We are four weeks into the NFL season and for week five, I will be taking a look at the St. Louis Rams defense. As always, questions, comments and suggestions are welcome!
Although the Rams defensive coordinator is Ken Flajole, their defensive scheme and philosophy is set by their head coach, Steve Spagnoulo. Spagnoulo entered the NFL as a defensive assistant and defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles under legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in 1999, which is where he learned his blitz happy scheme. In 2007, he took over as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and immediately led them to success. After posting only 32 sacks in 2006, the Giants recorded an astounding 53 sacks in Spagnoulo’s first year, and sacked Tom Brady, who had only been sacked 16 times in the regular season, five times en route to their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. When Spagnoulo was hired to be the Rams head coach in 2008, he brought the same blitz happy scheme to St. Louis.
From a technical standpoint, the Rams play a base 4-3 defense and run what can basically be called a zone blitz scheme. The one place that the Rams zone blitz scheme and the traditional zone scheme differ is that Spanoulo’s Rams like to bring corners and safeties on blitzes as well as linebackers. This however means that linebackers often have to drop back and cover wide receivers, so outside linebackers in Spagnoulo’s scheme need to be quite rangy and posses solid coverage skills. Spagnoulo is also known to leave his corners on an island and use man-to-man coverage, meaning that there are no safeties back deep to help corners cover the deeper half of the field. Doing all of the things mentioned above does create a ton of mismatches on the field; however, it is also extremely risky to leave a linebacker covering a wideout or to leave a corner on an island.
One of the misconceptions about Spagnoulo’s defense is that it is the same as Jim Johnson’s defenses with the Philadelphia Eagles. While the Eagles did employ a zone blitz scheme under Johnson, it was quite different in execution. Jim Johnson’s zone blitz was more of a classical zone blitz defense where he disguised the blitz using only linebackers and maybe defensive ends at times. Spagnoulo, on the other hand, likes to move around the defenders to create mismatches, use linebackers to cover wideouts, and even use defensive ends in coverage. All of these factors combined make the Rams defense very hard to read when executed perfectly.
As with every post, I like to take a brief look at some film to give you guys a better understanding of the defenses the Lions face. The video below is from the Rams matchup against the Raiders in week two of this season.
The first play I want to look at starts at the 0:17 mark of this video. As you can see, there are five men on the line of scrimmage, which includes on linebackers. As the play occurs, all of the linebackers actually drop back in coverage. If you watch tape of their other matchups this season, you will see a similar trend: they show blitz more than they actually do blitz. The Rams on almost every play will show some sort of blitz, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will blitz every time. The one thing that does fall into the Lions favor is that the Rams still lack the talent to properly run the defense. Take a look at the play starting at 0:35. The rams bring six men on a blitz, but Bruce Gradkowski is still provided enough time by a mediocre Raiders front line to throw the touchdown pass.
Now, let’s look at some stats. The Rams obviously like to blitz a lot and are 9th in the league in sacks so far with 9, but at the same time the Rams defense is also the 9th most thrown on with opposing quarterbacks averaging 37 attempts a game against them. Compare that to Detroit, who is 5th is sacks with 13 but rank only 25th in pass attempts against, and it tells you that the Rams don’t get to the quarterback nearly as much as they need to, even though they are doing a solid job. On the other hand, the Ram’s run defense hasn’t been nearly as good as their pass defense as they have allowed an average of 4.6 yards per carry.
All in all, the Rams defense, although they run a complex scheme, is a work in progress that will be easiest defense the Lions have faced this season. I expect both Calvin Johnson and Jahvid Best to have good days on the field and Lions to pull out a win at home.