capable offensive unit and, finally, a competent defensive coordinator to run the show, sets the sky as the limit for the squad heading into 2014.
Tags: St. Louis Rams