Remaking the Defense: Observations from PFF (Part 1)

When Steve Spagnuolo took over the downtrodden Rams, he had to know two things just walking in the door — that there would be unsolvable problems that must be cut, and that there would be hidden gems whom he could polish. Little did we know that our team’s leading tackler, Pisa Tinoisamoa, would fall into the first category! And only a few might have guessed that 32-year-old James Hall would survive the age-out roster purge, and fall into the second. However, count the observers from Pro Football Focus among those who could have predicted both.

Intrigued by their defensive rankings of the Rams, I decided to check in with the PFF guys who put the 2008 Rams under the microscope, and ask what they saw from these two players.

May 8th, 2009: Rams Cut Pisa Tinoisamoa


“This was a difficult decision based on a lot of factors,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said Friday in a news release. “I have a great deal of respect for Pisa and wish him all of the best.”

After the team’s first minicamp, the coaching staff apparently completely lost faith in Tino. This was not much of a cap-saving move, and there are no known black marks against him from a “Four Pillars” standpoint, so this must have been about football ability, pure and simple. But it’s rare, to say the least, for a team’s leading tackler to be cut outright like this. So what’s up?

Let’s bring in Sam and Ben from PFF:


I think the first thing to note in general is to just throw out tackle stats. Even ignoring the fact that they’re likely to be way out (i’ve seen a guy credited with a tackle who wasn’t even on the field), there’s just so many things that go into them (much like sacks) that they’re hard to make a case for as a really important factor. What is more interesting is where the tackles are being made, and therefore what kind of impact they’re having. Ernie Sims makes a lot of tackles, but usually only after he’s overrun the play at least once and then chases it back down from behind..


Yes he led the team in tackles, but a great deal of what we look at from a grading perspective is where those tackles were made. A tackle for a seven yard run on 1st & 10 counts statistically the same as a tackle for a 1 yard rush, but in grading terms is very different. Also tackles that weren’t made on rushes in his direction, be that for him failing to get off of a block or missing a tackle (12 missed tackles only bettered by Corey Chavous’ 13 as the most of any Rams defender last year). His pass coverage was around about average, so not a great issue, but it was his inability to beat blockers to make tackles close to the line as well as missing tackles that brought about his low grade as a run defender. He’s made a lot of tackles, so he’s clearly got a high work rate to his credit, but he wasn’t an effective force in stopping the run last year. To be fair he wasn’t alone amongst your starting LB core as only Chris Draft of your regular LBs (Tinoisamoa, Witherspoon, Culberson & Draft) who came out with close to an average grade in our analysis last season.


Tino’s problem is that he’s a light LB, listed at 240, I’d be shocked if he was ever over 230, which gives him big problems in the run game. He’ll rarely shed a block if he’s picked up, and he can be run over. As for explaining his rating from 07 to 08… we only have 5 games of his from 07, and IMO that’s just not really a reliable enough sample size to get an overall feel for his play. But it’s worth noting that guys can just have much poorer seasons for seemingly no reason year to year. I think cutting him is purely a schematic thing. The new scheme likes bigger more downhill thumpers if the Giants and Eagles are anything to go by, and Tino won’t ever be that player.

Seeing Pisa in this light, his early departure from the Rams’ roster isn’t all that surprising.

March 2, 2007: Rams acquire James Hall from the Lions for a fifth-round draft choice

James Hall eats Seahawk
When you’re the team’s sack leader with a whopping 6.5 … you tend to fly under the radar. But according to PFF’s defensive rankings, Hall was far and away our most effective lineman. Then as camp started, we started to hear more and more good things about Hall — how he was going to make Leonard Little more effective, and how his versatility plays right into the Spagnuolo defense. The question is: is he for real?


Simply put: consistent quality performances from Hall last year. He had a few down games as a pass rusher (mostly early in the season) but in most games brought some productive pass rushing to every game. His sacks were spread out fairly evenly through the season but he was getting pressures all season long with a particularly strong ending to the season. He’s not flashy but he is consistent. His run defense brought a similar number of stops to Chris Long (the defensive lineman to play the most snaps for the Rams) but on 140 less defensive snaps against running plays. Certainly that durability is a great asset for Long but Hall was more effective whilst he was on the field and should have warranted more snaps than Victor Adeyanju who simply wasn’t as stout against the run or as effective against the pass.


Hall’s interesting. He was a very situational guy last year, and was used in the team’s 3-4 front when that was put out there (why Chris Long wasn’t used in that when it’s the front he came from in college I still don’t understand!). Situational players are aided hugely in the rankings i think, in that their read and react skills don’t need to be there, they’re almost exclusively just pinning their ears back, which makes it easier for them. Hall looked good in the time he was on the field. It will be interesting to see how he does if he’s in as a starter where he has to be an every down guy again. He has some skills and is big enough to anchor and beat OTs with power too, which makes him a tough blocking assignment.


It may have helped Hall (though obviously we can’t be sure) playing fewer snaps. We only analysed 8 games for the Rams last season (2007) but Hall averaged 61 snaps per game for those 8 games, in comparison to 32.5 snaps per game in 2008. Now performances can fluctuate season to season for a number of reasons, but certainly rotating Hall to keep him fresh body on the field could’ve helped him in that regard. There are certainly few players who can play a high number of snaps on the D-line and maintain a high level of play. So it may well be that the philosophy of fresh bodies over playing your starters for as many snaps as physically possible is what is needed on the Rams D-line. That said, looking at the Giants’ defensive snaps last year their starters each played over 900 snaps last season, so Spagnuolo and his staff may ask the starters at DE (presumably Long & Adeyanju or Hall) to play a large number of snaps. In that case it will be interesting to see whether last season was a true performance blitz or pick up by Hall, or whether his performance benefited from playing a reduced number of snaps, as well as other factors.

There are still questions about how much time Hall will see on the field, and where he will line up. Or, like Justin Tuck, how many places he will line up. Thus far, we have not seen him lose his motor, and there’s no question that he and Leonard Little have been the standout parts of the line thus far.

My thanks to the guys for their insights and perspective, and I highly recommend that you check out the site they’re putting together at