Wednesday, October 24, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
For the better part of the past few years, the Rams offense has done everything it can to carry the team with the defense struggling to gain traction.
In the midst of a 0-7 season, many would believe that continued defensive struggles have been the reason for the difficult start. But not this year.
With the offense floundering, the defense seems to be finding its rhythm. While coach Scott Linehan has indicated there is a lack of confidence in the offense because of its problems scoring, the defense certainly isn’t lacking in that area.
“If you’ve been around our guys and see them in the locker room, they don’t lack confidence,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “They’re actually having fun out there playing. It’s frustrating, like this whole team is right now. I think one thing they do, they have a nice bond and enjoy being around each other. They enjoy playing. They play hard. It’s not always perfect. There are a lot of young guys getting better. For the most part, they know we’re in a bad situation but it doesn’t really affect them.”
If there are any positive to be gleaned from the winless start aside from the effort of punter Donnie Jones, most of them are to be found on the defensive side of the ball.
For the first time this season against Seattle, the Rams started the 11 players they were expected to have on defense at the beginning of the year.
In the past two contests, the defense has pieced together two of its finest performances in recent memory. It held Baltimore to 248 yards on 63 plays for an average of 3.9 yards per play. Last week, it held the Seahawks to 289 yards on 68 plays for an average of 4.3 yards per play.
For a historical perspective, consider that the Rams haven’t held opponents to under 300 yards of total offense in consecutive games since the end of the 2005 season.
“We have gained a lot of confidence these past couple of weeks,” linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. “We feel like we can play with the best so it has been good to feel like it and then actually do it. Last year we felt like we could do it, but we weren’t doing it so this year when it’s coming to fruition, it’s pretty cool.”
Nowhere have the defensive strides been more evident than the defense’s newfound ability to stop the run. Entering this season and it seems like every season in recent memory; the burning question remained as to how the Rams can find a way to stop opposing running games.
After unknowns such as Noah Herron, Rock Cartwright and Aaron Stecker gashed that unit in recent years, the Rams brought in a couple of youngsters for the interior of the defensive line to slow down opposing backs.
Clifton Ryan and Adam Carriker came in with some unfair expectations about how much they could help against the run, but so far they have gone above and beyond what even the most optimistic could expect.
“We’re doing better and better on the run,” Haslett said. “That’s the big thing. Those young guys are big inside, really help the run. You see us getting more outside runs, more edge runs. We have enough speed that we should be able to handle all that.”
While the impact of Ryan and Carriker and defensive end James Hall might not be noticeable in their tackle numbers, it’s clearly evident in the performance of Tinoisamoa and middle linebacker Will Witherspoon in recent weeks.
As Ryan and Carriker occupy blockers, Tinoisamoa and Witherspoon are able to use their speed to run free to the ball. Tinoisamoa racked up 15 tackles against Baltimore with 12 more against Seattle and Witherspoon posted 16 against the Seahawks with another six against the Ravens.
In those two games, the Rams held opponents to 177 yards on 63 carries for an average of 2.8 yards per attempt. Going back a week further, the Rams have held opposing run games to 279 yards on 94 carries, an average of just under 3 yards per attempt.
For the season, the Rams have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher and in each passing week seem to be gaining more confidence, particularly against the run.
Tinoisamoa, who says he hasn’t been able to run as free to the ball as he has in recent weeks since high school, is enjoying to freedom to chase down the ball carrier essentially unblocked.
“We have always talked about having that strength up front helping the linebackers because we can fly around,” Tinoisamoa said. “It’s helped our game a lot as you can tell by the past couple of weeks. We have had numerous tackles and that is all because of our defensive line is holding off the offensive line’s blocks. It’s a good feeling just being able to fly around and not have to worry about running into any of the guards and tackles.”
As the offense continues to search for answers, the defense is taking its confidence and hoping to build something special. Even when they have fallen behind or been backed into a corner by turnovers, Tinoisamoa says the defense is putting the task of getting the job done on its shoulders.
“It is strange because now I feel like we are the strength of the team so it is kind of strange in that aspect because St. Louis has been known as an offensive team,” Tinoisamoa said. “It is different, but I could get used to it. Of course, I’d trade it up to get some balance to it, but that’s our situation right now.”
That isn’t to say the defense is perfect. Although there have been noticeable improvements made in recent weeks, there are plenty of difficult tests and better offenses headed the Rams way in coming weeks.
It starts this week when Cleveland brings the league’s No. 7 offense into the Edward Jones Dome with weapons such as receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Jamal Lewis.
The Rams still are in the middle of the pack defensively at 18th in the league, allowing 330.7 yards per contest. The defense is 24th against the run (129.6 yards per contest) and 10th against the pass (201.1 yards).
Given room for improvement and the combination of emerging youngsters with capable veterans, Tinoisamoa believes this is just the beginning for a promising unit.
“I think the attitude of this defense is great because we want to make a play now,” Tinoisamoa said. “We feel like if we don’t make a play we are letting the team down. We are having so many opportunities out there. We feel like why not go ahead and take it to the next level? Why not score on defense? And I think that’s what could take our defense from a good defense to a great one. We feel like we are good, but we want to become great.”