After back-to-back strong performances on run defense against Carolina and Seattle, there were some at Rams Park last week who declared the problem fixed.
Veteran linebacker James Laurinaitis, however, reserved judgment.
“You’ve got to do that consistently, week in and week out,” Laurinaitis said last Thursday. “We put too much inconsistent stuff out there early in the season for me to be comfortable in saying, ‘Hey, we can expect this every week.’ ”
Those words proved prophetic Sunday against Tennessee, when the Rams got the old run-around from Chris Johnson. He ran around and through the Rams’ defense time after time en route to 150 yards rushing, 6.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
He did much of his damage with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, picking up 70 yards on just nine carries. The killer was a 19-yard TD run with 2 minutes, 54 seconds remaining on a play in which Johnson wasn’t even touched until he was inside the 2-yard line. It snapped a 21-21 tie in the Titans’ 28-21 victory.
The NFL is the ultimate week-to-week league. Often what happens one week has absolutely no bearing on what takes place the next. There is an ebb and flow throughout the season. But after holding the Panthers and Seahawks to under 3 yards a carry, and after limiting Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to 23 yards rushing, what happened against the Titans was beyond surprising.
“It appeared that we took turns,” coach Jeff Fisher said Monday, when asked about what went wrong with the run defense. “At times it was inside — we got out of a gap. At times we lost the edge, we didn’t set the edge.”
When all was said and done, the Titans had 198 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns.
All last season, the Rams allowed opposing running backs to top 100 yards rushing four times. The 2012 team wasn’t great against the run but was respectable, finishing the season ranked 15th.
This season, the Rams returned their top seven defensive linemen, and eight of their 11 starters from a year ago. Among their 11 defensive starters, they have four first-round picks, two second-round picks and two high-priced free agents. The expectation was that the unit would take the next step and become a top 10 defense.
Instead, the run defense has taken a couple of steps back. Entering Sunday’s game at Indianapolis, the Rams rank 28th in the NFL in run defense. They already have allowed four 100-yard rushers and must face Lynch, Frank Gore and Matt Forte over the final seven games.
The run defense starting leaking in Week 3, with DeMarco Murray’s season-high 175-yard outing for Dallas on Sept. 22. He was averaging only 56 yards a game entering that contest, and his second-best output this season is 86 yards.
The following game, Gore gashed the Rams for a season-high 153 yards. He was averaging 47 yards a game entering that contest; his second-best game this season is 101 yards rushing.
On Oct. 13 in Houston, Arian Foster has a season-high 141 yards. He was averaging 78 yards a game entering that contest; his next-best game this season is 102 yards.
And then came Johnson’s 150 yards — yes, a season high. He was averaging 52 yards a game entering the contest. He hasn’t rushed for more than 96 yards against any other opponent in 2013.
Yes, the Rams seem to be a get-well card for many opposing running backs.
Fisher tried to accentuate the positive Monday, saying there were a lot of good stops on run defense. But there were plenty of not-so-good stops. And four (touchdowns) that weren’t stopped at all.
To wit, there were a season-high eight “explosive” runs allowed against the Titans. The Rams define an explosive run as any run that gains 10 yards or more. On almost all of those eight, there was a different set of circumstances.
The tone was set Sunday on the first play from scrimmage when Johnson matched his season-long gain with a 23-yard run off left tackle. The Rams had eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, and in an unusual alignment had defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn lined up side-by-side on what would be the Titans’ left side. Quinn in essence was playing defensive tackle. And that’s where the Titans ran — to that side.
Three defenders on the edge — Long, safety Darian Stewart and linebacker Laurinaitis — all got pushed to the outside by Tennessee blockers. The other five blockers in the box all basically got sealed off to the inside. The result was a huge hole.
Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar broke through just a little to late to get Johnson, who sidestepped safety Rodney McLeod in the open field to gain an additional 10 yards.
Johnson’s 14-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, which tied the score at 14-14, also was ridiculously easy. On second-and-6, the Rams had a seven-man box. Lining up on what would be the Titans’ right edge, linebacker Alec Ogletree came on a blitz and ran right by Johnson heading the other way.
Stewart, the next defender on the edge, was walled off by Tennessee blockers, giving Johnson nothing but green ahead of him. McLeod missed a tackle at the 5, and that was that.
Those are just two examples. Sometimes it’s been scheme. Sometimes it’s failing to hold the perimeter. Or fill the right gap. Or an inability to shed blocks. But too often this season, it hasn’t been pretty on run defense.
BRADFORD SURGERY PUSHED BACK
Quarterback Sam Bradford was scheduled for knee surgery Tuesday, but it has been pushed back to an undetermined date in the near future.
More range of motion is needed in the knee before surgery, so pushing back the date slightly isn’t an issue and isn’t an uncommon occurrence. The pre-surgery rehab process is going well and Bradford, who was at Rams Park on Tuesday, is doing fine. Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., is scheduled to perform the surgery.
Good range of motion in an injured knee before surgery usually leads to good range of motion after surgery. Bradford suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the Rams’ Oct. 20 game at Carolina.