By Rams Nation's Rob Williams
Lovie Smith’s bend but don’t break defense, while by no means awful, wasn’t physical enough this past season and it didn’t cause enough turnovers – witness the several game drought between interceptions in mid-season. More pressure needs to come from the front four if Smith’s cover 2 system is to work.
Defensive Ends: In Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little the Rams have two excellent, hard working, relatively young ends who never seem to take a play off. Little showed he was no one-season wonder, causing havoc with his speed rushes and leading the team in sacks for the second straight season. Little proved he could be an every down player, too, with 9 sacks and 82 tackles, and justified the Rams’ decision to pay him a large contract.
Wistrom is an all effort player and a leader on the defense. The past season wasn’t his best – he didn’t seem to make as many plays as in previous years and ended the season with just 5.5 sacks – but he was hardly alone in that. The entire defense didn’t make as many plays.
The only down side against Little and Wistrom is that both are relatively undersized for NFL defensive ends, inviting the opposition to run at them.
There was a drop off for the Rams this season in the lack of quality backup at the end positions. In the previous year a rotation system was in place with Chidi Ahonatu and Sean Moran seeing a lot of action. This year only the versatile Tyoko Jackson contributed (3 sacks). If Wistrom or little weren’t in, the Rams didn’t offer much at end.
Outlook: Little and Wistrom are both top notch NFL players, and Little is a real impact player – one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. As with most positions for the Rams this past season, however, the depth wasn’t there – the salary cap coming back to bite the team. Nevertheless, some good backups are needed here – specifically players who can contribute against the run.
Defensive Tackle: The main reason I have a problem with Lovie Smith’s cover 2 scheme is that it demands a strong inside push from the defensive tackles. That’s fine if, like Tampa, you have an All Pro like Warren Sapp. The Rams’ defensive tackles, at times this season, and specifically in the opening five game losing streak, got no inside push, allowing ordinary quarterbacks to look like Dan Marino.
Things picked up, however, largely due to the improved play of second year tackles Ryan Pickett and Damoine Lewis. Pickett excelled against the run and drew rave reviews from coaches, while Lewis, while hardly looking like the type of player worthy of the 12th pick in the draft, finally registered his first career sacks (4). If both youngsters continue to improve the Rams may yet have a good set of defensive tackles.
Jeff Zgonina continues to over-achieve, contributing 4 sacks, and is obviously a team leader on defense. Brian Young, after an excellent previous season, tailed away this year, losing his starting job to Pickett and suffering injuries.
As with the majority of the Rams’ front 7, the defensive tackles are undersized, begging opposition teams to run the ball up the gut at them.
Outlook: Pickett and Lewis were both hurt during the pre-season, limiting their preparation. However they both came back well. Pickett, in particular, looked excellent. If both talented players can stay healthy and prepare properly for next season they could have breakout years. Zgonina may be a free agent but Martz has already made him a team captain for next year, so he’ll obviously be back. A big body to block running lanes would be a welcome addition to the defensive tackle rotation – perhaps a low price free agent pickup.
Linebackers: Oh dear. This was a horror show position for the Rams. To paraphrase the late Peter Cook, the problem with the Rams’ linebackers last season was that they lacked everything. You name it, they lacked it.
Actually, that’s unfair to the excellent and still promising outside ‘backer Tommy Polley. But Polley was hurt for much of the season and it frequently seemed like he was trying to carry the linebacker corps on his own. Polley is one of the few playmakers the Rams have on defense. With some quality help from his linebacking teammates he could be a very good one.
Middle linebacker? Oy! The Rams let the fiery London Fletcher go due to contract demands and brought in the cheaper Jamie Duncan instead. Turns out there was a reason Duncan was cheaper. The ex-Buc was invisible on the field, was limited by injuries, missed countless tackles and just, basically, looked awful. Duncan received good notices prior to this season. Lord knows how on this showing.
The other outside linebacking slot was an alternation by limited veteran Don Davis and 1st round pick Robert Thomas. Davis is an effort player who won’t win you games, while Thomas had an anonymous rookie year, showing little of the blinding closing speed the Rams raved about when they drafted him. He was also publicly chastised by Grant Wistrom for lack of hustle on the field. Tough year.
