In today’s “Key Matchup,” PFW’s Dan Arkush focuses on the Rams’ run defense vs. Bills RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson
Rams’ run defense vs. Bills RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson
In a battle between a pair of teams harboring faint playoff hopes, the ability of the Rams’ vastly improved run defense (ranked 13th after finishing 31st last season) to contain Buffalo’s 4th-ranked ground game will be a key factor.
The Bills are coming off a season-high 232-yard ground attack against the lowly Jaguars in a 34-18 victory last Sunday. Spiller and Jackson, widely considered to be one of the league’s strongest RB duos, combined for 186 yards against Jacksonville, with Jackson churning out a season-high 109 yards and Spiller contributing a 44-yard TD romp for his fifth rushing score of the season.
The Rams’ front seven was on the main stage, front and center in the team’s stunning overtime win over the NFC West-leading Niners, limiting Niners RBs Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs to 23-58 and 4-6 rushing, respectively. After 34 yards on his first three runs, Gore had only 24 yards on his final 20 carries.
A point worth noting is the fragile state of the Buffalo offensive line. Quality C Eric Wood injured his left knee vs. Jacksonville and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks. In addition, ORT Chris Hairston (right ankle) is not expected to play vs. the Rams.
Spiller, who has been Buffalo’s primary rushing threat this season with Jackson missing three games with two different injuries, is a bona-fide home run threat and a constant danger once he bounces outside. Averaging an impressive 6.6 yards per carry with at least 70 yards rushing in six of his last seven games, Spiller is currently the AFC’s fifth-leading rusher with 907 yards.
Jackson, more of a between-the-tackles threat, has rushed for 423 yards (4.0 ypc) with three TDs and is a better blocker than Spiller, which keeps Jackson on the field in passing situations.
In Week 13, Spiller and Jackson started the game in the same backfield together. In Week 12, Spiller started along with FB Corey McIntyre, with Jackson coming off the bench. In Week 11, Spiller started in a one-back, three-WR set, and Jackson was inactive.
Ideally, head coach Chan Gailey would like to get both backs 12-15 touches per game each, but will lean toward whoever has the “hot hand,” which last week belonged more to Jackson, who was havng an outstanding 2011 campaign before going down in Week 11 with a broken fibula.
The Rams’ ends and outside linebackers will need to keep Spiller from scurrying to the edge, while the interior line, featuring Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers, will work to plug the middle. The Bills will aim to run the ball and use the screen play to keep Rams DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn from pinning their ears back.
The Ram defender up front worthy of special focus is Brockers, the team’s first-round draft pick who had a breakout game last week. The 6-5, 322-pound Brockers stood out on two particular plays against the Niners — his tackle of Gore behind the line of scrimmage in the third quarter and his hustling chase-down of speedy Vernon Davis following the Niners tight end’s nine-yard catch in overtime.
Raw but explosive with a massive wingspan, Brockers was limited earlier this season by a high-ankle sprain suffered in the final preseason game. But his playing time has gradually increased with his improved health, and the Rams are beginning to reap the dividends.
Also worth keeping a special eye on are Rams LBs James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar in the middle and on the weak side, respectively. The tandem combined for 21 tackles last week vs. the Niners (Dunbar with a team-leading 11 and Laurinaitis with 10).
According to the Rams’ team statistics, Laurinaitis, who rarely comes off the field, has registered double-digit tackles in nine of the team’s 12 games, including last week.
Laurinaitis has a great feel for the game and studies his opponents very well. Before the snap, he looks almost like a QB at the line of scrimmage, barking out calls, making hand signals, and getting players lined up. He is a downhill, physical player who plays really hard.
A big factor behind the Rams’ improvement vs. the run has been the defense’s ability to create negative plays, which has been Dunbar’s specialty (team-best 13 tackles for loss, including two last Sunday).
Signed in early April, Dunbar is an undersized but aggressive hell-raiser, who provides flexibility with his ability to play all three LB positions. The former Saint’s connection with Rams LB coach Blake Williams was a key in him coming to St. Louis.