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12 Jan 2005

Every Play Counts: Rams Pass Defense

By Michael David Smith

When you hear a stat line like, say, eight completions on 15 attempts for 102 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, you know the player we're talking about is a quarterback. But there's no reason we couldn't use the same statistics for a defensive back. All we have to do is look at each pass play, assign coverage to one defensive player, and add up the numbers.

That's exactly what I did as I watched a tape of the Rams' 27-20 victory over the Seahawks on Saturday. What I found was a big hole in the Rams' defense that would seem to play right into the hands of Michael Vick for the Falcons' game against the Rams this weekend.

That hole is, quite simply, that the Rams' linebackers can't cover anyone. And that plays right into the hands of Vick, who doesn't have a good set of receivers but has a good tight end in Alge Crumpler and good pass-catching backs in Justin Griffith (who is injured and out for all of the playoffs) and Warrick Dunn. I expect Vick to find Dunn and Crumpler open this weekend, and when the Rams compensate by moving their linebackers away from the line of scrimmage, I expect Vick to run effectively.

Here are the stat lines for the Rams' trio of linebackers:

Tommy Polley: 6-for-8, 77 yards
Pisa Tinoisamoa: 2-for-2, 37 yards
Robert Thomas: 1-for-1, 22 yards

Of the 11 times that Matt Hasselbeck threw to a player covered by a linebacker, he got seven first downs and would have had an eighth were it not for a dropped ball.

The Rams' cornerbacks weren't much better on Saturday. That would be a problem against most teams, but the Falcons' receiving corps is so weak, and Vick has been so inaccurate on deep balls, that it seems unlikely the Falcons will be able to exploit that weakness. Still, it's interesting to see what the Rams' three top cornerbacks did against the Seahawks:

Travis Fisher: 4-for-7, 26 yards
Jerametrius Butler: 5-for-8, 55 yards
DeJuan Groce: 3-for-5, 52 yards

Fisher did have an interception on the Seahawks' first play, but he had a chance at that only because he allowed Darrell Jackson to get open, and Jackson promptly tipped the ball back into the air. Fisher was in coverage (and I use that word loosely) on another occasion when Jackson got open and dropped it. Both of the Seahawks' touchdowns were Groce's fault, and he struggles greatly on deep passes.

If the Rams' secondary has a strength, it's the safeties. Here are their numbers:
Antuan Edwards: 3-for-4, 47 yards
Rich Coady: 1-for-1, 3 yards
Adam Archuleta: 1-for-3, 13 yards

I've always liked both Archuleta and Coady and I thought they played well on Saturday. Archuleta in particular is a fast free safety who will need to bring a big game for the Rams to contain Crumpler. The Rams seemed to keep their strong safeties close to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to bottle up Shaun Alexander, and for the most part that worked. Edwards gave up first downs on all three of his completions, and seems out of position playing in space as a free safety.

There are some limitations here, most notably that we're assuming one defensive player was in coverage on every play. But that's not as bad as you might think -- quarterbacks don't throw into double coverage anywhere near as often as announcers would have you believe.

As bad as the Rams' linebackers and corners were in coverage, I would like to point out another serious problem with the Rams' defense Saturday: Leonard Little, who is supposed to be one of the league's premier pass rushers, did next to nothing. Little is one of the rare pass-rushing defensive ends who lines up more against the offense's right tackle than against the offense's left tackle. Against the left-handed Vick, that's an advantage, and he'll need to put consistent pressure on Vick to keep him from piling up the yards against the Rams' defense.

At the same time, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett had a surprisingly strong game for the Rams, creating pressure and stopping the run. He'll need to duplicate that effort against the Falcons' T.J. Duckett, who is one of the best in the league at running for short yardage up the middle. For most of his four-year career, Pickett has been a disappointment. It could turn out that he's their best hope for a second consecutive playoff upset.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 12 Jan 2005