How bad was the Rams linebackers this year? Lovie Smith started some games in the nickel package, simply to mean that the Rams only had one linebacker on the field at any one time. Strong safety Adam Archuleta even switched to linebacker at the end of the season.
Outlook: This is probably the Rams’ number one priority this off-season. One sports writer claimed the Rams linebackers were the worst he’d ever seen from an NFL team this past season. Ouch. The same group cannot be brought back.
Tommy Polley is fine at outside backer. A young player with exciting playmaking ability. Robert Thomas may come good now his rookie year is out of the way. But a new, aggressive, playmaking inside linebacker is a must. There’s talk of the Rams going for free agent Takeo Spikes. Let’s hope so. Although the Bengals will no doubt slap a franchise or a transition tag on Spikes, making him tough to get. Duncan probably won’t be cut due to the cap hit so he’ll provide backup. A decent outside backer is needed in case Thomas doesn’t come through – a low priced veteran. This unit needs to get nastier and more physical.
Corner backs: Aenaes Williams will head for Canton at some point, so it was good to see the Rams’ corners still play well after suffering the loss of Williams for the season with injury. Williams appeared to be submitting to age somewhat before the injury, appearing to have lost a step. He’s still one of the best players in the league, however, and a team leader.
Dre Bly played well at the other corner spot. Bly is a good corner with playmaking ability, although he’s hardly one of the league’s elite. Rookie Travis Fisher was a pleasant surprise after Williams’ injury, rarely looking like the NFL virgin that he was. Fisher showed hustle and brought a physical edge. He will surely improve with experience.
Fisher’s play was enough to relegate former starter Dexter Mcleon to the bench, with former CFL player James Whitley even getting the nickelback spot ahead of Mcleon. Whitley also looked a good prospect and, again, he seemed to be a hard-hitting corner.
Outlook: Williams is one of the best NFL players of the past decade, regardless of position, but can’t have that much time left before his retirement, and his broken leg this year could hasten that. Let’s hope not. Personally I’d like to see Williams taking Rod Woodson’s lead and moving to free safety where his diminishing speed could be covered up. His instincts remain as good as anyone in the game.
Travis Fisher seems to have a good NFL future ahead of him. Whether Dre Bly will return is all about money. Bly is a free agent and the Rams will want him back, but if another team offers him elite money St Louis should let him go. Bly is good but not good enough to warrant the Rams crippling themselves with a large contract.
Dexter Mcleon will almost certainly be gone this off-season, with Fisher and Whitley ending up ahead of him on the depth chart this season. Whitley seems like a good nickelback.
Williams’ age means that the Rams could do with another quality corner. Either the first or second round pick in the draft could be used on this position.
Safeties: Adam Archuleta was one of the Rams’ main successes this season, with the second year player approaching Pro Bowl quality, if falling just short. Coverage isn’t his speciality, tackling is – with 149 total tackles this year, leading the team. Arch is more an undersized linebacker than a strong safety, something shown by his effective move up close to the line of scrimmage in Lovie Smith’s 4-1-6. A destructive player more than a playmaker, but he seems to have an excellent future ahead of him.
Free safety isn’t quite so positive, however. Kim Herring has never really justified his tag as the best free agent on the market two years ago, as the Rams claimed at the time. Herring improved as the season went on, but in the past two seasons he has been disappointing. He neither brings a physical aspect to the safety position, or makes a lot of plays.
Nick Sorenson backs up and contributes well to special teams but does little for the defense. Ditto for the veteran Chad Cota, minus the special teams contribution.
Outlook: Barring injury Archuleta seems to be on his way to being one of the league’s best strong safeties. Kim Herring will almost certainly not return, it appears. If Aeneas Williams doesn’t shift to free safety that makes the position a huge need for the Rams.
Personally I’d try and bring Herring back for less money and try and bring in some competition for the position. Herring is, at least, a proven player in the league. If he is released then the Rams have to find a new starter from somewhere.
Steve Belissari, out with injury all this last year, may be able to help backup the safety position next year. Sorenson is a good backup. Cota can be released.
Defense Off-Season needs:
1. Inside Linebacker
2. Free safety
4. Defensive end
5. Defensive tackle