EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A quick glance at the passing numbers around the league and one might think they’re looking at something straight out of the Madden video game.
For the St. Louis Rams, those numbers have provided plenty of good news but just as much bad news in the first two weeks.
While the Rams’ own passing numbers have taken off in the opening games, they’ve been on the receiving end of some big days by opposing quarterbacks as well.
“I think everybody in the league is trying to get better at pass defense,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “That’s just a part of this game, the ball is going down the field, you have got to make a play so we’re working technique, we’re working fundamentals, we’re working communication, we’re working scheme, we’re doing everything.”
Yes, pass defense has thus far proved to be a league-wide problem, an area where nobody seems to have a solution.
The Rams have a long way to go to get their issues fixed, however. After two weeks -- say it with me: small sample size -- the Rams are 27th in the league in pass defense, allowing 330.5 yards per game through the air.
That’s not the only damaging number that can be directly correlated to the Rams’ struggling pass defense. To wit:
The Rams are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.1 percent of their passes, 29th in the league.
Opposing quarterbacks have a 107.6 quarterback rating, which is fifth worst in the league and a total QBR of 79.2, which is the second worst rate allowed.
Those are just a few of the numbers hanging over the defense’s head so far. Where’s the disconnect for a team that allowed more than 100 yards less per game through the air in 2012?
Part of it can be attributed to the increasing talent teams all over the league have at quarterback and receivers. There’s no doubt that numbers are up in the entire NFL for a reason.
In looking at what the Rams choose to do in terms of scheme, though, there are a few things that seem to stick out.
For the most part, the Rams have sat back in soft-zone coverages, opting to allow receivers to get a free release more often than not. Of the corners, only Janoris Jenkins seems to have the green light to step up to the line and play press or at least show it before bailing out.
The idea behind that coverage is to keep the ball in front and not allow big plays but the problem is it has so far allowed for easy completions (see the above percentage stat) and even easier first downs. Big plays haven’t been eliminated by that approach either, as Julio Jones can attest.
Completions made against the Rams have come with an average of 7.3 air yards per attempt. Air yards measures how far down the field the ball is thrown per attempt. That number is actually the ninth lowest in the league.
Along with that, 43.4 percent of the Rams’ opponents' passing attempts have gone for a first down -- the worst percentage in the league.
Those numbers and the tape tell us that the Rams are inviting teams to work their way down the field with the short passing game, things like screens and swing passes, and teams are enthusiastically responding yes.
The easy completions have led to a higher percentage of first downs, which have also turned into an area of concern for middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and his teammates.
“I look at third-down efficiency and turnover margin,” Laurinaitis said. “Are you getting off the field on third down when you’ve got a chance to, which we didn’t when we had a chance to in Atlanta and are we causing turnovers, which we didn’t. We’ve got to find a way, some way to get them.”
The Rams also sit tied for last in the league in third-down conversions, giving them up at a rate of 51.9 percent.
Let’s also be clear here, plenty of teams in the league employ similar coverage styles. There aren’t many teams that have the ability to press successfully down to down like, say, Seattle.
That’s why Fisher and his players emphasize things like technique. In the opener against Arizona, Jenkins allowed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
After the game, Jenkins put all the blame on himself and said he played the wrong coverage and thus, the wrong technique. On the play, Jenkins lined up inside Fitzgerald’s inside shoulder, giving up the outside route. That wouldn’t normally be a big issue except for the fact that the coverage clearly provided help inside in the form of safety Rodney McLeod.
That’s just one example of the technique and fundamental breakdowns that have plagued the Rams in the first two weeks.
“Technique is the thing we keep harping on,” Laurinaitis said. “If guys are supposed to be pressed up, be pressed up. If guys are supposed to be off, be off. Just trust in what we have been coached to do. We just need to stay focused on that part of it. It’s all consistency.”
Hope is far from lost, especially just two games into the season. The Rams have a young but talented secondary that one would think will get better as it gets more experience.
There also have been some good signs in terms of the pass defense over the past two weeks. In addition to a pass rush that is one of the league’s best, the Rams are third in the league in pass breakups with 12 and lead the NFL in batted passes with five.
Considering that teams seem to be happy to take the short passes the Rams are giving up, it’s logical to think that the pass rush isn’t always going to have time to get home which puts added importance on defenders to continue to find ways to get their arms up and knock down passes at the line.
In the third quarter last week against Atlanta, the Rams probably played their best pass defense of the season. The front four generated pressure; the coverage was generally good and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan struggled his way to a 2.5 QBR as the Rams mounted a comeback.
It was just one 15-minute stretch but it showed the potential for the Rams defense when the coverage holds long enough to allow the pass rush to generate pressure and what the coverage can do when the pass rush forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball.
“Everything works together,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s rush, it’s coverage. Last week we looked at the tape and we could have had six sacks if we were just a little tighter in coverage and then again, if our rush is just a little better some of the big plays they got wouldn’t have happened. So it’s a mixture.”