Hope for Rams? Yes, but defense has issues

The St. Louis Rams are not the first team to flop miserably amid expectations for improvement.

At 0-6 heading into a seemingly impossible matchup with New Orleans, the Rams have almost no shot at contending for the NFC West title this season.

Their best bet could be trying to emulate the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams flopped early last season despite elevated expectations. Both teams also recovered, and both have played well enough to post winning records heading into Week 8 this season.

The Lions opened 2-10 last season. The 49ers were 0-5. Both finished 6-10. They are a combined 10-3 this season (9-2 if we discard the game they played against one another).

The Rams still have two game against 1-5 Arizona, two against 2-4 Seattle and one against a Cleveland team that has gotten to 3-3 with victories over winless Miami and Indianapolis.

Sam Bradford's injury is complicating efforts to build on a 424-yard performance at Green Bay two weeks ago. I think the offense will improve and build momentum once he returns, particularly with Steven Jackson healthy and Brandon Lloyd in the lineup at wide receiver.

The problems on defense are what could drag down the Rams and possibly even precipitate sweeping organizational changes, in my view.

The inability of coach Steve Spagnuolo to coax better play from that side of the ball has been surprising. The problems go beyond injuries at cornerback. The inability to acquire and develop young defensive players for the future stands out when analyzing the roster.

2000-11 Most Rush Yards Allowed: Six Games

As the chart shows, the Rams have allowed more rushing yards through six games than all but two teams since the 2000 season. Worse, they have very few ascending young players to develop on that side of the ball. James Butler and Craig Dahl are their backup safeties. Ben Leber, Josh Hull and Bryan Kehl are their backup linebackers. Darell Scott and Gary Gibson are their backup defensive tackles.

Of all the backups on defense, only rookie defensive end Robert Quinn projects as a potential front-line player for the future. That would be OK if the defense were playing at a high level and featured ascending young players. But starters James Hall, Fred Robbins, Justin Bannan, Brady Poppinga, Chris Chamberlain and Al Harris are either nearing the end or qualify as veteran stopgaps.

The prospects for sustained long-term improvement on defense appear limited as a result.