There are many philosophies in football. Whether the ideology lies on “the best offense is a good defense” side, or “the best defense is a good offense” side, it would be hard to argue that in 2013 defense did not win a championship.
The Seattle Seahawks were able to put the record-setting Denver Broncos in the palm of their hand during the Super Bowl. But the Seattle Seahawks aren’t the only team with a good defense. The San Francisco 49ers have caused nightmares for offensive coordinators for the past few years as well. What the 49ers and Seahawks do best is control the line of scrimmage. The front seven of both squads dominate offensive linemen and stop running attacks before they can even get started. For Rams fans, the question lies therein: Does the Rams front seven have enough talent to cause opposing offenses to falter?
The St. Louis Rams are bringing back six starters from their front seven. Jo-Lonn Dunbar was a former starter before he had to sit out four games because of a PED suspension. Barring any setbacks, Dunbar will return this season, hopefully ready to fight for his spot in the line backing corps.
Bringing back six starters out of a potential seven provides stability for a Rams team that hasn’t had stability since 2003. Boasting that sort of return is something that 49ers and Arizona Cardinals cannot attest to. Both squads will be without pro-bowl caliber players this year as the 49ers will be without Aldon Smith (because of suspension) and NaVorro Bowman (injury) for an unknown amount of time, and the Arizona Cardinals have lost Daryl Washington for the entire 2014 season. The Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks were unable to keep their roster intact when they lost players to free agency.
There is expected player turnover in the NFL, but it usually doesn’t involve two of the best linebackers in the NFL like it does for the 49ers. Smith and Bowman allow Patrick Willis, their stalwart middle linebacker, to play at his best. For the Rams, the 49ers’ losses are good news. The most imposing part of the 49ers defense was who to gameplan against. Offensive coordinators can’t double-team every player on a defense, and now, they might not have to. The 49ers, while still imposing, don’t have the firepower of last season, and likely won’t be at full force until next year. Expect a down year from Patrick Willis and the 49ers defense.
The Arizona Cardinals didn’t lose as much as the 49ers did, but they lost the second most important piece to their defense: middle linebacker, Daryl Washington. Washington is only surpassed by Patrick Peterson in production on the stout Cardinals defense. What Washington provides though is an anchor to the defense. Washington’s freakish athletic ability allowed him to help in passing and running situations. Peterson may be a ball-hawking corner back, but Washington was the glue that held the defense together. The Cardinals defense may not fall completely apart, but it will take a big hit.
Free agency took its toll on the Seahawks this year. The Seahawks ultimately chose to put their money into their secondary, namely Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. The hope is that the back end of the defense can cover receivers well enough that the defensive front will be able to get there (a.k.a. coverage sacks). Even though the Seattle defense lost a few key contributors such as defensive end Red Bryant, their defense still has the firepower to defend their Super Bowl title.
With all of the hits to the NFC West’s defenses and the Rams ability to return nearly all of their starters, what does that mean for the Rams? It puts the Rams in a very good position to assert themselves as the second best defense in the division. In the past two years, the second-best defense in the division made the playoffs.
The Rams are returning James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker. Laurinaitis has been the leading tackler for the Rams since he started his career until Alec Ogletree came in and stole the title. Ogletree’s goal should be to avoid the “sophomore slump” that plagues many players in their second year, but also to play the role Gregg Williams assigns him. The sure tackling ability of both Laurinaitis and Ogletree takes a lot of weight off the shoulders of the secondary to have to make tackles. If Dunbar (coming off a suspension) can get back into his form of 2012, the Rams will have three very capable starters at linebacker.
Defensive line play will be the reason the Rams make the jump to a winning football team. The Rams are returning all four starters, headlined by Robert Quinn who was second in the NFC in sacks. With three above-average starters and a Pro-bowler in Robert Quinn, the Rams decided to try to out-do the rest of the NFC West and drafted Aaron Donald. The happiest person on the Rams team was most likely Robert Quinn when the team called Donald’s name. The addition of an inside pass rusher will force teams to avoid double-teaming Quinn. If Quinn is able to get one-on-one matchups, there may not be anyone in the NFC able to keep up with Quinn’s sack totals.
Even in a down year, NFC West defenses are better than most defenses in the rest of the NFC. Winning in the division will be pivotal if the Rams want to crack the .500 barrier. It seems that if there is ever a time the Rams can take a step or two forward in the division, its’ this year in which the rest of the divisions’ defenses are injured or have lost players. Hopefully the Rams’ front seven makes improvements to take the team over the top and contend for a division title.