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Why isn’t the Rams defense better than it is?

Among teams with elite offenses, the Los Angeles defense is fine. But if we’re looking for fatal flaws in the league’s last unbeaten team, it starts on that side of the ball.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The remaining members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins haven’t yet been able to toast their achievement this fall. Their status as the NFL’s only unbeaten team has not yet been solidified for another year because the Los Angeles Rams haven’t yet lost.

The Rams went all-in this offseason in their quest for the Super Bowl LIII title. They already boasted an incredible core of quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley (the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year), defensive tackle Aaron Donald (the reigning Defensive Player of the Year), etc. To it, they added defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, and receiver Brandin Cooks.

This was already one of the best teams in the league last year, one capable of going 11-5 and hosting a game in the NFL postseason. And that was before bringing in all the veteran backup.

So far, the moves have worked, to say the least. Los Angeles is 8-0 with wins over the teams ranked third (Chargers), seventh (Broncos), and 11th (Packers) in DVOA. They are second in DVOA and first in FPI, and if they’re still unbeaten about three weeks from now — after facing the Saints this Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET) and hosting the Chiefs on the evening of November 19 — then the biggest hurdles on this schedule have been cleared, and those aging Dolphins might have to start worrying about their champagne glasses remaining forever unclinked.

That probably won’t happen, though. The Rams have nearly been tripped up a few times now (four of the last five wins have come by a touchdown or less), and most of the time the culprit has been a surprising one: the defense.

Adding Dante Fowler Jr. might have been more “need” than “necessity.”

Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs
Dante Fowler Jr.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before we go any further, let me make something clear: The Rams’ defense isn’t bad. It’s not Kansas City’s, and it’s definitely not Atlanta’s.

Among the teams with the best offenses in the league, the Rams’ D might be the best of the bunch. They are 12th in defensive DVOA, and that will usually get the job done when you’ve got one of the top two offenses in the league.

But if we’re looking for holes to poke, we find more on defense than offense. Considering the talent at hand, that’s a little bit surprising.

When the Rams traded a couple of future draft picks for former first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr., it was seen as the prototypical “rich get richer” move. But there was more to it than that: they actually needed the help up front.

There’s risk that comes when a team that’s 8-0 and doesn’t need to fix anything, gives up a pick to add another player. Especially one who sometimes caused problems off the field in Jacksonville.

But for as good as the Rams have been, they needed another edge rusher. Aaron Donald has accounted for 10 of the team’s sacks and no other player on the defense has more than three.

The trio of Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers consistently smash pockets from the inside out, but the Rams would benefit from a player finishing those plays by rushing from the outside in.

Despite what appears to be an incredible collection of disruptive talent, the Rams have, according to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, created negative plays on only one-third of their snaps — 12th in the NFL. That’s jarringly low when you think about not only the talent up front, but also the defensive coordinator calling the shots (Wade Phillips).

Select your similar definition of choice for situations in which the offense is decidedly behind the eight ball — passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more), third-and-longs (third-and-7 or more), blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third-and-3 or more), etc. — it doesn’t matter which one you pick, as the Rams stink in all of them.

The Rams let opponents off the hook far more than you would expect.

Bringing Fowler in wasn’t a luxury move — it might have been a need. Despite Donald’s increasing dominance, the Rams really do need to generate more disruption up front. That, or the secondary needs to do its job a little better.

The season is already in its third act for this defense. For the first three weeks, with Talib and Peters healthy, they allowed 12 points per game. Granted, two of those games were against the Raiders and Cardinals, but they allowed only 23 points to the Chargers in Week 3 — not bad for facing that deadly offense.

When Talib got hurt and Peters got dinged up, however, the quality diminished quickly. Talib is on injured reserve and won’t be available for a few weeks. In the first three games without him (Peters kept playing but was clearly hindered), the Rams allowed 82 points and a success rate about five percentage points higher. According to Sports Info Solutions, the replacement trio of Nickell Robey-Coleman, Sam Shields, and Troy Hill combined for more than 90 snaps in each game.

Since then, improvement. Sort of. With the replacement trio back under 90 snaps in each of the last two games, the Rams allowed 10 points and 3.9 yards per play against the 49ers but did get hit for 27 points and 6.9 yards per play against the Packers. Their unbeaten record might have been saved not by the defense, but by a late Green Bay special teams miscue.

With Talib in the lineup, the Rams allowed a success rate of just 37.9 percent, well under the league average. With Robey-Coleman on the field, it’s 40.2 percent. Shields: 41.5. Hill: 42.2. If or when Talib returns, that solves one burgeoning problem.

This still doesn’t let the front seven off the hook, though.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Chris Carson found lots of room to run against the Rams.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to blame the loss of Talib for mediocrity against the run. The Rams are currently 31st in rushing marginal efficiency allowed and 25th in rushing DVOA allowed. In the last three weeks alone, Seattle’s Chris Carson and Mike Davis rushed for 184 yards in 31 carries (5.9 per carry), Green Bay’s Aaron Jones rushed for 86 in 12 (7.2), and a trio of 49ers backs rushed for 99 in 19 (5.2). The Chargers’ Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler rushed for 127 in 19 (6.7) earlier in the year, too.

These struggles bring up questions about the linebacking corps. (It bears mentioning that, while compiling all this talent in the offseason, the Rams did trade away LBs Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree. They’ve combined for seven tackles for loss with the Dolphins and Giants, respectively.)

Fowler might be able to help in this regard. Again according to Sports Info Solutions data, with Fowler on the field this year Jacksonville allowed a 37.9 percent success rate against the run, better than what the Rams have allowed with Brockers (45 percent) or backup John Franklin-Myers (50 percent). Granted, that doesn’t account for the rest of your supporting cast, but it’s something.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Rams
Michael Brockers
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Every team has a fatal flaw, and 31 of 32 are exploited over the course of 16 regular-season games, and a monthlong postseason.

The Rams have as good a shot as anyone of winning the Super Bowl, but if they end up tripping up along the way, in either the regular season or playoffs, such a loss will begin with a poorly run defense, and eventually include a few glitches downfield. The defense won’t be able to get off the field, which will create pressure on the offense to be perfect. The opponent breaks serve with just a couple of stops, and the Rams fall in a shootout — we’ll say something in the 35-31 range.

Most of the other 31 teams would love to have the Rams’ “problems,” but they’re potential problems nonetheless.