Ahead of the Chiefs-Rams clash on Monday night, the focus has been on the offenses, and rightfully so. But if these teams are to make it to February, their defenses must be better in the second half of the season. Let’s examine the chances of that.
The concern: The linebacking corps is thin figuratively, but also literally. Edge ‘backer Samson Ebukam is listed at 245 pounds. Stack linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron weigh 228 and 230 respectively. This linebacking unit is a big reason the Rams are yielding an NFL-worst 5.2 yards per carry.
Not surprisingly, the Rams in obvious passing situations play a dime package, subbing in third safety Marquis Christian for one of the ‘backers. Also in that dime package, the Rams lately have done something you almost never see: sub out a starting corner. No. 2 man Troy Hill leaves and longtime Packer Sam Shields comes in. This is akin to an offense taking its No. 2 wide receiver off the field for third downs. It’s worked out okay for Wade Phillips’s D, but it’s a temporary measure that will surely disappear when Aqib Talib’s surgically repaired ankle heals, hopefully by early December. In the meantime, it would help if top cornerback Marcus Peters plays better. Until his solid showing last week against Seattle, he’d been the secondary’s biggest liability; though in fairness, part of that is due to him often facing the opponent’s best receiver.
Reason for optimism: A high-risk, high-reward corner like Peters (and Talib, for that matter) can pay off if you have a disruptive pass rush that forces an offense to play on your schedule, and the arrival of disappointing but talented ex-Jaguar defensive end Dante Fowler gives L.A. a chance at that. Fowler used his speed to beat stalwart Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown for a sack-fumble that wound up essentially deciding the game last week. If he can solidify an edge rushing role, the Rams will have more freedom to move Ndamukong Suh back to his natural 3-technique position on passing downs. (Suh has had to play significant third-down snaps at defensive end this year.) Having Suh inside better punishes offenses for always sliding their protections towards Aaron Donald, who, despite facing all the double-teams, still leads the league with 12.5 sacks. What we’re talking about is big-play potential: pass rushers who can create sacks, fumbles and errant throws that lead to interceptions. Big plays can have extra large results for a team whose offense can score quickly and in bunches.
The concern: It’s not dissimilar to L.A.’s concern: a spotty linebacking corps has made for an up-and-down Chiefs run defense. Lately, there have been a few more ups, as defensive linemen Chris Jones and especially Allen Bailey have made splash plays. But still, it’s a front seven that’s allowing 5.1 yards per carry—third worst in the league. Kansas City’s inability to stop the run might be the only thing that can stop Patrick Mahomes and the offense, which, like every offense in NFL history, has scored zero points when its defense is stuck on the field. Teams have also picked on Kansas City’s linebackers in coverage—particularly Reggie Ragland. The insertion of agile rookie Dorian O’Daniel into the nickel and dime sub-packages has helped a bit, but in those nickel and dime packages, that Chiefs run D becomes even more vulnerable.
Reason for optimism: Though old-school football coaches might hate this, there’s argument to be made that run defense is not super critical for teams that have a high-powered offense. As eluded to above, a shoddy run defense can keep that offense off the field, but if that offense has explosive plays that build a lead, eventually your opponent has to stop running the ball. Last season, six of the eight worst run defenses in football in terms of yards allowed per carry belonged to playoff teams (bolded) 25. Buffalo, 26. Jacksonville, 27. Pittsburgh, 28. New Orleans, 29. Washington, 30. LA Rams, 31. New England, 32. LA Chargers.
Pass defense is what matters, and here the Chiefs are better than the numbers show. Yes, they’ve allowed 289 aerial yards a game, fifth-most in the league, but some of that is due to playing soft Cover 2 while protecting late leads. A better measure of pass defense is your opponent’s QB rating. Here the Chiefs rank fifth, with quarterbacks having a collective rating of 87.5 against them.
On film, you can see why. Left corner Orlando Scandrick can be grabby but is having a stellar season. Right corner Steven Nelson is streaky, but more in a good way than bad way. And inside, Kendall Fuller is maybe football’s best all-around slot defender. Up-and-down safety play in the absence of an injured Eric Berry has hurt this secondary, but the safeties can be camouflaged by a pass rush that should improve down the stretch. Justin Houston, healthy after missing four games with a hamstring, was dominant in his return last week against albeit a reeling Cardinals offensive line. Dee Ford has regained his position as one of football’s best speed rushers. Just like the Rams with Donald and Suh, the Chiefs have pass rushers who can swing games.
(Not so) Bold prediction for Monday night: Little of the big-picture optimism for these defenses will show up Monday… this game will be the shootout we’re all eagerly awaiting.