If Anything, the Rams Defense is Underrated

Most of the media coverage on the Rams defense, locally and nationally, dwells on the team’s fiery front four. And for good reason. Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, William Hayes and the Rams’ other defensive linemen are active, disruptive and undeniably hostile to quarterbacks.

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Rams DC Gregg Williams eyes the scoreboard during the second half of Sunday’s win over the Browns.

In six games, the Rams have hunted their way to 23 sacks (No. 2 among the 30 teams) and 80 quarterback pressures. They’ve already put two QBs out of action during games this season: Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (knee) and Cleveland’s Josh McCown (shoulder.)

But the 2015 Rams are doing a lot more than just generating a pass-rush storm on game day.

In the essential areas that truly matter most — making key stops, limiting the potential damage of giveaways by the Rams offense, effectively preventing big plays, denying end-zone access to opponents and setting up a straining STL offense for relatively easy points —

Coordinator Gregg Williams has his defense playing about just well as any in the NFL.

The Rams have been exploited for only 98 offensive points through six games, an average of 16.3 points per contest that has the defense tied for third with Seattle. Only Denver (82 points) and the NY Jets (91) are stricter on defense. Since the franchise moved here in 1995, we’ve seen a couple of defenses allow fewer points per game than the ’15 Rams have to this point.

And both STL defenses did it for Rams’ teams best known for a prolific offense: the 1999 “Greatest Show” Rams were hit up for an average of only 13.8 points, and the 2001 Rams gave up 15.3 per game. But with all due respect to the ’99 and ’01 defenses, they frequently benefited from a huge competitive advantage set up by Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace.

The 1999 and 2001 Rams — each an NFC champion — scored early and often while averaging a dizzying, disorienting 32 points on game day. Any defensive player will tell you that their job is much easier when they’re handed an early lead, and/or a big lead, and asked to protect it against desperate opponents that have little choice but to fling passes to catch up.

This 2015 Rams defense doesn’t enjoy such amenities.

Even with rookie running back Todd Gurley rushing onto the scene to give his team a dramatic burst of ground yards, the Rams offense is among the very worst in the NFL. The Rams have scored only 94 points on offense in six games, an average of 15.6 PPG that’s superior to only one team, San Francisco (14.7.)

Many distressing statistics expose the Rams’ offensive shortcomings. Too many to mention, actually.

The list of ailments would include the No. 31 ranking in yards per game (299), an excessive dropped-passes rate that’s the worst in the league, a high percentage of three-and-out drives, the almost complete absence of lengthy possessions that last 10 plays or longer, the 31st-ranked third-down conversion rate, the league’s lowest total of “air” passing yards (which excludes yards gained after the catch) and only two of 69 possessions that have stretched out to at least five minutes.

Really, the bottom line is this: the Rams are dead last in the NFL in scoring efficiency this season, which simply means the offense is doing less with its possessions than the other 31 teams.

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Rams LB Akeem Ayers emerges from a pile after recovering a fumble during Sunday’s game.

In their 69 offensive series this season, the Rams have scored 10 touchdowns and kicked eight field goals.

That scoring rate of 26.1 percent — with the offense coming away with points only 18 times in 69 possessions — is the poorest in the league.

Moreover, the Rams have moved the ball into the Red Zone (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line) only 17 times this season; only four teams have ventured there fewer times.

The Rams’ defense isn’t exactly hitching a ride on the back of the Rams’ offense.

Despite all of the gasping and wheezing on offense — young Mr. Gurley exempted — the Rams have managed to go 3-3 this season. And if the STL offense had even tripped into the end zone for one crumby touchdown in the loss to Pittsburgh, the Rams would be sitting handsomely at 4-2. The Rams even had a chance to win a game at Green Bay, holding the Packers’ offense to a below-average point total (17) at Lambeau Field. But four turnovers by the Rams offense that day — including two in the Red Zone — nullified the chance to win there.

This team’s multiple offensive flaws make the Rams’ defensive stands even more impressive.

I didn’t say the Rams’ defense is perfect, or that it can’t perform better.

But if anything, I have to say this defense is underrated.

