EARTH CITY, Mo. – If the St. Louis Rams' defense had their way, they’d get four turnovers every week and take at least one of them back for a touchdown. Takeaways can cover for a lot of mistakes, and the Rams’ plus-four turnover margin last weekend against Houston was a perfect example.
It’s not that getting takeaways is necessarily a matter of luck. Linebacker Alec Ogletree’s interception return for a touchdown clearly came from a combination of preparation and instinct.
But there’s a reason players and coaches always say that turnovers come in bunches. It’s because they can also be unpredictable.
With that in mind, the Rams' defense has one glaring area that needs fixing, an area that can be lost in the mix when big plays come like they did against Houston.
“You can preach about having turnovers and four every week and scores, but really those games don’t happen all the time,” Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “So the games that don’t happen like that, you’ve got to stop the run. You can’t let teams just dictate when and where they’re going to run it.”
Run defense has been an ongoing issue for the Rams since Week 3. They had a bit of a reprieve against Jacksonville, allowing 96 yards on the ground, but in the other three games against Dallas, San Francisco and Houston, the Rams have given up 193, 219 and 153 yards on the ground.
After a strong start against lesser rushing attacks in Arizona and Atlanta, the Rams sit 30th in the league in run defense, giving up 130.5 yards per game.
The style of rushing has made little difference. Dallas and Houston attacked with zone schemes emphasizing cutbacks and stretch plays, while San Francisco powered up and mostly ran right at the Rams.
At the root of the Rams' problems have been a few basic breakdowns that continue to pop up: staying sound in assignments, tackling consistently and getting off blocks.
“Certainly a lot of people have a little hand in it and we can all improve on it,” end Chris Long said. “They’re correctable things, though, we’re just working hard to correct them. Imagine when we get locking down the run how good we can be. That’s what we need to do.”
Part of the issue appears to be some of the team’s relative youth in the back seven. Houston’s success running the ball didn’t seem to be a product of dominating the Rams at the line of scrimmage so much as it was linebackers and safeties being out of position, stuck on blocks or missing a tackle.
“We just had a few guys out of their gaps, and when you’ve got people coming off the edge you have to play your cutback assignment first,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s things that are definitely correctable. … It’s tough to do in the NFL. It just comes down to guys executing their little one-eleventh. We have each got one-eleventh of this pie we’ve got to get down, and after you do your job you run to the ball.”
On two consecutive plays that netted 45 yards for running back Arian Foster, Rams safety Darian Stewart came off the edge chasing after quarterback Matt Schaub. The problem was that Schaub had already handed off to Foster, who simply took the ball and cut into the space vacated by Stewart for big gains.
That’s just an example, and by no means is Stewart alone in the mistakes.
Regardless, as Laurinaitis points out, run defense is an 11-person job. If one piece is missing from the puzzle and the running back finds that empty space, it turns into big plays. The Rams have allowed eight runs of 20 yards or more, the most of any team other than Jacksonville, with four going for touchdowns.
The challenge doesn’t get much easier this week against the Carolina Panthers’ seventh-ranked run game. Unlike Houston or San Francisco, the Panthers are more varied in how they run the ball because of the number of options – not least of which includes quarterback Cam Newton – they have.
Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert provide different looks for the Panthers, who can line up in ‘21’ personnel and attack with power or spread things out and run Newton on misdirection out of the shotgun, among other permutations.
“We watched it, talked about it and what we need to do,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s another huge challenge with Carolina, it will be another week like that. They’re licking their chops, thinking, ‘If we can keep this game close, we can run the ball,’ so we’ve got a huge challenge.
“If we can stop the run and get turnovers like that, you’re looking at a good unit. And we can do it. It’s not a thing of we don’t have the talent to do it. We just need to all have our responsibilities down and execute.”