Previously rank, Rams defense now ranked

14 hours ago • BY JIM THOMAS

There's a chill in the air, the leaves are turning, the baseball Cardinals are in the playoffs. Nothing new there when it comes to mid-October in these parts.

But something radically different is taking place on the football field. Two words that haven't been associated with the Rams' defense in a long time are suddenly apropos: Top 10.

Through six games this season, the Rams rank fifth in scoring defense and seventh in total defense in the National Football League. One must go back more than a decade — back to when most of the current Rams players were in grade school — to find the last time that's happened:

• The 2001 NFC championship squad finished seventh in scoring defense and third in total defense.

• The 1999 Super Bowl championship squad finished fourth in scoring defense and sixth in total defense.

• The 1998 Rams finished 10th in total defense.

That's it. In the first 17 seasons of "St. Louis" Rams football, those are the only teams to finish in the top 10 in either category. Otherwise, defense has pretty much been a lost art. The Rams have finished 24th or lower in scoring defense 12 times since the move to St. Louis in '95. They have finished 21st or lower eight times in total defense over that span.

Scoring defense ranks teams according to points allowed; total defense ranks teams according to yards allowed. The Rams are allowing 18.5 points and 311.5 yards a game this season. So even though the sample size remains relatively small with 10 games still to be played, the defensive turnaround has been just short of astounding so far.

"I'm please with where we are," coach Jeff Fisher said. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have clearly over the next (few) weekends significant challenges. So ask me that question again after the next three games."

That's because, in order, the Rams play Green Bay, New England, and San Francisco in those next three games. After going 15-1 last season, and winning the Super Bowl the year before that, the Packers (3-3) got off to a sluggish start offensively this season. However, it looked like old times last week with quarterback Aaron Rodgers tying a franchise record with six touchdown passes Sunday night in a 42-24 victory at Houston.

New England (3-3) also has had some hiccups, but Tom Brady and Co. still lead the league in points scored (188), or 31.3 points per game. San Francisco got shut down at home this past Sunday, losing 26-3 to the New York Giants, but still ranks seventh in the NFL in total offense and has scored more points (152) than all but seven teams so far.

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan spent his first five NFL seasons playing for Fisher in Tennessee, so he had been part of some good defenses before signing with the Rams last offseason as a free agent.

Echoing his head coach, Finnegan said being a top 10 defense, "doesn't mean much I'm sorry to tell you this short in the year. It's a good start, but it's definitely not where we want to finish. I guess you can tip your hat, but there's a lot of things we need to improve on."

Getting back to getting takeaways is one area. The Rams didn't have a takeaway against Miami, the first time all season that's happened. And they haven't had an interception their past two games after averaging two per contest in Weeks 1-4.

"We take pride being out there with the game (on the line)," safety Craig Dahl said. "We've just got to find a way in some of these close games on the road to come up with a big play. Maybe a scoring opportunity on defense where we strip something out, a ball gets knocked loose and we pick it up and scoop and score."

Dahl is in his fourth season with the Rams so he can appreciate the progress made defensively this season, but says he's not surprised.

"I knew the talent we had here last year — the guys they kept around," he said. "And the additions they brought in here this year have just been tremendous. Also, we've got (Michael) Brockers back now which is a huge impact on our defensive line. And for the most part we've stayed healthy in the secondary."

Brockers' return has something to do with the rapid improvement in run defense. The Rams have allowed only 64 yards on 36 carries over the past two games — against Arizona and Miami.

"We're attacking the line of scrimmage," Fisher said. "We're setting our edges. And we got the safeties involved. It's just something that we have to continue.

"It was an emphasis of ours as soon as our Thursday game (against Arizona) was over. We came back and said we have to run the football and stop the run over this next month to put ourselves in position to win games... So we have to keep that going."

The Rams can't ignore run defense against Green Bay, which has lost veteran running back Cedric Benson to a foot injury, but this Sunday keeping the lid on Rodgers and the Packers' passing game takes precedence. If not, the Rams won't be a top 10 defense for long.