There were growing pains in 2009 with mostly a young team trying to learn the concepts. Now, it appears to be gaining traction. Even though Spagnuolo usually says, “We have a long way to go,” the defense has stepped up this season, especially the last two games.
It is most noticeable where it matters most: in points allowed, third-down conversions and in the red zone.
As second-year middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said, “We are just trying to do our job. I know it sounds cliché and simple but just execute what we have called. This team studies hard and prepares hard and we are coached extremely well so when we go out there we have confidence that we are prepared.
“When you have confidence you are prepared and see things and react and just kind of play the next play and try to execute, you have a good feeling that everyone else around you is prepared and where they are supposed to be.”
In four games, the Rams have allowed just 52 points (13 a game), which is fourth-best in the NFL. No opponent has scored more than 17 points, the first time a Rams team has allowed 17 points or fewer the first four games of a season since 1978. They have allowed only four touchdowns (tied for first), are fifth in third-down percentage against (30.9) and are tied for fifth with 10 takeaways. On 18 rushing plays, opponents have gotten minus yardage, fourth-most in the NFL.
In wins over Washington and Seattle, those teams combined to convert just 5-of-25 third-down plays. Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb was 4-for-7 for 29 yards on third down with no first downs, and one completion was for 11 yards on third-and-15.
Last week, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was 4-for-9 for 32 yards on third down with two first downs, both in the first half. In the second half, he completed just 1-of-3 third-down plays for one yard and was sacked once.
The Rams have been getting an improved rush from their four down linemen, limiting the necessity to blitz.
Said defensive coordinator Ken Flajole, "When you can get pressure rushing four and we get to drop and just play coverage, it makes the game a lot easier for us. My hat's off to them."
Added defensive tackle Fred Robbins, "We're definitely coming together. Guys are getting better each and every week, and we're learning how to play with each other. That's one of the main things. Once you start getting the camaraderie down and learning how guys play and what you can expect ... it goes hand in hand."
In the red zone, the Rams are second in the league in touchdown percentage (25.0), allowing just three touchdowns in 12 trips. As a comparison, opponents entered the Rams’ red zone 59 times last season, and scored 36 touchdowns, the league’s fourth-worst percentage (61.0).
On several occasions, big plays got teams to the red zone, but the defense stiffened and limited the damage to a field goal. In the last two wins, four red-zone trips by Washington and Seattle did not produce a touchdown.
Said defensive end Chris Long, "We've got some good guys, some hard-working guys, a good mix of veterans and young guys. Overall we just want to be a blue-collar defense that's in the right place, that's got heart at the right times. We're not going to panic. Guys who have been here have seen what it's like to really get your butt kicked. Now if we take one on the chin during the game, we're like, 'All right, let's move on.' Nobody panics. Everybody sets their jaw and keeps playing."
As for being confident, Long said, "It's hard to be confident when there's no evidence to fall back on. I feel now like we've built a lot of evidence as to why we can be confident."
Said Spagnuolo, "Our defense has been resilient and I think part of that comes from the leadership in the huddle; from the veteran players who have been in these battles. And when you play well up front, and guys start believing in each other, you can overcome a lot."
Having leads also helps. Against Seattle, the Rams went ahead 17-3 early in the third quarter. Defensive end James Hall seems rejuvenated and has four sacks.
Asked about getting a pass rush while leading, Hall said, “That’s huge. We’ve talked about that before, I mean, there’s been many games since we’ve been here where we’ve played from behind. It’s hard to play defense when you’re behind because they can do anything. If you can get them in a one-phase game that really works to our advantage.”
Now, the Rams head to Detroit, the only team they beat last season, knowing a victory would give them a record better than .500. They also know their work is only beginning.
As cornerback Ron Bartell said, after being asked how gratifying it is that the defense is playing well, "It definitely is. But the thing is, we have to keep it up. We can't settle; it's only four games."
Howard Balzer is the Editor/writer for GridIronGateway Magazine. For subscription information visit GridIronGateway.com (reduced online rate of $39.95) or call 888-501-5752. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/HBalzer721
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