Rush defense at heart of Rams' problems

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Ray Rice averaged 9 yards per carry against the Rams in Week 3, including a long run of 53 yards. (Sarah Conard/Reuters)

There is more than enough blame to go around for St. Louis' miserable 0-3 start, from an unfortunate string of injuries to the NFL's 31st-ranked offense to a pass defense that gave up 385 yards and three touchdowns in Week 3.

But here's where all of the trouble starts: The Rams cannot stop the run.

Through three weeks St. Louis is allowing 174.3 rush yards per game -- a pace that, if it holds up through the entire season, would give the Rams the worst run defense in the NFL since the 1985 Houston Oilers coughed up 2,814 yards in a 5-11 season.

St. Louis gave up 236 yards on the ground in its opener against Philadelphia, a number you could almost excuse given Michael Vick's 97-yard day. But then the Rams surrendered 119 yards to the Giants in Week 2 and 168 to the Ravens in Week 3, the latter coming despite just nine carries by Ray Rice.

What exactly is going wrong here is difficult to pinpoint. The Rams returned a lot of the same players from their solid 2010 defense, swapping O.J. Atogwe for Quintin Mikell at safety, and seemingly upgrading at linebacker by adding Brady Poppinga and Ben Leber.

Nothing's worked so far.

You probably can chalk some of this up to tough competition -- the Rams' schedule is heavily front-loaded and a Philadelphia-Giants-Baltimore gauntlet would dent just about any team's rush-defense totals.

And the offense certainly has not helped. Last season, St. Louis finished 14th in time of possession at more than 30 minutes per game; the Rams are 25th right now, at about 28 minutes. Sam Bradford's boys aren't scoring or staying on the field very long, adding to the pressure on the defense.

That doesn't explain, however, why the Rams gave up a 74-yard TD pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith on Baltimore's second play Sunday.

Some of the issues, both on that early Baltimore strike and with the defense overall, trace back to cornerback Ronald Bartell suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1. His replacement, Justin King, was the one Smith burned on that long score.

Still, in Weeks 1 and 2, the Rams had been fine against the pass, allowing less than 200  yards per game through the air. Which brings us back to the issues against the run.

For whatever reason, St. Louis is getting hammered at the point of attack. A perfect example: Already down 21-0 in the second quarter to Baltimore, the Rams brought nine defenders on a 3rd-and-1 run blitz. Rice burst through that attack untouched and wound up gaining 53 yards.

The Rams have generated a respectable eight sacks but still have not been able to get into the backfield enough. That's also part of the reason St. Louis has forced just two turnovers in three games, a worse rate than every team in the league aside from Pittsburgh.