Defense Thirsty to End Turnover Drought

Posted Nov 19, 2012

It was late in the fourth quarter of the Thursday night game against Arizona when Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle challenged young defensive end Robert Quinn.

Waufle told Quinn that big time players step up and make the big plays at the most important times. With the win against the Cardinals still hanging in the balance, Waufle wanted Quinn to drive the nail in the coffin by getting the ball back for the offense to run out the clock.

Right on cue, Quinn came through, sacked Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb and forcing a fumble that the Rams recovered.

The play was significant then because it put the Rams’ victory on ice. It’s significant now because it’s the last time the Rams defense was able to force a turnover, a streak that has now reached five games and counting.

It’s no coincidence that the Rams also hold a streak of five games without a win, either, going 0-4-1 in that time.

 “The big thing is our defense hasn’t had a turnover in five weeks,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “That’s hard. And you win football games when you turn it over.

“You just keep playing and stripping, playing and stripping. That’s what it is. I don’t think I’ve been in a stretch before like that.”

Indeed, the Rams’ 3-2 start was buoyed by an opportunistic defense that was coming up with takeaways in bunches. In the first four games, that group had eight interceptions. In the fifth, Quinn forced the game-ending fumble.

Since then, it’s been zero, zip, nada, despite an on going emphasis on turnovers in practice. Since the Rams’ last takeaway, opponents have had the ball for 55 possessions and run 261 plays from scrimmage.

And it’s not like the Rams offense has been giving it away freely, either. Other than Sunday’s three-turnover performance, the Rams have just five giveaways in the previous four games.

“It’s not like we are turning the ball over five or six times on offense,” Fisher said. We are just not getting the takeaways to get the extra drive.”

Of course, it’s also not for a lack of trying. For some strange reason, the Rams defense might have the worst luck in the league when it comes to the way the ball has bounced this season.

Going back to the game in Miami where linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill, jarring the ball loose and then having to watch as it flew out of bounds as though shot out of a cannon.

In the second quarter of Sunday’s game, another prime example of the bad luck reared its head again. When Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked by Jets lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, the ball took an awkward bounce and kicked right into the hands of linebacker Bart Scott, who returned it 38 yards and very nearly went all the way for a touchdown.

Of course, in the first quarter, when Rams safety Quintin Mikell stripped Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez on a sack, the ball fell to the ground and bounced neatly right back into Sanchez’s clutches.

“It’s tough,” Mikell said. “That’s kind of the way it goes sometimes. You get a bounce here and there, but right now they’re not bouncing our way. We got opportunities a couple times, we were able to get our hands on the ball and we’ve just got to make a play. It’s crazy, because that could be the difference in the game. We haven’t had one in awhile.”

The aforementioned fumble recovery on Quinn’s sack is the only one the Rams have been able to muster this season. Opponents have had 976 touches this season and the Rams have just one fumble recovery, according to STATSPASS. That comes out to a recovery rate of 0.82, far below the league average of 1.40.

That number is particularly maddening for the Rams considering they’ve been able to force more fumbles in recent weeks, including five in the past two games.

“We’ve had balls flying all over the place, they strip sack and pick it up and run it 50 yards,” Fisher said. “We strip sack and it falls in Sanchez’s lap. The bounces will come, that’s what I told them. It will come.”

Unfortunately for the Rams, there’s no way to predict when that will happen. Traditionally in the NFL, takeaways come in bunches and if that’s the case, the Rams’ takeaway famine should soon give way to a feast.

Each week in practice, the Rams emphasize getting turnovers, preaching to their defenders the importance of finishing plays by running to the ball and ripping it out even if the play has already been declared dead.

“We’ll continue to emphasize that,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “As I said last week, just like all the 31 other defenses in this league emphasize taking the ball away and getting it. We keep getting it out, chopping it out, going after it, sooner or later it’ll bounce our way and we’ll get one.”

The sooner the better for a defense that otherwise has mostly held its own this season even without the takeaways.

But on days like Sunday’s loss to the Jets, the glaring lack of big plays from defense gets magnified further because the offense was struggling to put up points.

Whether it happens through happenstance or on cue like the Quinn strip/sack, the Rams don't care so long as it happens. The frustration has begun to set in.

“I don’t know (what it is),” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We harp on it every day in practice. We talk about it every day in practice. We emphasize it and we are just not getting them. We have got to figure out a way to because as you can see the past few weeks, turnovers are just key in the NFL. We have to figure out somehow; we have got to punch them out, we have got to get ‘em and we have got to score on defense. We have got to alter a game by forcing a turnover.”