The Los Angeles Rams are coming off of a season in which they had the number one defense in the NFL. However, with losses of coordinator Brandon Staley and other starters, there are some question marks with this group. We’re taking a look at each position group, starting with the defensive line.
On the defensive side of the ball, the strength of the Rams has been anchored in their defensive line. Most notably because of the three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
His accolades and absolute dominance of opposing offensive lines are well known. For any Los Angeles Rams fan, this is nothing new. It’s no surprise that he lead the league in sacks last year with 15.5. Or that he had the highest pass rush win rate amongst all defensive tackles with 24% according to ESPN. That number would have also placed him sixth overall for EDGE rushers behind Joey Bosa and Justin Houston. It’s also no surprise that he has been the highest graded defensive lineman the past seven years by Pro Football Focus.
Highest-graded DI by season since 2014:
2020 – Aaron Donald (94.2)
2019 – Aaron Donald (93.6)
2018 – Aaron Donald (94.8)
2017 – Aaron Donald (94.4)
2016 – Aaron Donald (92.6)
2015 – Aaron Donald (92.9)
2014 – Aaron Donald (90.2) pic.twitter.com/rcO6UkYp9p
— PFF (@PFF) July 6, 2021
However, this is not an article about Aaron Donald. While he is able to completely change the game by himself, football is still a team sport and the entire defensive line unit has played very well as a group. It’s a group that can continue to do so despite some offseason changes. This article will put a spotlight on the entire defensive line and provide an outlook into how good they can continue to be in 2021.
The pass rush in 2020 was spectacular. They finished second in the NFL in sacks (53), sacks per game (3.1), and sack percentage (8.17%), according to teamrankings. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers led them in each category. The biggest boost to the pass rush, outside of Donald of course, was Leonard Floyd who chipped in 10.5 sacks of his own.
Floyd was brought in from the Bears to “replace” Dante Fowler, a tall feat of its own. However, Floyd surpassed expectations with a career year in 2020. That breakout year led to a contract extension worth $64 Million over four years. Floyd flashed his speed and skill at rushing the passer with the Bears, but he turned it on for the entire season for the Los Angeles Rams. This veteran is putting all the pieces together and looking like the top-10 draft pick that he was. Even when he’s not pass rushing he’s still playing in the backfield.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 19, 2020
The pass rush unit has seen a hit this off-season as Michael Brockers was traded to Detroit for a seventh round pick. Brockers logged five sacks in 2020. While he was a presence on the field, his pass rush production had plateaued over the past few seasons.
Also gone in free agency is Samson Ebukam who broke out in 2018, but also plateaued in production the past two seasons. Stepping into those roles in 2021 are a trio of guys that have seen the field in rotation with A’Shawn Robinson, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and Terrell Lewis. Also adding to the unit are rookies Bobby Brown and Earnest Brown. Expectations on these players will be high going into 2021 as far as who is going to be the next man up to break out from the rest.
While the pass rush has received all the accolades, the run stopping prowess of the defensive line was quietly also one of the best in the league in 2020. This was in large part because of Sebastian Joseph-Day who has dominated playing as the one-technique.
Coming into his 3rd year in the league, he adds a run stopping force to an already dominant pass rush. While Aaron Donald gets the attention from opposing offensive lines, Joseph-Day is doing the unheralded job of eating space and taking on two blockers. As the nose tackle, his job is to occupy space and stop the run. He does this very well with his 6’4, 310-lb frame.
Last year the defensive line was fifth overall in giving up the least amount of running back yards per carry with 3.78 per Football Outsiders. This unit also gave up the least amount of open field yards to opposing RBs (0.29 per carry) and ranked second in second level yards allowed (0.96 per carry).
With the help of Joseph-Day, the defensive line rarely allowed opposing running backs to reach the linebackers. Additionally, their “stuffed rate” was 23rd overall with 14.3%. The Los Angeles Rams defensive line dominated and did so consistently.
As mentioned earlier, there are new faces on the line that will contribute to the pass and run game, hopefully for the better. But the strength of the run stopping ability for this line lies with Joseph-Day. Of course, Aaron Donald will be disruptive as always. But without a dominant nose tackle to occupy space, a 3-4 defense simply will not work. Joseph-Day brings that X-factor that can be overlooked and will be the key to another high ranking season for the defensive line.
Sebastian Joseph-Day was unblockable yesterday. The best player on the team not-named Aaron Donald. He's rapidly developing into a very good player. pic.twitter.com/98CsiUsp7y
— Sosa Kremenjas (@QBsMVP) December 21, 2020
2021 Season Outlook
The biggest change to the defense obviously comes from the hiring of new Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris. Morris and players have stated the defensive scheme will not be drastically different than it was in 2020 under Brandon Staley.
Like Staley before him, Morris will keep the same base 3-4 front with some added tweaks. “It will look like a 3-4 scheme” as he stated in February. With a defensive front this potent, not much needs to be changed. This unit can act as a safety blanket for Morris by allowing more players to drop in coverage and let the front 4-5 rushers do the work.
Morris’ stints in Atlanta, Washington and Tampa Bay all came with improved defenses in multiple categories. Whatever tweaks he adds to this solid defense should only look to improve upon what he already has. With the return of solid pieces of last year’s defensive line, a new defensive coordinator with a strong history, and the will of Aaron Donald to continue to be the best we should see a return to a top-three defensive line unit in 2021.
A strong defensive line will contribute to the overall success of the defense as a whole.
From the pass rush perspective, it’s safe to predict at least 20+ sacks combined from Donald and Floyd alone. Add in the rest of the team and another 53 sack season might be far-fetched, 40+ seems more realistic.
From the run stopping perspective, opposing running backs will continue to struggle running up the middle. Joseph-Day and Donald will be a force to be reckoned with as the NFL’s most dominant interior defensive duo.