By Sam McPherson
In the four-plus seasons now that head coach Jeff Fisher has been leading the Rams organization on the field, the defense has been the strength of the team for a variety of reasons. First, the franchise hasn’t had the best fortune with selecting offensive players in the draft and second, Fisher’s background as a defensive guru in the NFL means his strengths are on a certain side of the ball. Now in his fifth season with the Rams, Fisher has the best defense he’s ever had with the team, as Los Angeles currently ranks fifth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed. The Rams’ best defensive season prior to 2016 under Fisher was his first season (2012), when the team finished 14th in both categories.
But if this is the best defensive group that the Rams have had in years, why has the unit struggled to close out games in the fourth quarter this season? Three times now, Los Angeles has either been tied or in the lead late in the game, only to see the opposing offenses snag victory from the jaws of defeat while a stunned Rams defense is powerless to stop it. That kind of breakdown shouldn’t be happening so frequently to an L.A. roster that is performing so well statistically this year, and it’s costing the Rams dearly in their attempt to make the postseason (or even finish at .500) for the first time since 2004.
Detroit 31, Los Angeles 28
Back in mid-October, the Rams held a 28-21 lead on the Lions at Ford Field with 14 minutes to go. But the Detroit offense suddenly mounted a 14-play, 84-yard scoring drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock. The Lions scored a touchdown to tie the game, aided by two penalties that helped Detroit get out of third-and-long situations. The first penalty was an offsides penalty on third-and-10 situation which negated an 11-yard sack. The second penalty was a pass interference call on a third-and-12 play. If either penalty isn’t committed, the Rams get the ball back.
After a three-and-out effort from the Los Angeles offense, the Lions got the ball back on their own 39-yard line. Again, the Detroit offense mounted a long scoring drive: nine plays for 44 yards in 3:33 for a game-winning field goal. On this drive, the Rams defense allowed one third-down conversion and an 11-yard pass on another third-down play that put the Lions into easy FG range. There were no penalties on this drive, but the offense’s inability to do anything in a tie game hurt the Rams in field position, and then the defense’s inability to get a stop on two consecutive late-game possessions for the opponent cost L.A. the win.
New York 17, Los Angeles 10
In this circumstance, the Rams had taken a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but the offense was unable to score again the rest of the game. Tied in the fourth quarter, the L.A. defense did its job on the Giants’ first possession of the quarter. But then Rams quarterback Case Keenum made a bad throw that was intercepted and returned to the L.A. 32-yard line. That put the Rams defense in a tough position, of course, against a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB in Eli Manning. On a key third down, Manning hit Odell Beckham for 22 yards down to the L.A. six-yard line. From there, three carries by Rashad Jennings resulted in the go-ahead TD. The Rams’ final two offensive possessions ended in interceptions, both inside the New York end zone.
It’s hard to blame the Los Angeles defense for this loss, with the three turnovers the offense committed in the final 13 minutes of the game. Yet all three passes were deep throws downfield, in somewhat of a desperation mode, when the Rams offense isn’t built necessarily for that kind of action. The L.A. offense neglected its best weapon, running back Todd Gurley, and through those bad choices, it put the defense in a very difficult situation with the game on the line.
Miami 14, Los Angeles 10
In the Rams’ most recent loss, they gave up a 10-0 lead with under five minutes to go. The defense had been excellent all day, holding the Dolphins offense to just 88 yards. But in Miami’s final two possessions, the L.A. defense collapsed, allowing 152 yards on back-to-back scoring drives that resulted the 14-10 final margin. On the first drive, the Rams defense couldn’t stop the Dolphins on one third down, while also committing a personal foul that gave Miami 15 free yards. On the second drive, another personal foul cost the L.A. defense 15 yards. Strangely, the Miami offense didn’t have a play longer than 15 yards on either TD drive.
The one Rams offensive possession in between the two Dolphin scores resulted in a three-and-out effort, aided by a false-start penalty. On a third-and-10 play, Los Angeles rookie QB Jared Goff threw a six-yard pass that had little chance of getting the first down. In this case, on both offense and defense, conservative play calling enabled the opponent to do exactly what the Rams coaching staff was trying to prevent. Sometimes, taking a little risk here and there pays off, but when you’re conservatively predictable, it hurts you in ways that were easily preventable.
The defense hasn’t been perfect, but it’s hard to expect any unit to be so. The Rams defense has the statistical edge on most offenses it faces, but the conservative and error-prone offense is contributing heavily to the L.A. defense collapses via poor play calling, poor execution and its own inability to mount long drives late in the game. The predictability on both sides of the ball is hurting Los Angeles in 2016, but the defense is being asked to carry too much of the load for a conservative offense as well.