EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams' offense has had its share of ups and downs in 2013, but that should be no surprise given the extreme youth at the skill positions and the many moving parts still needing to coalesce.
While waiting for that unit to become more consistent -- a wait that will probably take a bit longer with quarterback Sam Bradford out for the season -- the onus was supposed to fall on an improving defensive unit to keep the team in games and allow them to steal some wins.
Instead, the Rams' defense has undeniably regressed from its 2012 performance despite the addition of a first-round pick at linebacker and another year in the scheme for all parties.
Considering the loss of Bradford, there’s plenty of worry about whether Kellen Clemens can get the job done at quarterback or whether the young receivers and running backs can step up to fill the void.
On Monday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher let his team know that without Bradford, everyone must find a way to do a little bit more to cover for his absence.
“The challenge is obvious in this world where you have an impact player go down with a season-ending injury, everybody else just has to step up -- coaches included,” Fisher said. “Everybody in the building has to pick it up and we’ll move forward.”
What the Rams really need most is for the defense to start reaching its potential on a consistent basis.
“We knew going into this year we had a strong defense,” defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. “We haven’t been playing to that potential all year but we know the potential we have in this locker room. Guys just have to step up, me included. Everybody has to step up their game.”
Through seven weeks, the Rams are 22nd in the league in total yards allowed at 373.4 per game. The numbers getting worse in the run game where they’ve allowed 126.43 yards per game, which ranks 30th in the NFL. In the most important category of all, the Rams sit 24th in the league in points allowed, giving up 26.3 per game.
In fairness, the points allowed by the team don’t all fall on the defense. Opponents have scored three touchdowns on interception returns.
Compared to last season, each of those numbers represents a substantial downgrade from where the Rams were last year at this time.
After seven weeks of the 2012 season, the Rams' defense was 10th in total yards allowed (324.4), tied for 10th in run defense (98.86 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (20.1 points per game).
In the offseason, many believed the Rams had done nothing but improve with the addition of rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald stepping in for Craig Dahl. The loss of safety Quintin Mikell was a blow, certainly, but the belief was the Rams had done enough to fill that void by upgrading at other spots.
Instead, the Rams have struggled under new coordinator Tim Walton. Many of those issues are self-inflicted wounds such as lining up wrong or missing an assignment. Some of it stems from at times head-scratching defensive schemes and calls, particularly in coverage.
Whatever the case, it’s a problem the Rams needed to fix before Bradford’s injury and becomes even more urgent without him.
“Defensively we feel like we just need to play better in certain areas,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It’s too many simple mistakes. At this point in the season, this point of certain people’s careers, it’s little things that just needed to be cleaned up weeks ago. There are certain things that just keep reoccurring, we have got to just fix it.”
Saying you’re going to fix it is one thing, actually doing it is another. Making those repairs more difficult is the fact that there’s not any one person or problem that needs to be solved.
Laurinaitis said when he watches the tape, it seems that on the big plays the Rams allow it’s never any one culprit responsible.
“There’s certain plays where we are dang good and then there’s certain plays where you are just scratching your head,” Laurinaitis said. “The frustrating thing is it’s not just one position group or one guy. It kind of just hops around. You can’t be a good team defense if you have plays where people are taking turns being the guy to make the mistake.”
According to Laurinaitis, the youth excuse is not served in this discussion, either. That’s as evident in the early-season coverage struggles of veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan as it is in the rookie mistakes of Ogletree and it goes beyond them as well.
“It’s not just young guys making the mistakes here, it’s all across the board no matter what your experience is,” Laurinaitis said.
The defense has had its flashes, including a bend-but-don’t-break, big-play showing in Houston a couple of weeks ago and the week-to-week excellence of emerging star end Robert Quinn.
But for the Rams to find any level of success in the life after Bradford, the defense is going to have to become the group everyone thought it could be.