EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Since the St. Louis Rams' defense began rolling in recent weeks, a common question has been 'How are they doing it?' The reality is there isn't any one thing that you can point to for why a defense is playing how the Rams have played in the past seven or so games.
But while there are deeper answers to be found in things like understanding Gregg Williams' scheme and knowledge of opposing offenses, we can at least offer a reasonable starting point. For this group, everything its done defensively starts with doing a better job against the run. Not just a little better, either, but the type of significant improvement that has made them one of the hardest teams to run against in the league after a brutal start.
A Rams defense that was tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (152.5) through the first five weeks has made enough strides that it now sits 10th in the league at 104.7.
“I think as you move through the middle part of the season into the fall that’s what our emphasis is," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Not that we don’t emphasize it early in the season, but it is. You have to run the ball and stop the run to have success."
It's no coincidence the Rams are having more success in the win column now that they are finding ways to stop the run. Since Week 6, the Rams are allowing 83.56 yards rushing per game -- the fourth-best run defense in the league in that time.
Taking it a step further, the Rams have allowed just 3.76 yards per carry, which is sixth best in the league and down from 4.92 in the first five weeks. Along the way, they have posted some truly dominant performances against the run.
Save for a hiccup against San Diego in which the Chargers rushed for 128 yards, the Rams have not yielded more than 61 yards in any of their past five games. In those four contests, the Rams gave up 28 to Arizona and Denver, 61 to Oakland and 27 on Sunday to Washington. During that stretch of five games, they've given up 3.13 yards per carry with San Diego the only team able to average more than 2.9 yards per rush.
The improved run defense has been the foundation of the Rams having more success elsewhere within the defense, namely the pass rush. When teams were running at will on the Rams early in the season, they rarely threw the ball and when they did, it was coming out quick. In the first four games, opponents averaged 27.25 dropbacks per game and 31 rushing attempts per game.
Since, the rush attempts have dropped to 22.2 per game with dropbacks up to 43.7 drop backs per game. More passes equals more chances to rush the passer which has, in turn, yielded more sacks. After posting just one sack in the first six weeks, the Rams have 34 since, which is the most in the NFL in that time. They've gone from 32nd in sacks to a tie for seventh.
"When you are able to stop the run, it allows our D-linemen to go to work," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I think early in the season teams were just running the football and throwing the quick game, so when that happens I don’t care how freakish Robert Quinn is and Aaron Donald and the rest of the guys, you’ve got to be able to stop the run."
Now that the Rams are doing that, everything else is falling into place.