So far this year the Rams have been great on defense. They rank second in yards allowed and second in points allowed and have sacked QBs third most. Rams defenses have only been ranked that high a handful of times in team history. If they are able to continue to play at this high of a level, they could be considered among the best Rams defenses of all time.
This offseason brought many changes. Some personnel moves led some to believe they weren’t as talented or as deep as they were in years past. But the biggest change was to move on from Wade Phillips and hire Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator. So far, it looks like the right move. Phillip’s defenses often had top tier talent, but never reached their potential.
Brandon Staley has already elevated and modernized the Rams defense. He has not only improved the squad overall, but he also makes in-game adjustments to better stop offenses. His halftime adjustments have nearly grounded all offenses to a halt. Rams opponents have scored 36 second-half points and 14 of those points came against Buffalo. So, other than that game, the Rams have allowed less than a field goal per second half, 2.75 points per.
It has been a while since the Rams have fielded an all-time great defense. One that could be discussed with the 2002 Buccaneers or the 1985 Bears. You’d have to go back to 1999 to find a defense that would scratch at a consideration, but even that defense wasn’t completely supreme. While they held rushing offenses to just four touchdowns all season, they were utterly mediocre against the pass. Even some of the defenses of the mid 80’s come close, but still, they are just honorable mentions.
To get to the best Rams defenses of all-time you’d need to go back to the ’60s and ’70s. And there are a few reasons why. Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood to name a few. Other than Kevin Greene, those men are the only Rams defenders in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, the next Rams Hall of Fame defenders are still on the field. Aaron Donald is a shoo-in and Jalen Ramsey looks to be headed that way too.
Players go to the Hall because they make an outsized influence on the game. It’s no wonder why the 2020 Rams are as good as they are. The Rams have been exceptional against the pass. It’s no coincidence that those two are great at shutting down passing games. Donald’s influence is obvious. He already has 9 sacks, on track to post the second-best season of his career.
Ramsey’s effect is harder to quantify because QBs refuse to throw his way. He has only been targeted 37 times, fourth-most on the team, despite playing more than 91% of snaps. When targeted, he has the team’s lowest completion percentage with 51.4%. Ramsey’s presence presents another problem for offenses. Which is, he takes away the deep threat. The Rams have allowed a league lowest 899 air yards per completion and the fourth-lowest average depth of target. Simply, with Ramsey covering downfield opponents have been forced into throwing shorter passes. This has resulted in the Rams having the fewest net yards per completion, 5.2 yards, and the fewest passing TDs, 9.
Donald’s effect also goes beyond his individual efforts. He is often double-teamed, which has allowed Leonard Floyd to collect sacks. He has seven this season, which already matches the best season of his career. The attention that Donald garners also gives the Rams the freedom and flexibility to not blitz. They only blitz 28.4% of dropbacks. Regardless, they are able to generate pressure, but without throwing a linebacker or safety at the line.
The Rams defenses of the late 1960s had a similar effect and it all came together in back to back years, 1967 and 1968. In those years, the Fearsome Foursome racked up sacks and stuffed the run. Between 1967 and 1968, Deacon Jones alone collected 43.5 sacks in 28 games. Because sacks were an unofficial stat, it’s nearly impossible to know exact numbers, but according to profootballreference.com the team sacked QBs 94 times in the two seasons. So, Jones accounted for over 46% of the team’s sacks. Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy surely tacked on their share as well. They both averaged about 6 sacks per season and Olsen, like Jones, was at the apex of his career.
Not only did these teams have a dominant line, but they also had a great defensive backfield. Eddie Meador led the way. He intercepted 14 passes in those two years. The team picked off a league-leading 31 passes in 1967 and 25 the next year.
In 1967, they held teams to just 14 points per game. They only allowed 2.57 points per game on the ground. They led the league against the rush, allowing only 79.9 yards per game.
In 1968, the Rams led the league in yards per game. They only allowed 223 yards per game, which is only 3.9 yards per offensive play. According to footballoutsiders.com, the 1968 Rams defense is the best Rams defense of all-time by DVOA (-28.5) and the eighth-best defense. Period.
In 1967, they held opponents to one score 5 out of 14 games, and in 1968 they held teams to under 200 yards 5 times. These dominant performances helped propel the Rams to a combined record of 21-4-3. 1975 saw another great Rams defense. Only Merlin Olsen remained from the original Fearsome Foursome, but the Rams had added new talent. They drafted Jack Youngblood in 1971 and traded for Fred Dryer in 1972. By 1975 Youngblood was elected to the first-team All-Pro and all three were Pro Bowlers. But that wasn’t all, they also had two Pro Bowl linebackers in Isiah Robertson and Jack Reynolds.
This defense was nearly impossible to score on. They allowed only 9.6 points per game, the second-fewest ppg since the merger. The next closest defense that season was the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers, who allowed 11.6 per game. Only one team in the regular season was able to score more than 20 points in a game. The 49ers scored 24 points. They held half their regular-season opponents to one score or less, even shutting out the Lions.
They allowed the second-fewest total yards that season and tied for the fewest yards per play, 3.9. While they fell to second to the Vikings in yards allowed (by one yard), they held teams to a league-leading four rushing touchdowns.
The 2020 Rams are ranked second in points allowed and second in yards allowed. No Rams defense has ranked second or higher in both statistics since 1975. They have played great on both sides of the ball, but the passing defense is what has made them look so good so far. So at this point, the defense is in the vaunted realm with those teams.
But, they will face offenses with much better passing attacks in their final seven games. They face Tampa Bay this Monday and still have two games against Arizona and a rematch with Seattle.
They have the talent and a smart game plan, and the first game against the Seahawks proved that. But the story of the 2020 Rams defense is not even half-written. They will need to show what they are really made of in these final games to remain among the best Rams defenses.