Last year at this time, the Rams’ defensive linemen were talking. No, they were shouting about their goal to break the NFL mark for sacks by a team in a single season, with Robert Quinn carrying the flag.
“To break the NFL sack record … whatever the number stays at the end of the season, I’ll take them,” Quinn said. “If we break the NFL sack record for D-line, I definitely think we had some production.”
As it turned out, the Rams’ defense finished tied with the Denver Broncos for the league lead with 52 sacks. While the St. Louis offense received all kinds of offseason attention for adding desperately needed speed outside the numbers, though, the players on the other side of the ball largely stayed under the radar of analysts and fans.
After a strong showing in 2012, the Rams’ D will now look to reach greater heights under new coordinator Tim Walton. Their scheme allows players to stand toe-to-toe with opposing teams in the division, as witnessed last season in games against the San Francisco 49ers (who lost the 2013 Super Bowl on the last play) and the Russell Wilson-led Seattle Seahawks. Head coach Jeff Fisher and his staff push the Rams to play smash-mouth, punch-you-in-the-face football, and that attitude starts at the line of scrimmage.
The youngest team in the NFL not only controls the line of scrimmage vs. the run, but applies pressure off the edge and squeezes the pocket from the middle, consistently setting the tone in each and every game. As a result, the 2013 group has a lot of work to do in order to match some of last year’s lofty statistics – even considering the previous unit’s shortcomings in terms of consistently getting off the field on third down and forcing turnovers.
Below are the 2012 rankings and numbers posted by a young defense that will only continue to get better:
* Finished ranked 14th overall
* Points allowed per game: 21.8
* Yards allowed per game: 342.6
* Passing yards allowed per game: 225.1
* Rushing yards per game: 117.5
* Total sacks: 52
* Total sack yards: 318
* Forced fumbles: 10
* Fumbles recovered: 3
* Total interceptions: 17
Fisher, Les Snead and Kevin Demoff did a great job of planning into the future and keeping the foundation and core of the 2012 defense intact; they didn’t lose any key members of the championship foundation that is being built. Gone are safeties Craig Dahl, Quintin Mikell, linebackers Rocky McIntosh, Justin Cole and Mario Haggan and cornerback Bradley Fletcher.
The infusion of youth on defense, while adding key free agents to fill hot spots, was the goal heading into the offseason, The Rams achieved just that by adding a combination of rookies and veterans, starting by drafting safety T.J. McDonald (USC) and outside linebacker Alec Ogletree (Georgia). Via free agency, the Rams were patient and zeroed in on a two seasoned veterans – safety Matt Giordano and linebacker Will Witherspoon – who will bring depth to the back end of the roster, perform as core special teams players and provide leadership in the locker room.
After speaking with several standouts, it became clear that the defense has collective list of priorities.
“Be dominant against the run,” Quinn said. “Stop the run, you earn the right to rush the passer. So, it just goes hand in hand together.”
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis made a point to stress the unity already in place.
“Anytime you have continuity, it’s important – you have the same playbook.” Laurinaitis said. “You always add little things here and there, little wrinkles. Defensively, we’re going to see things … when we actually get to game planning, our squad will know what to do.
“We have some young safeties right now and some guys that are learning, but I like the sense of urgency. The one thing we’re trying to stress is the sense of urgency; let’s not be the team that makes mistakes (and goes), ‘Oh, it’s OK. We got a couple weeks until the game.’ No. We have 22 practices and that’s it.”
The Rams used a rotation of seven defenseive linemen (Chris Long, Quinn, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims, William Hayes and Jermelle Cudjo) last season, allowing all of them to remain fresh. All were viewed as starters and played that way, with their mantra being to “give 100 percent of effort until you can’t go any more, and then go out and get a blow.”
The secondary, led by veteran Cortland Finnegan, set the tone on the edges. Finnegan’s job last year was to mentor rookie Janoris Jenkins, who received votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year thanks to a season in which he recorded four interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
“You hope it can be good, even be better than last year,” Finnegan said about this year’s defense. “But you have to play the game. We’ll take it one game at a time because that poses new challenges, and we go from there.”
With the Rams’ defense headed into its second year in the same system, the terminology and concepts are the same. Now, it becomes second nature to the veterans while the rookies get brought up to speed as quickly as possible. There will be some bumps in the road and a learning curve, but after analyzing the NFC West division, 2013 schedule and team rosters, the scheme Fisher teaches and a great combination of coaching and youth, it’s clear that the Rams have the talent to become a top-10 defense – and maybe a top-seven crew – in 2013 with consistent hard work and dominant play both at home and on the road.