As a head coach with a defensive background, there’s probably never going to come a point where Steve Spagnuolo is completely satisfied with his team’s defensive performance.
“No, there’s still some things we need to do better,” Spagnuolo said. “I am a perfectionist, though.”
It is in Spagnuolo’s very nature to demand the best from his defense, really from his entire team at all times. But while he might never be completely content with any facet of his team’s performance, the work put in big his defense in the first four weeks has been good enough to at least elicit a smile and the acknowledgment that the progress made by that group has been perhaps the top factor in the team’s recent success.
In a bottom line league such as the NFL where wins and losses ultimately determine a man’s fate, the only numbers that matter at the end of the day are those light bulbs on the scoreboard.
If you give up 500 yards of offense, nobody’s going to call you the next Steel Curtain but if you give up 500 yards of offense and only 10 points, it might be enough to get a tally in the win column.
What the Rams defense has done hasn’t been that extreme but it’s been a revelation in the team’s turnaround a quarter of the way into this season.
This iteration of the Rams defense is the first since 1978 to start the season with four consecutive games holding opponents to 17 points or less. Through four games, the Rams rank fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, yielding a meager 13 points per contest.
All told, the Rams have allowed just four touchdowns on the season, tied for first in the NFL with the vaunted defenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
“I will say this, the defensive coaches have done a terrific job,” Spagnuolo said. “The defensive leaders have been leading and we’ve found a way to play pretty good football. There are still a lot of things in there; it’s just my nature now that defensively we can get better at. But I commend them and congratulate them for what they’ve been doing as far as points allowed.”
While the Rams are sitting near the top of the league in the defensive category that matters most, the yardage numbers haven’t exactly fallen in line. The Rams rank 23rd in yards allowed, 19th against the run and 21st against the pass.
Those numbers are on a steady incline, though, after a dominant performance in Sunday’s 20-3 victory against Seattle at the Edward Jones Dome.
But it’s the Rams’ performance in three other key areas that have enabled them to keep points off the board and allow the offense to build leads.
At the top of that list is red zone defense, a category the Rams have absolutely owned this year. While middle linebacker
Through four games, they have allowed opponents to venture inside their 20-yard line 12 times. Those offenses have scored touchdowns on three of those trips with seven field goals. The 25 percent touchdown conversion rate places the Rams second in the NFL.
The Rams have been especially stingy in their two wins, holding Seattle and Washington out of the end zone all together when they reach the red zone. Dating to the Oakland game, the Rams have a streak of five straight stops inside the 20.
“That’s huge,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s what you have to do a lot of the time. You hate to be a bend but don’t break kind of team but when big plays happen like that all you can do is say to yourself ‘Let’s go to the next play.’ We say that a lot in the huddle, that the next play is the most important. That’s all you can do, is just realize that and don’t let any plays, big or whatever, kind of affect you.”
In addition to their red zone work, the Rams defense has been particularly effective in getting off the field on third downs and preventing opponents from moving the chains on a regular basis.
At the quarter pole, the Rams are fifth in the NFL in third down stops, giving up 17 first downs on 55 third down attempts for a percentage of about 31 percent. They have also denied opponents’ first downs on all three fourth down conversion attempts.
“I think we have a bunch of guys here emphasizing and knowing that those third downs are money downs,” Laurinaitis said. “We’ve got to get off the field.”
And, of course, the key to any defense is takeaways, yet another area the Rams are excelling. Pending Monday night’s game, the Rams sit fifth in the league with 10 forced turnovers and have had no less than two takeaways in any game.
Laurinaitis attributes the total production of the defense to having players in their second year in the scheme and having a much wider base of knowledge of the defense as a whole.
“That’s what we have been working for,” Laurinaitis said. “Ever since I got here, this team felt like we were close and closer and closer on the defensive side of the ball. I don’t know really what has been the difference, but we have gone out there and really worked extremely hard to focus on the details of the defense and know the intricacies of it. When you have a bunch of guys doing that, you see other guys plug in from injuries and everyone knows what they are doing.”
While that knowledge is certainly beneficial and has clearly been a reason for the defensive improvement, there’s been another key factor in it all. For the first time in a long time, the Rams defense is regularly playing with a lead.
That lead allows the group to play more aggressive. Linemen can rush the quarterback more freely. Linebackers can run sideline to sideline with less to worry about and defensive backs can hawk the ball knowing that more passes are likely on the way.
The evidence that playing with that lead is beneficial is almost overwhelming. To wit: the Rams have nine sacks this season, eight of those have come when the team is leading. That defense has 15 run stuffs (stops for no gain or a loss of yards on running plays, 12 of those when it is working with a lead.
Even the turnover numbers rise as the Rams take the lead. For the season, the Rams have four interceptions, eight forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. When they are leading, they have three picks, six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
“We’ve talked about that before, I mean, there have been many games since we’ve been here where we’ve played from behind,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s hard to play defense when you’re behind because they can do anything. If you can get them in a one-phase game that really works to our advantage.”
Spagnuolo’s perfectionist approach has already rubbed off on his players. Laurinaitis and end
On Monday, Spagnuolo specifically mentioned finding a way to improve against the run as well as doing a better job of limiting big plays as keys to getting closer to where he wants them.
In the meantime, his defense continues to form an identity that Long describes as blue collar but could just as easily be summed up by the fire and intensity of its leaders.
“We have a lot of good character guys on this defense,” end