BY JIM THOMAS • Posted: Sunday, November 7,
*
There are only three new starters on the St. Louis defense in 2010, so it's not like a dramatic personnel makeover took place during the offseason.

The free agent pickups were modest. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins (New York Giants) and linebacker Na'il Diggs (Carolina) were the "headliners," and both were deemed expendable by their former clubs.

In the draft, cornerback Jerome Murphy was the only defensive player taken in the first four rounds, and the Rams haven't had a rookie start a game on defense all season.

The coaching staff is unchanged on that side of the ball, from coordinator Ken Flajole on down. And the scheme is the same — with a few tweaks here and there — as it was in 2009, Steve Spagnuolo's first year as head coach.

It doesn't add up. How have the Rams gone from so bad to pretty good on defense in one year's time? The improvement has been startling.

• At the midpoint of 2010, the Rams are sixth in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 17.6 yards per game. In seven of their eight games, they've allowed 18 points per game.

• In terms of yards allowed the Rams are 11th in total defense and eighth in rushing defense.

• The Rams are tied for sixth in the league in sacks, with 23; they had 25 in the entire '09 season.

• They're tied for 10th in takeaways, with 15; they had 20 through the entire '09 campaign.

• The Rams are 10th in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 35.8 percent of their third downs.

Somehow the defensive performance has exceeded the sum of its parts. Eight games into the 2010 season, here are eight reasons why that's the case.

1.) The pass rush: This was the biggest defensive question mark entering the season. Leonard Little, the team's annual sack leader for most of the past decade, wasn't re-signed. The Rams didn't sign an end in free agency and didn't draft one until the fifth round. But James Hall and Chris Long have picked up the slack, combining for 11 sacks through eight games.

Strange as it sounds, both players may actually be benefitting from Little's absence. Last year, the trio split the reps in a rotation. This year, Hall and Long almost never leave the field. That has allowed them to get into a rhythm and the result has been more production. This is doubly true for Hall, who was moved inside to tackle on passing downs last year. This year he has stayed at right end, using his bull rush and tenacity to record 6 1/2 sacks and seven quarterback hits.

Long may be the team's most improved player. Besides his 4 1/2 sacks, he leads the team with 11 quarterback pressures and nine QB hits. In short, he has been in the backfield a lot, and his run defense is noticeably better as well.

The work of Robbins in pushing the pocket can't be overestimated, either. He has been far more disruptive as a pass rusher than his sack total (two) indicates.

The improved pass rush by the front four has given the Rams the flexibility to blitz less often, meaning they can drop more defenders in coverage. For example, the Rams blitzed 14 times against San Diego and 11 times against Tampa Bay, according to unofficial count. They blitzed twice that much in the season opener against Arizona.

2.) Solid corner play: The second-biggest defensive question mark was whether the team had enough at cornerback. Ron Bartell was coming off a subpar '09 season in which he was slowed by a nagging thigh injury. Bradley Fletcher, who suffered a major knee injury in late October '09, wasn't expected to be healthy in time for the season opener.

But Bartell is back and Fletcher has been in the starting lineup since opening day. Yes, Bartell has had trouble with dropped interceptions, but he leads the team in pass breakups with 11 — more than twice the total of runner-up Fletcher (five). Bartell has been the team's highest graded defensive back — although several others are close — according to the coaches' evaluations.

Fletcher has had a few bumps along the way in terms of penalties and allowing completions, but he's played much better than could've been expected, shares the team lead with two interceptions and has been on the field for more plays than any other member of the secondary — even Bartell.

3.) Second time around: Way back during the spring practice program, one of the earliest observations about the Rams' defense was that it was playing faster. The second year in the Spagnuolo/Flajole scheme led to less thinking and more reacting. And football at its most basic level is a reaction sport. Players know where to be, and know where their teammates are going to be. The coaches have a better grasp of player strengths, weaknesses, and personalities.

One example of how the familiarity has paid dividends is the Rams' blitz packages. They are much smoother, better disguised, and better-timed than a year ago. Everyone gets in the act —it could be a cornerback on this play, a safety or linebacker on the next, or some combination. Ten players have at least a half sack so far this season.

4.) Tweaking the scheme: The Rams try to confuse quarterbacks with pre-snap movement, and that seems more prevalent. Ends Long and Hall —especially Long — occasionally drop into coverage on both zone and man blitzes. Linebackers charge the line as if blitzing, then drop into coverage. It is confusing and looks a lot more convincing than it did a year ago.

In recent games, the Rams have employed a three-man front in passing situations — usually Long, Robbins, and Hall. Once in a while a defensive lineman such as C.J. Ah You lines up off the line in a two-point stance like a linebacker.

5.) Player improvement: Because the Rams didn't make major personnel changes, they were counting on improved play by returning players in order for the defense to raise its level of play. That has happened almost across the board, from young players such as Fletcher and Long to veterans such as Bartell and Hall.

6.) Role players contributing: Gary Gibson has been an unsung hero at tackle. Ah You has been productive as a situational pass rusher. Because of injuries, the Rams have had to mix and match in the secondary, particularly at the nickel back position. Kevin Dockery and Justin King, when healthy, have both been effective. Diggs has been a solid addition at linebacker, both in run support and in coverage.

7.) Softer schedule: At this point in the 2009 season, the Rams already had faced Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. The only elite quarterback they've faced so far this season is San Diego's Philip Rivers.

8.) Help from the offense: The Rams are tied for fifth in the league in time of possession, with their offense possessing the ball 31 minutes 56 seconds per game, or nearly four minutes longer than the opposition. It helps to play with a lead as well. In seven of their eight games this season, the Rams have either led (six times) or been tied (once) at the half.