Friday, November 20, 2020

Brandon Staley's Defense (So Far) Is Comparing Well With Great Rams Defenses of the Past

 By John Turney
Yes, you read the title correctly. However, the caveat is this is a back-of-the-envelope comparison using how defenses of the past ranked in certain categories compared to how the 2020 Rams rank in the same categories.

Here are the 2020 Rams defensive rankings in the NFLGSIS database and we decided to use the same categories for the past defenses. That can be a bit of an issue but as the title suggests this is a "so far (after nine games) comparison and there are nine games left and the Rams face so good offenses in the final nine weeks.

If you add up the ranks of the categories mentioned (2 points for 2nd in total yards and 1 point for yards per play and so on) you arrive at 38 total points. Keep that in mind—38 and note that the lower the point total the better.

Here is 2001, the last time the Rams had an excellent all-around defense i.e. one that ranked highly in lot total yards allowed, low rushing yards allowed, high in sacks, etc. It was the first year of the Lovie Smith Tampa-2 scheme, a big change from the 2000 defense which was a huge disappointment. The 2001 defense was efficient in every way.

The total rank "number" is 64, which is still excellent. So even though the 2001 Rams defense allowed fewer passing yards per game the rank is lower for the 2020 Rams defense due to the changes in the game. The rankings, however, don't change. 
Next up is 1999. It's total "number" is also 64. That year the Rams ranked 20th in passing yards allowed and that is in part due to the Rams playing soft in the fourth quarter, defending big leads, but that's the way it goes. The numbers are the numbers. 

In 1986 the Rams defenses were excellent but didn't get the publicity of some others likely do to the fact they didn't have a dominant pass rush in 1986 and in 1985 any discussion about defense began and ended with the Bears defense. But in 1985, especially, the Rams defense was solid. They stopped the run and in nickel and dime were effective. 

The NFLGIS handy charts you see above end in 1981 so the great Rams defenses of the 1960s and 1970s don't have charts but we have our own which we typed in by hand (pre-Pro Football Reference) so here those are—

So they are next up. We picked the best of the best seasons for the 1960s and 1970s era Rams defenses. Listed is the year and the "points" based on the rankings of the same categories that NFLGSIS uses in the charts above. So we will add all of them in and put the "golden era" defenses in as well—
Year            Rank "Points"
2020                    38
2001                    64
1999                    64
1986                    70
1985                    52
1980                    74
1978                    27
1977                    68
1976                    54
1975                    35
1974                    46
1973                    38
1970                    60
1968                    27
1967                    45

One aspect that is not part of the NFLGSIS charts that are a big part of defense are defensive scores and in 2020 the Rams defense has not scored on defense. The offense and special teams has allowed three touchdowns, which our course should not count against the defense.

In the other seasons listed the Rams defenses have scored quite a lot of touchdowns. In 2001 the number was five (four pick 6s and one scoop and score). In 1999 it was eight.  In 1986 it was and in 1985 it was four each season.
In 1980 it was four and in 1978 the total was six. From 1973-77 there were nine defensive scores. In 1967 there were four defensive scores and the next year Jack Pardee ran back two picks for touchdowns.
One thing we are not going to deal with we mentioned a couple of paragraphs above—touchdowns the defense is not responsible for. That could be a kickoff or punt return or a pick-six thrown by the quarterback or a scoop and score when the offense was on the field.

We've tracked those to come up with a "net points metric" but we've been lax in posting about it recently. But that is a discussion for another day. 
So, the good news for Rams fans is Brandon Staley, the Rams defensive coordinator is doing a fine job. He runs Penny front (33 nickel personnel aligned in a 5-1 look) mixing in a lot of Bear/Cheat fronts. There are some 3-4 looks but when the Rams are in base they run a 4-3 (in a 6-1 alignment) more than the 3-4. 

In likely passing downs, they are in a 40 nickel with the end being linebackers (Leonard Floyd is one end and take your pick at the other end). 
The two stars of the defense are of course Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. But Darious Williams, John Johnson, and Leonard Floyd are playing very well and Michael Brockers is steady as always. 

Rams play a lot of two-high looks at the snap but one of the safeties usually plays a robber look after the snap—looking to make a big play on intermediate crossing routes. Ramsey is playing outside in base and in nickel, he plays both the nickel (Star) position and outside and will also match up with the top receiver and follow him around. 
The Rams have had some injury issues at right safety with rookie starter Jordan Fuller, Taylor Rapp, and rookie Terrell Burgess all going down for various amounts of time but fortunately, it is the Rams deepest position and Fuller is now back and Nick Scott plays left safety when the Rams drop John Johnson to linebacker in some sub-packages. 

And though numbers can only tell part of the story, when a defense can score high in stopping the run, sack the quarterback at a high rate, keep total yards and passing yards low, pick off a high percentage of passes and most importantly keep opponents from scoring relative to all the other teams in the NFL, it is doing its job.

And when it's doing those things at a rate similar to the Super Bowl defenses of 1999 and 2001 and better than the good defenses of the mid-1980s and on par with the great defenses of the 1970s it is also doing its job. 

So, after nine weeks, Rams fans can say this IS a great defense relative to the league and relative to the great defenses of the past, too—IF they can keep it up.

We will see. 

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