While individual performances and battles for position generally makeup preseason narratives, the Rams have flashed one or two inconsistencies on an entire unit basis in their first two preseason games that they’ll want to quickly correct leading up to the first week of the regular season.
Penalties have been an issue, there’s no doubt (most recently against the Packers, where the Rams were called 10 times for 76 yards), but flags are on the rise league-wide in the wake of furthered emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding. Outside of discipline issues, one big area where the Rams will hope to make strides against Cleveland on Saturday night is in defending the run.
To this point, the Rams have had difficulty containing opposing runners as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has kept the scheme fairly vanilla in the preseason’s first two games. That approach puts greater emphasis on individual players’ abilities to shed blocks and clog up running lanes, which is what coaches hope to see as they attempt to craft a 53-man roster. However, it’s no secret that the young Rams defense full of players hoping to carve out roles for themselves haven’t been particularly strong in that regard. In their first two games, the Rams have given up 248 yards on the ground on 54 carries, giving opposing runners an average of just about 4.6 yards per attempt. This should be a point of emphasis against the Browns, whose run blocking has been strong in their opening two games.
While Cleveland’s rushing attack hasn’t been earth-shaking to this point (they’ve averaged just 3.4 yards per carry), their offensive line has performed well enough to garner some positive reviews from a run-blocking standpoint. According to the team over at Pro Football focus, the Browns have been the preseason’s sixth-highest grading team in opening holes for the ground game. Whether you put stock in the PFF numbers or not, it’s worth noting that they rank ahead of the Rams first two preseason opponents in the category, both of whom did quite well against the Rams run defense. The Packers check in just behind the Browns at seventh, while the Saints (who averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the Rams) are much lower at 21st overall.
It’s not that the Browns have received particularly strong performances from any single offensive linemen in the running game, just that they’ve played consistently and avoided any serious lapses in play across the offensive line, wide receiver, and fullback corps. They’ve seen some good play in the running game from tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, while 2014 second round pick Joel Bitonio – a tackle prospect who projects to fill in at left guard – has looked promising and played particularly well in the team’s preseason opener against the Detroit Lions. Again referencing the PFF numbers, he graded out as the team’s top run blocker in the game.
From a defensive standpoint, many of the Rams’ early woes can be (hopefully) chalked up to the absences of defensive tackle Michael Brockers and linebacker James Laurinaitis, who have missed time this preseason due to injury. Neither has been ruled out for team’s trip to Cleveland yet, and they both did some light work at yesterday’s practice according to ESPN’s Nick Wagoner.
Whether they’re among the lineup or not, it’s unrealistic to expect either to make a huge impact on the game as the Rams will undoubtedly be cautious in their preparations for the regular season. However, both have been among the Rams better players against the run in recent years and will look to resume their respective stabling presences once fully cleared.
Oddly enough, the value of both players has arguably increased despite their absence so far in the preseason. The shortcomings in run defense have been shared among those competing for playing time and roster spots (and even those whose roster spots are relatively secure) at both the defensive tackle and linebacker position. In the team’s first two games, it’s unfortunately been free agent defensive tackle signee Alex Carrington and outstanding special teamer Ray-Ray Armstrong who have stuck out the most, with Armstrong – a converted safety – in particular having difficulties in dealing with opposing offensive linemen.
The Rams as a unit, though, haven’t been as strong as I’m sure they’d like. They’ve graded out as the second-worst team against the run through their first two games, ahead of only the Cincinnati Bengals.
To end on a positive note, there has been one player who has made himself noticed against the run on both the outside and on the defensive interior. Undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks, who is competing for one of the few (and perhaps only) open spots on the defensive line. According to the Rams’ coaches defensive statistics that are making the rounds (via @ccpearce) Wesbrooks has been one of the defensive line’s top performers. Outside of the statistics, he has also shown well against the run in being PFF’s only defensive lineman to grade positively in the category through the first two games.
Rams preseason defensive stats, based on coaches’ film review. pic.twitter.com/PU0yz1M8El
— Casey Pearce (@ccpearce) August 18, 2014
However, Westbrooks battle for a roster spot is not yet finished, and the Rams’ defense as a whole will look to shore up some deficiencies against the Browns on Saturday night.