By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)Heading into the 2014 season, the St. Louis Rams were expected to have a dominant defensive line , a unit that would wreck havoc on opposing quarterbacks and help mask weaknesses in the team’s secondary. With Robert Quinn coming off a 19-sack season, stalwarts Chris Long and Michael Brockers already in house, and the addition of first-round pick Aaron Donald, the d-line was supposed to be the strength of a team aspiring to compete in a loaded NFC West division.
Unfortunately, the preseason injury to Sam Bradford dispelled any realistic notions of the Rams making noise this season. Yet, due in part to Long requiring ankle surgery and being placed on injury reserve, the Rams front line defensively has not lived up to its lofty billing and is as much a reason as any for the team’s 1-2 start to the season. Through three games, St. Louis has recorded just a single sack and forced only one fumble, areas in which the team was expected to excel going into the season. Rookie Aaron Donald is the only member of the unit living up to expectations, having that lone sack and also leading the team with four tackles for loss.
However, even though they haven’t perfomed as predicted, the defensive line has performed admirably in one area which could be a concern for the Eagles in Week 5: stopping the running back at the point of attack. Football Outsiders tracks a Stuffed stat, which is the ‘percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage’. After 3 weeks of play, before the Rams’ Week 4 bye, the team was first in the NFL at stuffs, stonewalling the running back on 31% of rush attempts. Conversely, through four weeks, can you guess which offensive line is last in the NFL at getting stuffed? That’s right, it’s the Eagles, whose M.A.S.H. unit of an o-line has allowed running backs to be stymied at the line on a whopping 35% of their carries. The return of Lane Johnson from suspension at right tackle should help in this area, but with Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce still out due to injury, winning the battle up front could be an uphill battle.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for the Eagles to get anything going in the running game against St. Louis. Overall, the Rams have not been a good run defense, allowing big runs once the ball carrier gets to the second level. St. Louis ranks near the bottom of the NFL in second level and open field yards, which measure how many yards running backs break off once they get 5-10 yards downfield and beyond. Once opposing ball carriers break through the initial wall, the Rams’ backside defenders have been awful filling lanes and bringing the guy down for modest gains. This area is certainly one in which the Eagles’ talented duo of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles should be able to exploit.
It’s no secret that the Eagles’ offensive line injuries were a big reason for their first loss of the season last week in San Francisco. This week, they’ll need to step up against a talented Rams group that, while not playing to their full potential, have still done an excellent job up front against the run. It’s crucial that the line gives McCoy and Sproles at least a chance to get to the second level and break off some big plays. It’s only once that running game gets going that things will open back up for Nick Foles and the passing attack. So when you’re looking for what could decide the contest in Week 5, look no further than the trenches.