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Rams look to be betting big on defense

4/6/2015

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the first time since Jeff Fisher arrived as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 2012, the team is going through a full offseason without some sort of alteration to the defensive coordinator position.

After the winding road that brought Gregg Williams back to the Rams last year -- following an aborted attempt to hire him when Fisher first came to St. Louis -- Williams is settled into his job. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Williams will be the man to lead the Rams defense into the 2015 season.

Forgetting for a moment the free-agent additions of defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker Akeem Ayers and anything the defense might add in the draft, Williams' presence as the defensive figurehead for a second consecutive season should bode well for a group that has had big expectations but hasn't quite been able to reach them.

In fact, Fisher and the Rams aren't shying away from expecting big things from this group, which has shown flashes of brilliance but hasn't put it all together to become a top five, or even top 10 unit under Fisher.

"Gregg going into the second year with the players in the system and just the number of things that you go through in the offseason, our expectations are much higher earlier in the year than they were [last year]," Fisher said. "Not that expectations weren’t high [in 2014]."

As it stands, the Rams look poised to welcome back all 11 defensive starters plus most of their key depth. The only shakeups that might happen in the starting lineup would be a function of new players winning jobs rather than the Rams discarding someone they believe isn't working out.

But the biggest factor for the defense is the chance to put aside the laborious chore of learning and understanding Williams' defensive wrinkles and focus on simply reacting rather than thinking. For his part, Williams has a much better grasp on where his players are best suited, and he can hone his ability to exploit matchups more consistently, something he does as well as any coordinator in the league.

That could mean big things for the defense in 2015.

"I believe so," Fisher said. "We did an awful lot [last year]. We might have done too much from an install standpoint. Now we have a better feel for what we have, and we can prune things down a little bit. And get good at a few things rather than be involved in too much."

Signs of a breakthrough were evident for the Rams during the season's final half.

Over the final eight games, the Rams were tied for fourth in sacks with 26, fifth in average points allowed at 16.8 and fourth in run defense at 84.4 yards per game allowed. All of that after a group of mostly the same personnel struggled through the first eight games, ranking 23rd in sacks, 27th in points allowed per game and 29th in run defense.

As the NFL draft approaches, though, it appears this year's defense will have far less margin for error. If the expectations are indeed high, the defense will have to meet them for the Rams to take the next step out of their current mediocre lot in life.

That's because the team, aside from a major change at quarterback, has shown little willingness to bolster an offense that needs vast improvement. Having a healthy Nick Foles at quarterback should represent at least a bit of an upgrade, but he still has plenty to prove. Aside from Foles, the Rams have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach. Tight ends coach Rob Boras also earned a promotion to assistant head coach/offense.

Cignetti and Boras deserve a chance to turn the offense around before judgment is passed, but the reality is that quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke is the only outside addition to the staff. Like the defense, Fisher says the offensive staff has been hard at work trimming the information intake in an effort to keep with Fisher's run-first philosophy.

"They’re spending a lot of time behind closed doors going back and reviewing what happened last year and making changes," Fisher said. "That’s no different than any other offense. They’re doing it. They feel good about it."

There's still time for the Rams to improve the offensive line through free agency, the draft or both. But even if they're able to add players they like, those changes still may not be enough to make the offense more productive. Which means there will again be a lot of wishing and hoping that many of the young offensive players develop into the players the Rams envisioned when they acquired them.

And if they don't, a Rams defense that has long been pegged as a potential top-tier unit will have to meet and possibly exceed those lofty expectations.