Remaking the Defense: Observations from PFF (Part 2)

Last week, we had an interesting round-table with Sam and Ben from Pro Football Focus on two key figures in the Rams’ defensive front seven: James Hall and the now-departed Pisa Tinoisamoa.

This time, I wanted to focus on our secondary, a definite area of weakness, but one which might contain our two most reliable players on defense: OJ Atogwe and Ron Bartell. The Rams had to make contract decisions on both, and paid some serious money to keep both in our rotation, then added to the pile by signing former Giant James Butler. Were these good moves, in the eyes of these observers?

July 16, 2009: OJ Atogwe signs franchise tender from Rams
From the P-D story: Safety Oshiomogho “O.J.” Atogwe will remain with the Rams for the 2009 season. His future with the team after that is undetermined. Unable to come to terms on a long-term contract before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. (St. Louis time) deadline, Atogwe signed his one-year tender as the team’s franchise player. Under NFL rules, Atogwe is to be paid $6.34 million this season, the average of the salaries of the top five safeties in the league. His agent, Ken Landphere, still can negotiate a long-term deal with the Rams. But once the deadline passed, Atogwe was barred from signing such an agreement until after the season.


First up I’ll go for a bit on Atogwe. His pass coverage is good, not brilliant but good enough and his performances graded out fairly consistently throughout last season with his two really poor performances (W4 vs Buffalo & W17 @ Atl) marked by some poor run defense rather than his pass coverage letting him down. His run defense was around about average all season long with three really poor games dragging his overall grade down and no really good games to balance that. This suggests what I think is known about Atogwe that he’s better utilized as a free safety as opposed to a strong safety brought up into the box to play the run. He only missed three tackles all season and they all came in the same game against Buffalo in week 4 so that’s not his issue, he’s just not great at getting off of blocks up in the box. He had three really good games in pass coverage as well, consecutively against the Redskins, Cowboys & Patriots.


His coverage skills are reasonable, but he has very good ball skills, which lets him get more picks than perhaps he deserves to get. Or more accurately his picks will always earn him a higher reputation than perhaps he deserves in terms of pure coverage ability.

But are his ball skills “persistent”? That is, should we expect him to continue to be good at creating turnovers, or is that mostly luck? Or something that would get worse with age?


I think ball skills are usually pretty constant. Some guys have a feel for the ball and are very good at going up and getting it when it’s in the air. It’s not just hands, but understanding the flight of the ball and being able to get to the right spot to get it. I don’t see any reason that would change with Atogwe – what could change year to year is the number of opportunities you get to make those plays – sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

So how should the Rams approach his contract situation?


The use of the franchise tag suggests that the team thinks he’s a top 5 safety but as you’re probably aware that’s not necessarily what it means, merely that he’s someone that the team thinks is worth keeping around. I think he is someone worth keeping around, he’s a useful free safety with the eye for the big play but not amongst the league’s elite.


It would be up to the Rams obviously to figure out how much weight they’d put in his ball-hawking ability vs the rest of his play, but i think it’s definitely something i’d bear in mind.

Of course, the problem with franchising a player is that they get used to being paid like a top-5 player at their position. At safety, this isn’t as big a problem as it would be at quarterback, salary-wise, but it still starts to outline terms for the Rams.

March 4, 2009: Rams Re-Sign Ron Bartell for four years, $13.6 million guaranteed


Bartell was comfortably your best coverage corner last year, his run defense was poor but in terms of coverage there wasn’t anyone else even close in your defensive backfield. League wide he’s knocking on the door of the top 20 corners as far as coverage goes but all round he’s a step further back than that. His penalties are a slight cause for concern (4, all accepted) but there’s far worse out there in that regard.


Bartell I think was re-signed more because he’s the best of what’s there rather than any outstanding skills he brings to the table. When you need to build an entire corner stable you can’t really let the best one go even if you have to overpay the guy to keep him around. It’s sacrificing a bit for the long-term i think.

Bartell has also shown ability to defend the best receiver in the division, Larry Fitzgerald. He hasn’t entirely neutralized him, but he has held him to human numbers, rather than superhuman numbers.


What I will say is that these two were clearly your best players as you said, but the secondary still got torched a touch, I wouldn’t lay any blame at the door of these two for not being elite. The problem is the rest of your secondary not playing to standard, not every team can expect to have elite players and just fit scrubs around them. You’ve got a couple of decent players, now you need three more to fill out the other safety and corner spot along with the nickel corner spot.

Agreed on that, which makes the James Butler signing so important.

March 10, 2009: Rams sign James Butler

From Len Pasquarelli: “For his career, Butler has 190 tackles, including a career-high 68 tackles in 2008. The former Georgia Tech standout, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005, also has six career interceptions and 21 passes defensed. Butler, however, is far stronger against the run than the pass and probably will be used as an ‘in the box’ safety.”


Butler actually graded out very well last season, especially in coverage, and was used in a weird rotation system the Giants ran depending on package with him, Phillips and Michael Johnson all seeing time back there, occasionally all together. I think Butler was probably their best guy, and definitely the best covering. He will be like night and day to Corey Chavous, who was done when he left Minnesota if we’re honest. (In fact if we’re being brutally honest he’d been done for at least a year at that point.)


Chavous’ coverage was woeful last year and a large number of his 13 missed tackles contributed to a poor grade defending the run as well. I’d suggest Chavous was a large part of why your run D was so poor even when you stacked the box. (Though you don’t just depend on the 8th man in the box to stop the run. If the other 7 aren’t good enough — which they weren’t — the 8th man won’t necessarily make all the difference unless the scheme is good/fortunate enough to always put him in the right place.)

While I don’t want to get down on Corey Chavous, one of the most articulate and thoughtful interviews I’ve ever read, he certainly hit rock-bottom last season. Haslett took forever to demote him in favor of Todd Johnson, because of the “locker room leadership” factor, but there’s no denying that the Rams’ run defense tightened up significantly in those last few weeks of the season with Chavous on the bench.


James Butler should be a comfortable upgrade on Corey Chavous at the other safety spot. Butler’s run D is solid (above average grade and only 4 missed tackles) and his pass coverage is good. He should provide the upgrade at safety next to Atogwe that you so desperately need. The question is where the upgrade at starting corner (opposite Bartell) and the nickel slot will come from, because on last year’s performances that upgrade is going to need to be someone on the roster stepping up a level or two unless a rookie is going to make an immediate impact?

This is the question the Rams have been trying to answer all camp. I think right now, our steadiest young corner might be Justin King, even after he got burned against the Jets. Hill is trying to hold his own, and Jonathan Wade is doing better work on special teams than in the secondary. Among the youngsters, Quincy Butler and Bradley Fletcher are battling for the sixth spot, and I have Butler slightly ahead, but both have been playing aggressively, which is what you want to see.

The Rams should get some kind of test against Carson Palmer and Esteban Ochocinco, though this might be diluted by the general terribleness of the Bengals.

Edit: According to the National Football Post, Carson Palmer will likely not play Thursday.