ST. LOUIS — Rams defensive end Chris Long was the last to take off his shoulder pads late Thursday night, still seated in full gear as the home locker room emptied. The San Francisco 49ers had come and gone, filled the city with their fans and run all over the opposing defense as if they’d been doing so all season.
It was a breakout, slump-busting performance for San Francisco against a team that was supposed to challenge them and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West this season. Instead, what was hailed as the backbone of the league’s youngest team—its defense—was just as bad if not worse than its long-idling offense. To Long’s chagrin, the Rams gave up 35 points, 19 first downs, and worst of all, 219 rushing yards.
“It’s disgusting. It really is,” Long said. “That’s not who we are, but if we keep playing like that, that will be who we are. When you give up that many yards in the ground game it’s a lot of things going wrong. We have a lot of things to correct.”
St. Louis (1-3) has given up at least 31 points in three consecutive weeks after doing so just once last season and finishing 7-8-1. As players dressed and undressed and were asked to give instant analysis of this latest loss, a theme emerged. Late in the second quarter, mere seconds after the familiar 4th-and-short refrain of Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday speech flashed across the video board—“The inches we need are all around us.”—the Rams whiffed on Niners running back Frank Gore, who sprinted 34 yards off tackle (1,224 inches), easily clearing a stacked and off-balance defensive front to go up 14-3.
Explained defensive tackle Michael Brockers: “They did a good job game-planning us. They just knew where the hole was. They had extra people in a gap we couldn’t cover. They matched the play with the defense.”
“Teams are definitely throwing more screens, draws and things like that than they did against us last season,” he said at his locker. “All of those things have an effect on us getting to the quarterback and it’s frustrating.”
Perhaps some of that frustration should rest on the shoulders of Tim Walton, the rookie defensive coordinator and former Detroit Lions assistant, hired to bring continuity to a unit which led the league in sacks with 51 last year. This season they’re on pace for half that, though the makeup of the defensive line has remained the same. In fact, they’re playing better. In the final three games of last season, opposing quarterbacks enjoyed an average 3.1 seconds before getting rid of the ball or getting sacked, according to Pro Football Focus. In the first three games of this season—against Arizona, Atlanta and Dallas—quarterbacks have had an average 2.3 seconds to throw.
The deficiency, it appears, lies in the backfield. A second-quarter San Francisco scoring drive featured two big catches by Anquan Boldin—one for 42 yards and another for a 20-yard touchdown. Both times, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan was trailing behind in man coverage, and both times safety Rodney McLeod was late to help over the top. Finnegan would leave the game with a leg injury.
The plays marked rare forays into man schemes for Walton, who has been criticized for his soft zones meant to prevent the big play—typically trusting only Finnegan counterpart Janoris Jenkins to play press-man. McLeod offered a simple analysis and shared a sense of shock felt around the locker room with the complete dismantling of the defense by a team they’d played to a 24-24 tie last season and a 16-13 overtime win.
“I’ve got to make plays,” he says. “The way we’re playing right now, yeah, it’s surprising.”
Of course, we’re only a month into the season, and the Rams are working with a few new pieces after all. Starting linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald are rookies, and McLeod didn’t play much last season as an undrafted free agent. He was thrust into the role when the team allowed the contracts of Craig Dahl and Quinten Mikell to expire and missed out on free agent safety Louis Delmas. There’s plenty of time to correct what ails a defense with abundant youth and some obvious talent. Plus they’ll have 10 days of prep before facing Jacksonville and its infamous passing game. But with a defense that was supposed to be the vanguard of a playoff push, this start can only be seen as a disaster for a defensive coordinator on the cusp of embattlement. At least one of his most important pupils has his back.
“Walt’s tried to make the right adjustments, but it comes down to players making plays and being assignment sound,” Long says. “Coach Walt has not panicked. He’s made adjustments, and he’s taken responsibility for the things he can get better at, just like we need to take the responsibility for the things we can get better at. As bad as things feel right now, there’s a lot of season left.”