Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Rams-Cardinals study session: Defense
By Nick Wagoner
ST. LOUIS -- Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams' 30-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals after reviewing the All-22 film.
- From the beginning of the game, the Rams' defensive approach to "covering" Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald was perplexing to say the least, especially in the first half. Carson Palmer only threw to him twice on the opening drive, but it was no coincidence that both completions came when cornerback Janoris Jenkins was playing off coverage in a soft zone with linebackers, safeties or even defensive end Chris Long asked to drop underneath to make Fitzgerald work for it. On the first play of the game, Palmer hit Fitzgerald for 19 yards when safety T.J. McDonald dropped into the flat with Jenkins dropping deep. As McDonald ran to the short area, Fitzgerald ran an intermediate in route for an easy pitch and catch. Later, on third and 5, Rodney McLeod dropped into the flat but Long was asked to run all the way across the field to get in coverage and the ball was in Fitzgerald's hands before he could get there. Gain of 15, first down and a play later Arizona is up 7-0.
- Later, Fitzgerald lined up in the slot and the Rams opted to go to man coverage with Quinton Pointer covering him. Again, mismatch and an easy 15 yards. More head-scratching ensues.
- Fitzgerald simply outclassed an overmatched Rams secondary once again in this one. He finished with 12 catches on 12 targets. He's still a great player and some of those grabs came against decent coverage but as the examples above point out, the Rams didn't have many good ideas on how to slow down a guy who regularly makes their lives miserable.
- One player who did fare pretty well against Fitzgerald after a rough week last week was cornerback Trumaine Johnson. He showed good read and react skills as he closed on Fitzgerald a couple of times and tackled him quickly for short gains. Much better performance for Johnson this week.
- Tougher sledding for Jenkins on the other side. He had a couple of borderline calls go against him and a couple of tough catches made on him.
- Still not getting much help from the safeties, a regular theme this year. McLeod made a nice play to force the fumble near the goal line but otherwise was pretty quiet from that spot.
- The Rams' pass rush was unable to get to Palmer much but they were buzzing him quite a bit. Robert Quinn's frustration, which led to a penalty, was understandable after watching this again. He was held without calls a few times and the Cardinals threw extra blockers his way. But Palmer's ability to get the ball out quick had to be most maddening. Playing that soft zone coverage against a team aware of your pass rush prowess again is a good way to negate your ability to rush the passer. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Palmer's average time before throwing was 2.68 seconds. His previous low number for the year was 2.93 seconds against Tampa Bay. Hardly enough time for any pass rush to get home.
- Aside from the struggles in coverage, the Rams defense once again did all it could to make its life more difficult with penalties. Some were questionable, sure, and I've already documented how I felt about the call on Eugene Sims, but some were just plain silly, too. McDonald's late hit out of bounds on the opening drive, for one, was unnecessary. Seven more penalties on the defense in this one a week after piling up six in the first half against the Niners.
- Looking for a bright spot? The Rams run' defense was pretty good again with a few obvious standouts. Linebacker Alec Ogletree, save for a missed tackle in the hole early on, had a nice day and showed continued improvement as a run defender. He's getting off blocks better and appears to be reading things better now than earlier in the season. His arrow seems to be pointing up and that's a good thing because he'll be a key cog for this team moving forward. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis were solid against the run as well.
- The defensive line did well against the run most of the day but two players in particular stood out to my eyes: tackle Kendall Langford and Quinn. Langford was stout at the point of attack and made running between the tackles quite difficult.
- The defense didn't have a great day by any means but it certainly didn't get much help from the offense in terms of field position. The Cardinals' average starting field position was their own 33 and they started two drives in St. Louis territory.
- More good work from the Rams' coverage units on special teams. Patrick Peterson had two punt returns for 3 yards, including a 6-yard loss. That group has been perhaps the most consistent bright spot this season for the Rams, led by the right leg of punter Johnny Hekker.