Improved defense at the core of the Rams' resurgence this season
Friday, November 12, 2010
Improved defense is at the core of the Rams' resurgence this season
ST. LOUIS -- It's the same system, pretty much the same players, too. All that time together is starting to pay off for a St. Louis Rams defense that's fast shedding its reputation as a punching bag.
In all but one of their first eight games, the Rams (4-4) have allowed 18 or fewer points. Opponents are converting only 36 percent of the time on third down. The unit is also putting a lot more pressure on the quarterback, with Chris Long riding a three-game sack streak and James Hall among the league leaders with 6 1/2 sacks -- already matching Leonard Little's team-leading total last season.
As much attention as No. 1 pick Sam Bradford and workhorse running back Steven Jackson have received, the much improved defense is a big reason the Rams enter the second half of the season tied for first place in the NFC West. St. Louis, whose defense ranked 29th last season, is 10th overall and eighth against the run heading into Sunday's game at San Francisco (2-6).
Veteran Fred Robbins, a budget offseason pickup, has enjoyed a career renaissance with a familiar coaching voice while solidifying the line. Steve Spagnuolo was Robbins' defensive coordinator during the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl season.
"There's nothing like having a big man in the middle," Hall said. "Nothing like it."
Outside linebacker Na'il Diggs also was added to the mix. Mostly, players and coaches believe familiarity with the scheme is the key.
"When you rep something over and over and over and over, you're able to focus on those details better, and that just makes you play faster," said Laurinaitis, a second-round pick last year who again leads the team in tackles. "You can be more confident in what you're doing."
In their last game before last week's bye, the Rams forced four turnovers and held the lowly Panthers to 25 yards rushing. But they've held good teams down, too, slowing down the Chargers' powerful offense in a 20-17 win in Week 5 and holding the Redskins to 16 points.
"We throw a lot at them," Spagnuolo said. "When they feel real confident about what they're saying, they tend to play faster."
Laurinaitis has 53 tackles, got his first interception last week and has two sacks. Hall leads the line with 28 tackles and Robbins, besides gumming up the middle, has two sacks.
This defense blitzes frequently, allowing safety O.J. Atogwe to thrive.
"I think it's about the same amount as last year, but I understand things better," Atogwe said.
The change thus far is glaring. Opponents are averaging 314 yards, down from 373 last season. St. Louis is allowing 98 yards rushing, down from 138 in 2009, and 216 yards passing, down from 235.
Last season, opponents had a whopping 54-17 advantage in touchdowns, and so far this year the Rams are up 14-13. St. Louis has 23 sacks, only two shy of the 2009 total and with eight interceptions already has matched 2009.
But it's only a half-season, and nobody's letting up. Though the 49ers average only 17 points, running back Frank Gore has been a load. Gore is second in the NFC with 1,096 yards from scrimmage with 696 yards rushing and three straight 100-yard games.
Gore has thrived against St. Louis with four 100-yard games.
"They say the offense begins and ends with him," Hall said. "It's going to take all 11 guys to stop him."