When I click on a piece at my former online home (STLtoday) and see a headline stressing how the Rams defense “finally” arrived in Sunday’s 24-6 victory over Cleveland … well, I don’t know what to say. I suppose I have a different perspective, and that’s OK.

The Rams’ defense played one clunker this season, getting rolled on the grass for 182 yards rushing while being shoved out of the way for three touchdowns in an embarrassing 24-10 loss at Washington in Week Two. But in the other five games this season the St. Louis defense has been penetrated for only five touchdowns despite facing acclaimed quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and most recently a hot quarterback in McCown. (He ranks ninth in the NFL with a passer rating of 96.1, has completed 68 percent of his throws, and has eight touchdowns with three interceptions.)

We already mentioned that the Rams defense is tied for third for fewest points surrendered, and we’ve cited the swirling pass-rush turbulence that’s made opposing quarterbacks so uncomfortable.

But there’s more.

All numbers presented here were culled from STATS LLC unless otherwise noted:

— The Rams defense is No. 1 in the NFL in preventing touchdowns, allowing only eight on 70 possessions. Opponents have scored a touchdown on only 11.4 percent of their series this season, and that’s the lowest rate against an NFL defense.

— The Rams have the league’s best Red Zone defense this season for preventing touchdowns. Opponents have scored five touchdowns on 15 RZ possessions, a TD rate of 33.3 percent that’s the lowest against any of the 32 defenses. When you effectively blockade the end zone and force your foes to settle for 10 field goals in 15 RZ opportunities  — that’s a great job. By the way, this represents substantial improvement from last season; the 2014 Rams got burned by opponents’ touchdowns on 46.2 percent of Red Zone invasions.

— Those 15 Red Zone possessions against the Rams defense are notable for another reason; only Cincinnati (13) has allowed an opponent to enter the RZ fewer times than St. Louis this season.

— The Rams have 13 takeaways, tied for third most in the NFL.

— The St. Louis defense has set up a good percentage of the team’s overall points scored. Of the 108 points scored by the Rams this season — the total includes a fumble return for a touchdown and a punt return for a TD — 46.3 percent of the points were put on the board following a takeaway by the Rams defense. Of the 94 points specifically scored by the Rams’ offense through six games, 43 were put up after the defense strong-armed its way to a turnover.

— The Rams are tied for third in forcing the most negative plays, 52, that result in lost yards by opponents. Those 52 negative plays have amounted to minus 177 yards.

— The Rams are tied for third in limiting the total points scored (only nine) following a turnover by the Rams offense.

— This defense has the NFL’s highest percentage of “stuffing” running plays — at 15%.

— The Rams are tied for the NFL lead in allowing only six pass plays of 25+ yards. And they’re tied for 10th in giving up the fewest completions of 20+ yards. Some will squawk about the opponents’ extreme completion percentage (75%) against the Rams defense — and no team has allowed a higher connection rate — but that’s grossly misleading.  The Rams aren’t getting shot down by the long ball. On passing attempts that travel at least 21 yards through the air, quarterbacks have completed one of seven against the St. Louis defense.

The Rams give up the short stuff and aggressively swoop in for the tackle to limit gains. That’s by design. The Rams really make the enemy offense work, and play with patience, to scratch for points; the averaging scoring drive against this defense has required nearly nine plays, 59 yards and an average time of 4 minutes and 8 seconds.

Again, we aren’t touting perfection here. No one is claiming that the 2015 Rams are playing the kind of Hell on Earth defense we saw from the 1985 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

But the grades from Pro Football Focus put the Rams defense at No. 2 in the league, behind Denver.

And that seems about right.

When your defense is the best in the league overall at preventing touchdowns, is ranked first in Red Zone defense, is tied for third in offensive points allowed, and has set up nearly 50 percent of the points scored by its own offense — we can conclude there’s a helluva lot more going on than pressuring, chasing and dumping quarterbacks. And what’s happening is pretty special considering that the Rams’ defense is partnered with the NFL’s least effective offense. The weak offense is putting extra stress on the Rams defense, but Williams’ crew continues to respond by confidently handling the emergencies.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie 

Read More: Ten Takeaways from the Rams’ 24-6 Win Over the Browns