Examining Rams' defensive ceiling in 2015

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As the St. Louis Rams prepare to officially open organized team activities Tuesday, they do so knowing exactly what they have coming back on defense.

For the first time under coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams return the same defensive coordinator, the same defensive coaches and all of their defensive starters. It's a recipe that yields no questions about who or what the Rams are going to be on that side of the ball. The only real question is how, as in how good can this group be in 2015.

"We all have a better feel for each other,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "It'll be nice to have the same language, the same expectations, for two years in a row.

"They've set this thing up well with the way they've gone about it. We have a lot of young players that'll be in their third [or more] year. It's about that time for us."

For the Rams defense, anyway, it's seemingly been about that time for the past three years. In each season under Fisher, many have expected that group to take a step forward from middle-of-the-pack statistically to a top 10 or even top five group. It hasn't happened.

Since 2012, the Rams rank 14th in the NFL in yards allowed (346.4), 17th in yards per play (5.43), 15th in run defense (110.23) and 19th in pass defense (236.19). Those numbers don't exactly inspire much confidence but they also have to come with some important caveats.

On paper, the defense has clearly had more talent than those numbers might indicate but they haven't had the consistency to turn that into production. Dominant performances, like the back-to-back shutouts against Oakland and Washington last year, are often followed by massive clunkers like the 514 yards allowed to the New York Giants.

And for every statistic the Rams have dominated -- like their 145 sacks over the past three years (second in the NFL) -- they've been equally bad at things like allowing completions, where their 67.5 percent allowed is the worst in the league in that same time frame.

But with an offense that has struggled and still looks to have plenty of question marks heading into 2015, the Rams defense still doesn't have much margin for error. As they enter these OTAs, the quest for consistency will be at the top of the list. It's a quest that should come easier with Gregg Williams in charge.

Last year, the Rams took time to get acclimated to Williams' many wrinkle and it took him time to best learn how to deploy the talent at his disposal. When Williams simplified things a bit and everyone got on the same page, the results were impressive.

Over the final eight games, the Rams were tied for fourth in sacks with 26, fifth in average points allowed at 16.8 and fourth in run defense at 84.4 yards per game. All of that after a group of mostly the same personnel struggled through the first eight games, ranking 23rd in sacks, 27th in points allowed per game and 29th in run defense.

Now, Williams knows exactly what type of talent he has available and the Rams even added some shiny new toys in the form of defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker Akeem Ayers. He's had the entire offseason to spend in the lab figuring out ways to add them to what should be a dangerous defensive mix.

Until the offense proves itself, the onus will fall on the defense to finally live up to the lofty expectations that come with a strong finish and continuity at every position.

"It's not a young team any more," Laurinaitis said. "It might be young still by age, but there's a lot of experience out there, a lot of guys that have played a lot of minutes. And so the expectations are going to be extremely high."