Defense Working Toward Turnover Turnaround

Posted Nov 7, 2012

Four games into the season, the Rams defense had forged a reputation for its pass rush, its ability in coverage and, most of all, for being an opportunistic group that finds ways to generate extra possessions for the offense.

Quite literally from the first defensive series of the season, the Rams flashed a penchant for creating turnovers as cornerback Janoris Jenkins picked off a pass from Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.

That momentum carried through for the first quarter of the season but, for the past three games, the well has gone dry. It’s no coincidence that the Rams have lost three in a row and have not generated a single takeaway in any of those meetings.

Going into last week’s bye, the Rams’ self scouting efforts focused on ways to again get the takeaways coming and to re-focus on how to do it.

“That’s what we are out there for, to get takeaways and get three and outs to give our offense a chance to score points,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “We want to pick that up. This break should help us clear our minds and regain focus again.”

In their search for answers, there doesn’t figure to be any one steadfast solution that can easily be plugged in. If there was, it already would have happened.

But upon doing the research on the turnover rollercoaster, the Rams saw some startlingly strong numbers on interceptions early before a lack of them in the past few weeks. Perhaps more stunning, though, is a complete lack of takeaways via the fumble, an area that coach Jeff Fisher and his team believes they actually have some control over.

“I think takeaways are huge,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We emphasize that in practice. When you have a ball carrier everybody is stripping the ball. Interceptions come in waves. It’s the forced fumbles you have to practice. You have to make it kind of muscle memory where if you do it in practice then in the game you are just going to naturally do it every time you are around a ball carrier. So we have to continue to harp on that, get that changed and when the quarterback throws us a ball, it gets tipped in the air or something like that; we have got to get them.

That means putting additional weight on it in practice with ball stripping drills, requiring that everyone runs to the ball and pushing for the right mentality to make those things happen.

While there’s a certain amount of luck involved, getting turnovers is also a skill that can be practiced. 

For example, former Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe used to make a nuisance of himself in practice by chasing down the ball on every practice rep and attempting to strip the ball, even if the receiver or running back was simply carrying the ball back to the huddle.

“You work on it in practice,” Fisher said. “You catch balls and try stripping and you tackle. It’s not like we are not making attempts to get balls out on defense and special teams and they just haven’t come out. It’s not because we’re not working at it.”

Through eight games, the Rams have recovered just one fumble but it’s more stunning that they’ve only had the opportunity to recover two.

To put that in perspective, Carolina has the second-lowest amount of forced fumbles this year with six and Chicago leads the league in that category with 21. The Rams’ lone fumble recovery is also the lowest total in the league, tied with Indianapolis while Chicago and New England have 11.

Opposing offenses have had 782 touches with only two fumbles, which is an astonishingly low percentage of a fumble once every 0.26 touches, far below the league average of 1.34 percent.

“It’s highly unusual that in eight games and all the touches that are involved in eight games, our opponent has fumbled two balls and we’ve recovered one,” Fisher said. “We need to place a great deal of emphasis on that and getting the ball back.”

The lack of fumbles wouldn’t be as glaring were it not for a pause in interceptions as well. In the first four games, the Rams had eight interceptions but have not picked off a pass since.

When the Rams have zero takeaways, they are 0-3. When they have one, they are 2-1 and they are 1-1 with three or more. The Rams nine total takeaways on the season rank 26th in the league.

On the flip side, the Rams have done a solid job of not giving the ball away as they have just 11 giveaways, tied for 10th fewest in the league. Still, Fisher wants to see the number on the other side rise while that number dwindles.

“It just happens,” Fisher said. “They come in bunches and we need turnovers. We’re doing a pretty good job protecting it. I think we’ve given up one in each of the last two weeks, but we’re just not getting any. We haven’t gotten any turnovers and that’s the same with the fumbles, too. We’re still waiting for the fumbles to come. We’re just not causing fumbles and recovering fumbles.”

For a defense that has taken some big steps forward in 2011 and has at various times found itself among the top five in the league in some of the more important defensive categories, there was plenty to like about the first half of the season.
The way the final three contests of that first half, though, have left something of a sour taste in the defense’s collective mouth. And as they open the second half of the season in San Francisco this weekend and look to improve in a number of areas, there’s little doubt that the onus will be on finding a way to create a turnover turnaround.

“We have got to find a way to come up with some big plays,” Laurinaitis said. “Defensively, we have got to force some turnovers. We are in a drought with that right now so how do we force some turnovers? How do we make some plays? How do we score on defense? How do we impact the game more? I think that’s something since the Arizona game we really haven’t done. I thought in Miami we played great defense but we didn’t get a turnover. We didn’t do the things we needed to do. The red zone defense has to get better. Third down defense the last two games has been terrible. So we have to find a way to fix a lot of things.”