ST. LOUIS — Maybe they were tired of being overlooked.
Since the start of training camp, the St. Louis Rams defense has heard the crowd gathered at Rams Park ooh and aah every time quarterback Sam Bradford finds a receiver.
Meanwhile, as it goes in training camp, the men on the other side of the ball have found limited chances to do what they do best — hit.
But it’s clear this defense wants to make sure no is fooled. When allowed to truly play, it has big expectations. The Rams believe they will have one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2013.
“Our goal has gotta be a top-five defense,” Rams defensive end Chris Long says. “Top 10 is the minimum expectation. We feel like the sky is the limit. I don’t want to set any goals out there, bulletin-board goals. But we have our goals in the locker room. I’ll just tell you they’re high.”
“Absolutely,” Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar echoes. “We are really good up front. Our linebacking corps, we run around and make plays. We hit guys. And our back end, those guys are lock-up guys who play coverage. I don’t expect anything else. I expect us to come out and play hard, play physical. We were top 15 last year. I expect us to be better.”
In 2012, the Rams finished 14th in yards surrendered per game (342.6), 15th in pass defense (225.1) and 15th in stopping the run (117.5). The team’s biggest strength was the front line of coach Jeff Fisher’s 4-3 defense, a unit that accumulated 39 of the team’s 52 sacks, a total that co-led the NFL. Dunbar says the play behind that front will improve.
“We blew a couple coverages,” he says. “Anytime we blow coverages, that happens. We didn’t rally to check-downs fast enough. There were a few things on the back end and in the linebacking corps that we didn’t do. Our front four plays great. They’re always humming, always getting after quarterbacks. It’s hard to complain with those guys. It’s about us in the back end and in the linebacking corps being able to come up and make those plays.”
Dunbar is part of an experienced returning unit. Every defensive lineman who registered a sack, starter or substitute, is back. Dunbar and veteran James Laurinaitis started 16 games a piece last season. Corner Cortland Finnegan returns, along with second-year corner Janoris Jenkins and safety Darian Stewart. It could be that just two rookies — linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald — are asked to start immediately.
“It helps from the standpoint of they’re used to each other,” Fisher says of the current experience level. “They trust each other. They’re going to work hard together. They know how to prepare together.”
Instead of predicting where the unit should finish in the rankings, Fisher points out where the group needs to be better: more turnovers, stiffer red zone defense and stronger performances against opponents’ two-minute drills.
His players acknowledge the room to improve, while insisting this current group is still pretty good. Long believes the team that takes the field this season will have more potential than any defense he’s been a part of since St. Louis drafted him in 2008.
“A lot of guys in the room that have played on some other defenses feel like this might be the best one they’ve been on,” he says. “We certainly have the pieces in place. The coaches and Les [Rams general manager Les Snead] have done a great job of assembling. But we have to execute.”
He must have been talking to Dunbar.
“What is the ceiling?” Dunbar says. “The potential is endless. We could be one of the nastiest defenses in the league.”
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.