Sizing Up the NFC West Part 3: St. Louis Rams

Sam-Bradord-St.-Louis-RamsStreeter Lacka/Getty Images

For our final installment of our NFC West preview, we take a look at the St. Louis Rams, who… I don’t have a whole lot to say about. I was in the process of analyzing the potential results of Sam Bradford’s return to the Rams’ offense when he reinjured his ACL, ending his season.

Critiques of the St. Louis’ front office have been raining down since the injury. The Rams haven’t drafted a single quarterback since grabbing Bradford in 2010. Not in 2011, when they could have taken Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, or even Tyrod Taylor. Not in 2012, when they could have taken Russell Wilson, Nick Foles or Kirk Cousins. Not in 2013, when they could added Geno Smith, Mike Glennon or Matt Barkley. And not in 2014, when they could have used either of their first round picks on Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr.

One can understand the Rams liking Bradford’s upside, which is significant, but it is harder to understand their unwillingness to draft and develop any other signal callers. You can’t even really chalk this up them simply having faith in Bradford; they have had a wealth of early picks in several talented quarterback classes, but still refused to pull the trigger. Adding a raw talent like Geno Smith or Colin Kaepernick behind Bradford would have given them insurance, putting them in a much better spot than they’re in now. It’s hard to make sense of it all.

What they have done is draft defensive studs. Their first pick in 2011 went to Robert Quinn, who went to the Pro Bowl last year after piling up 19 sacks. Their first pick in 2012 went to defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and in 2013 they used their second pick in the first round on linebacker Alex Ogletree. This year, they added defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Over the last three years, they have built what is arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, and have gone 23-40-1.

Of all the defensive lines assembled in the last 18 seasons, only 74 have been in the top ten in both passing and rushing defense at the same time. Of those 74 d-lines, only 19 played for teams that posted a losing record. Of those 19, only one team has posted back to back losing seasons despite boasting a top ten defensive line: the 2012 and 2013 St. Louis Rams.

I don’t look at the Rams as a pushover. Of those 19 teams with losing records, only three had a record worse than 5-11. St. Louis will win a few games, and maybe even upset a couple of more talented teams. However, their unrelenting focus on the defensive line and blind faith in Bradford may have cost the Rams a winning season, if not a playoff berth.

The 49ers will play the Rams in weeks 6 and 9.

Check out previews of the Seahawks and Cardinals.

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Sizing Up the NFC West Part 2: Seattle Seahawks

msmithseahawksChris O’Meara, AP

We continue our preview of the 49ers’ opponents in the NFC West with the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. Unlike the Cardinals, Seattle doesn’t have many weaknesses, even after losing several free agents. Golden Tate departed from their underrated wide receiving corp while defensive linemen Clinton McDonald and Red Bryant moved on to more lucrative contracts, but the Seahawks are still a fundamentally strong team. The real question relates to what was a huge part of Seattle’s success last year: turnovers.

A year ago, the Seahawks made waves by trading for Minnesota wideout Percy Harvin. Somewhat less heralded were the additions of defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Seattle’s secondary is often hailed as the best in the NFL, but it was the added pass rush from free agency that established their defense as the league’s toughest.

This added depth was felt by every team Seattle faced, and it helped them snatch a league-leading 39 turnovers in the regular season. These turnovers were the result of a very talented secondary that had the physical tools to make the most of Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme.

I am curious whether this trend will continue. Things as simple as how a deflected ball spins through the air or how a fumble bounces can determine who recovers it, making it hard to depend on turnovers to always go one team’s way. Likewise, turnovers are the result of the opposing team making a major mistake, making consistently positive turnovers even more improbable. For an example, check out Richard Sherman’s pick six in week 4 against the Texans*.

In the 4th quarter, the Texans led the Seahawks 20-13. Houston’s gameplan was simple: run the clock out. They committed to running the ball, squeezing Arian Foster through Seattle’s defensive line for some solid gains. However, with just 2:51 on the clock, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub made a horrible decision. A well-timed blitz from Seattle got to Schaub, but rather than take the sack and let the clock keep running, he chucked the ball to a tightly covered Owen Daniels. Sherman read the play and used his length to reach around Daniels for the interception, running 58 yards for a touchdown. Seattle would go on to win in overtime.

Turnovers are a confluence of luck, skill, and sometimes, poor decision-making by the other team. While reviewing Seattle’s season, I took a look at the stability of the turnover differential statistic. Turnover differential is an interesting stat that combines the amount of times a team’s defense or special teams caused a turnover with the amount of times the offense or special teams turned the ball over. A negative turnover differential means that a team turned over the ball more than their defense was able to force turnovers.

Turnover differential is a measurement of both the offense and defense, and it can act as a crude but effective barometer of a team’s success. I tabulated the top ten teams in turnover differential in each season since 2002. Of the 125 top ten teams examined, only 16 (12.8%) had seasons below .500. The top five teams in each year since 2002 averaged a .713 regular season winning percentage (about 11 games in a 16 game season). 10 of the last 12 Super Bowl winning teams had a differential in the top ten, with the 2007 Giants and the 2008 Steelers being the only exceptions.

In 2013, the Seahawks led the league with a differential of +22, the result of an talented and at times fortunate defense and a quarterback who threw very, very few interceptions. I took a look at how often teams are able to maintain a great differential over multiple seasons. Since 2002, the top five teams in each season fell and average 11.47 places in rank in the following season, and their differential took an average hit of 12.55. If the Seahawks stayed with this trend, they would become the 12th ranked team, with a still respectable differential of +10 in 2014.

Only 25% of teams in the top five made it back in the next season, and only 40% stayed in the top 10. In fact, only four top five teams in the last 12 years managed to improve their differential in the next season. The last team to lead the league in differential and win the Super Bowl was the 2000 Ravens with a regular season differential of 23. They would fall to 23rd in the league in 2001 with a differential of -8.

I do not look at Seattle as a team primed to fall. I would be seriously surprised if they do not make it to the playoffs in 2014. However, it will be the offense taking a step forward that gets them there. A healthy Percy Harvin and an improved offensive line should be enough to overcome a highly probable reduction in turnover differential. As the numbers show, nobody can count on the ball bouncing their way forever.

*In a fit of slavering excitement, Chris Myers shouts “It’s intercepted by Richard Sherman! He’s goin’ down the sideline… He’s got followers, AND NOT JUST ON TWITTER!” It’s been almost a year and I still can’t believe how awful this call is. There are two possible explanations:

  1. Myers had spent most of the offseason thinking about this line, and had waited for the perfect moment to unleash his creation.
  2. Myers was so inspired by Sherman’s heads up play that the idiot’s muse poured into him this most terrible of exclamations.

No matter what the explanation, he should have been fired immediately.

The 49ers will play the Seahawks in weeks 13 and 15.

Check out previews of the Rams and Cardinals.