When teams aren't performing well, the age old debate is how much of that is a product of inferior talent and how much of that is due to poor coaching. The St. Louis Rams most recent losing skid is in no small part due to a secondary that is surrendering huge chunks of yardage and not allowing the defense to get off the field. Add to that a sputtering offense playing with a backup quarterback, and the Rams have once again played themselves out of the postseason.
Head coach Jeff Fisher accurately diagnosed the problem during Monday's meeting with the media.
“We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to do better up front. It’s a total defensive effort. If you look at one area in particular, it’s third down. That’s where I’m not impressed or pleased right now, to say the least, in our third-down efficiency defense. We’ve got to get better there. That gets the ball back for our offense and with the offense struggling on third down as well, at least if you get it back you get them more drives…"
“We’re just not making plays whether it’s a penalty or it’s a complete pass or it’s a missed tackle. We’re doing a lot of different things. (Defensive Coordinator) Coach (Tim) Walton’s doing a lot of different things and we’re just not making the plays. Good defenses, their third down efficiency’s usually in the low 30s and that’s got to be a goal to for us.”
Fisher admirably tried to shield his young corners and safeties in his answer and went to bat for defensive coordinator Tim Walton, but the numbers don't lie. The Rams' problems in these areas aren't the fault of the front seven.
Consider these numbers through 13 games:
- St. Louis is allowing opposing QBs a 97.2 QB rating, sixth worst in the NFL. Only Dallas at 11 is even remotely in the playoff hunt.
- The Rams have surrendered 10 passes of 40 or more yards, eighth worst in the NFL.
- The St. Louis secondary is surrendering first downs on 39.4% of passing plays, second worst in the league. Only Washington is worse.
- The Rams are also second worst in yards per passing attempt, giving up 8.4, again only surpassed by the lowly Redskins.
These numbers are in stark contrast to the rushing numbers (23rd in YPC, 24th in rushing first down percentage). Add in the Rams top 10 sack numbers and it's pretty clear where the problem lies on the defense.
The question is how much blame belongs to the players and how much to the coaching staff. The Rams are certainly young in their back four, starting two second year corners and a second year and rookie player at safety. When facing wily veterans like Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, there's clearly a mismatch in experience.
But Walton deserves some of the blame here, too. Youth doesn't have to mean incompetence. It's Walton's job to put his players in positions where they can be successful. Clearly, the soft coverages he's largely employed this year don't fit the skill set of the players he has.
What's the solution? On the one hand, the Rams have invested heavily in the past two drafts addressing their secondary. Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Rodney McLeod and TJ McDonald have tremendous upside. On the other hand, it's time for them to show what they can do over the final three weeks so the Rams can know what they need in free agency and the draft. That won't be an easy chore facing Drew Brees and the Saints this week as well as Tampa's Vincent Jackson and Seattle's Russell Wilson.
Walton needs to show he's worth keeping, too. That means adjusting his schemes to fit his personnel. The Rams have had success playing press coverages this year, allowing the defensive line to get after the quarterback. He needs to take some of the thought process out of his young players' heads and let them display their obvious athletic abilities.
If Walton's unwilling to adjust, then Jeff Fisher clearly has a decision to make this off season. One thing is for sure, the Rams can't get to the next level of development until they address their issues with their back four.
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