by NFL Gimpy
The NFC West is now hailed as possibly the best division in the NFL thanks to the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams appear set to contend for the Super Bowl for the next decade due to young franchise QBs and top notch coaching. But in that division there’s another team that may be ready to take a big step as well: the St. Louis Rams.
The first thing that jumped out to me about the Rams is how young and improved their defense has become in the past 2 years. Their 2011 defense was not exactly good. They allowed 25.4 points per game (26th in the NFL) and got torched on the ground (152.1 yards per game; 31st in the NFL). The Rams took some very positive steps in 2012 and improved big time in several areas. The most significant jump would be in points per game, where they dropped to 21.8 PPG, which was good for 14th in the NFL.
Stats don’t tell the whole story though. The points per game and rushing yard numbers are skewed by the fact that the Rams got their asses kicked a lot in 2011 and allowed offenses to work the clock. The Rams lost by 17 or more points 8 times in 2011. In half of their games, it was a 3 score game at the end, meaning opposing offenses didn’t have a compelling reason to take any risks. This defense would have allowed more points and more passing yards (along with fewer rushing yards) if the games were even competitive in the 4th quarter. When opposing QBs were throwing, they had a 21:12 TD:INT ratio in 2011.
Thanks to some important moves, things got a lot better the next season. Even though passing yards went up in 2012, most important passing stats saw an improvement. TD:INT ratio was 16:17, which makes them 1 of only 5 teams last year to have more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed (Atlanta, Seattle, Arizona, and Chicago; 3 of those were 10 game winners). Yards per attempt went from 7.4 to 7.2. QB rating dropped. If they can take another step forward the Rams could easily be one of the best defenses in the NFL next season.
The question is how do you turn a defense from one of the worst to one of the best in only 2 years? The answer is simple but the execution isn’t: draft properly and don’t rely heavily on free agency. The Rams have done both to perfection.
Within the past 3 drafts, the Rams have selected 5 new starters for the defense (Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, Janoris Jenkins, and whoever wins the FS job). You’ll notice the first 4 players are top 40 selections. Brockers, Quinn, and Jenkins all started last season and appear to be at least solid starters. Quinn and Jenkins have displayed Pro Bowl ability. If Ogletree pans out, you’ve formed the foundation of a top notch defense. The Rams already had Chris Long and James Lauranaitis before these drafts and it’s safe to say they’re among the top 10 or so players at their position.
Along with the successful drafts, the Rams have made very wise moves in free agency. They did pay top dollar for Cortland Finnegan, but Finnegan had played under head coach Jeff Fisher when they were both with the Titans. This immensely minimized the bust potential of the move because Finnegan would be with a familiar coach and scheme. The only other defensive free agent they’ve signed to a respectable contract is Kendall Langford. Langford got $24M over 4 years ($12M guaranteed) which is good money for a young starter at DT, but nothing you can’t walk away from after 2 years if he doesn’t pan out (will only be $2M in dead cap after year 2). Last year’s starter at OLB, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, signed a 2-year, $3M contract.
When you add it all together, the Rams added 8 new defensive starters over the past 3 offseasons; 7 over the past 2 (Robert Quinn is the exception-2011 draft). It has taken impeccable drafting, risk taking (Janoris Jenkins’ off-field issues in college, Finnegan’s on-field antics), and emphasizing value. The offense still leaves a lot to be desired though. Sam Bradford has not developed into a franchise QB, but a lot of that has to do with a poor supporting cast. His best offensive weapons have been an aging Steven Jackson and an oft-injured Danny Amendola, both of whom are now gone.
However, with a young and vastly improved defense, the Rams won’t be a pushover if the offense falters. Even with an inconsistent offense, the Rams still went 2-1-1 against the Seahawks and 49ers in 2012. We’ll see if the big moves they’ve made on the offense pan out. If Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Brian Quick, and Jake Long get this offense close to the level of the defense, we may have a real 3-way race for the NFC West for a long time.
No pressure, Sam Bradford.