50 yard Line - Defensive Review
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
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
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
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
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