Dallas Cowboys vs St Louis Rams: Where’s the pressure?

The last time these teams met, the Rams collected 3 sacks of the Cowboys’ QB. But that was Brad Johnson, not Tony Romo.

I’d like to believe the Rams are not as bad as their record, that there are nuggets of good play that we can find and build on, buried underneath the mountain of crap. And behold, with the help of Football Outsiders stats, we found one:

The nugget: The Rams are the #3 overall defense in the NFL at taking away opposing teams’ #1 receivers.

The mountain of crap: The Rams rate 31st against #2 receivers, and dead last against all other wideouts.

If we follow the Rams blogger script, now comes the part of the article where we gnash our teeth, rend our hair, and rail at Justin King. And we mourn the loss of Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, and Jerome Murphy (even though Murphy was *ahem* not very good in coverage). But there’s another culprit to point our fingers at:

What happened to the Rams pass rush?

This was supposed to be the thing the Rams would excel at, even if everything else went to hell. Building a pass-rushing monster was Steve Spagnuolo’s specialty. In two years, and without adding any marquee talent, Spags transformed the Rams from 30th to 7th in sack proficiency — jumping up from 25 sacks in 2009 to 43 in 2010.

The Rams averaged 2.7 sacks per game last year, with James Hall, Fred Robbins and Chris Long the three constants on his defensive line. This year, with those same three returning, and with the added brute of Justin Bannan and speed of Robert Quinn, the Rams’ front line is averaging 1.5 sacks per game.

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus stats, here’s where the pressure is coming from, or not as the case may be:

  • Right DE (Hall & Quinn): 18 pressures, 4 hits, 2 sacks
  • Right DT (Bannan): 2 pressures, 1 hit, 0 sacks
  • Left DT (Robbins & Gary Gibson): 5 pressures, 0 hits, 1 sack
  • Left DE (Long): 18 pressures, 5 hits, 3 sacks
  • All LBs: 9 pressures, 5 hits, 0 sacks

The ends are doing their job, in part at least. (Though we’d like to see Quinn take a few giant leaps forward and start seriously messing people up.) But the middle has gotten softer, despite Bannan’s improved play against the run (another nugget surrounded by a mountain of crap). And they aren’t being helped by the linebackers at all. Of course, if LBs overcommit to cleaning up after the DTs, that’s when holes in the running game turn into downhill bobsled runs. 

Coming back to our original point, if you want to make life difficult for a quarterback, you can take away his first option in a pass route. But if you give him time to scan the field and find his secondary receivers, tight ends and running backs, you’ve lost whatever advantage you gained. And you’ll have a hard time getting off the field, even on third and longs.

That’s exactly what’s happening now, and we have only the front four to blame. Time to step it up.