Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo rose to fame as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants -- specifically behind the awesome performance of a defensive front that battered Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII and stifled New England's record-setting offense.
Those giant-slaying Giants of 2007 were not particularly great in any area, except one: with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, they fielded the best defensive front in football, No. 1 on the groundbreaking
Fast forward to today, and Spagnuolo's Rams are quickly following the same statistical blueprint that his Giants first drew up in 2007: they're building a contender around one of the most dominating defensive fronts in the game. The improvements from 2009, Spagnuolo's first year in St. Louis, to 2010 were nothing short of amazing.
The 2009 Rams went 1-15 and struggled in all aspects of the game as the worst team in football. The 2010 Rams went 7-9 and were just one win away from making the postseason. In fact, their regular-season finale loss at Seattle was a de facto playoff game -- the winner earned the NFC West title and a spot in the tournament.
St. Louis rookie quarterback Sam Bradford earned much of the credit for the turnaround, as quarterbacks often do. And he was certainly a steady and largely unflappable hand at quarterback, especially by the standards of a first-year player. But the truth is Bradford was not a difference-maker last year. It was the St. Louis defense -- and its Defensive Hogs in particular -- that brought the dreadful Rams of 2009 to the brink of the playoffs in 2010.
• The 2009 Rams ranked 30th at forcing Negative Pass Plays (6.4% of dropbacks ended in a sack or INT); The 2010 Rams ranked 9th at forcing Negative Pass Plays (9.3%)
• The 2009 Rams ranked 29th in third-down defense (43.5% success against); The 2010 Rams were 2nd in third-down defense (33.5% success against)
• The 2009 Rams were 32nd and dead last overall on our Defensive Hog Index; The 2010 Rams were 7th overall on our Defensive Hog Index.
The only area where the Rams failed to improve dramatically was in run defense: the 2009 Rams ranked 20th in run defense (4.4 YPA); the 2010 Rams ranked 22nd in run defense (4.5 YPA). But the ability to stop the run is largely overrated. It's a passer's league, and making life miserable on opposing passers is the singular key to successful defense in the NFL.
The Rams were light years better pressuring the passer in 2010. The 2009 Rams forced just eight interceptions and 25 sacks; the 2010 Rams forced 14 interceptions and 43 sacks -- nearly doubling the total of Negative Pass Plays in the space of a single year (33 to 57).
That pressure sparked a dramatic improvement in pass defense and, most importantly, a dramatic improvement on the scoreboard.
• The 2009 Rams ranked 31st in Defensive Passer Rating (96.9); The 2010 Rams ranked 9th in Defensive Passer Rating (80.2)
• The 2009 Rams surrendered 436 points (31st); the 2010 Rams surrendered 328 points (12th).
Defensive ends James Hall (10.5 sacks) and Chris Long (8.5) emerged last season into one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league. Spagnuolo's system certainly deserves some credit.
In Hall's case, it was the second-highest sack total in his 11-year career and most since 2004; Long, who struggled in his first two years, emerged as the legit pass-rusher the Rams must have expected when they drafted him No. 2 overall in 2008 (pre-Spagnuolo). Meanwhile, defensive tackle Fred Robbins, an 11-year veteran who played for Spags in New York, also had a career year, with a personal best 6.0 sacks.
Spagnuolo has proved his devotion to the position by doubling down on Defensive Hogs in his own drafts. He drafted James Laurinaitis in the second round of the 2009 draft, and the Ohio State product has started all 32 games at middle linebacker for the rapidly improving Rams defense. This year Spags grabbed talented pass rusher Robert Quinn with the No. 14 overall pick.
The Quinn pick told the football world that Spagnuolo intends to win in St. Louis much the way he won in New York -- with a dominating group of Defensive Hogs. The unit he'll put on the field in 2011 has the potential to be the very best in the league.