Run defense fails Rams ... again

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
6:35
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- After shutting down Seattle’s vaunted rushing attack so thoroughly last week that Marshawn Lynch got fewer carries than the Seahawks had punts, the St. Louis Rams' defense truly believed it had found the formula to being the group many believed it could be at the beginning of the season.

“If you don’t stop the run, you’ll never be able to rush the passer, you’ll never have the opportunity,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said. “That’s the No. 1 thing.”

This is the part where we get to what took place Sunday in a 28-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans. It was a movie anyone who has watched the Rams for the better part of the past decade has already seen. Repeatedly.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson and Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams had done well to stop the run the past two games, but they allowed Chris Johnson to rush for 150 yards and two scores on Sunday.
It’s a horror film, one in which defenders are regularly out of position, missing tackles or otherwise making mistakes that lead to an opposing running back ripping through the Rams' defense like Jason Voorhees’ machete.

First Dallas did it in Week 3. San Francisco followed suit in Week 4. Even Jacksonville had a fair amount of success in Week 5, and Houston certainly did in Week 6. Each of those weeks, the discussions about run defense kept coming back to fundamentals, things as simple as lining up correctly and knowing your assignment.

Then, the past two weeks, the Rams seemed to figure out something of a solution. They limited Carolina to a 2.7-yard average on 38 carries and Seattle mustered just a 2.9-yard average on 15 tries. Suddenly, the Rams were moving in a positive direction in terms of run defense, climbing nearly 10 spots to No. 23 in the league.

But a ship that hadn’t fully been righted took on too much water Sunday as the Titans ran for 198 yards on 35 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per attempt. All four of their touchdowns came via the ground.

“Very frustrating, very frustrating,” Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. “Our defense, we know we’re capable of matching up with the best backs in the league and the best O-lines and getting the job done. It’s disheartening, very frustrating.”

Frustration was clearly the order of the day as Tennessee’s Chris Johnson, a player fantasy owners have been waiting to cast off for most of the season, found by far his greatest success of the year. Johnson rushed for 150 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns.

Much of Johnson’s damage came off tackle, where the Rams regularly failed to set the edge and the back seven failed to get off blockers or fill the right holes to stop the run. This after a week in which coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams' defensive coaching staff preached the importance of maintaining gap integrity and taking the proper angles lest Johnson’s outside speed allow him to break big runs.

“We lost the edges,” Fisher said. “CJ, obviously, when he gets on the edge, he goes. We edged it up all week and we emphasized it and so I haven’t looked at it, but I’m sure we had a number of guys who made mistakes.”

As Long alluded to, a Rams defense predicated on a dominant pass rush is kept off balance when it doesn’t stop the run first. The Rams had four sacks in the first half, with three of those coming right after runs of 1 yard and minus-2 yards and a quarterback scramble for 6 yards.

It’s no coincidence the Rams had no sacks in the second half when Tennessee really turned up the heat in the run game with 23 carries for 131 yards, including Johnson’s 19-yard dagger for a touchdown one play after a fumble by Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens.

With a margin for error that much smaller without the services of Sam Bradford at quarterback, the onus is on the defense to find ways to consistently put up a strong performance. They did it against Seattle, and nearly surprised a national television audience. But they regressed against Tennessee to a performance that simply wasn’t good enough.

“We can’t be one team one week and another team another week,” Long said. “It’s very, very disappointing. The most disappointing thing though is that we showed we can play really good defense, and then we come out here with this B.S. performance. I mean, that’s what it was.”

No disagreement here.

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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