Los Angeles Rams Defensive Spotlight: The Linebackers

by Tommy Mo
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The history of the Los Angeles Rams linebackers includes some of the greatest players in the NFL. Players like London Fletcher, Kevin Greene, and James Laurinaitis are just a few names who have come through the organization.

This 2021 linebacking unit is young and full of talent. They will be tested this year as new stars are emerging and previous backups are fighting for starting roles. New Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris will be watching to see who emerges as the starter and is ready to take that next step.

With an already stellar defensive line, and an equally impressive secondary, the linebackers will benefit the most from Morris’ scheme. Morris also has a willingness to adapt a defense to his players.

A 3-4 defense needs four playmakers at the second level who can hit and run. As I previously examined in the Defensive Line Spotlight, the defensive line is expected to be just as good as last year. This will make things easier on the linebackers.

Pass Rush – Edge Rushers

In this 3-4 defensive scheme, the linebackers not only have to drop in coverage but have to contribute to an already stellar pass rush. The Los Angeles Rams signed Leonard Floyd last offseason and he dominated off the edge last year. Floyd’s numbers produced a career year and earned him a contract extension. His ability to rush the passer as effectively as he did was crucial after the Rams lost Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews.

Floyd returns as the most experienced pass rushing linebacker off the edge. Joining Floyd in the pass rush are Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Terrell Lewis.

Lewis was drafted in the 3rd round last year out of Alabama and expectations are high coming into training camp. When healthy he has flashed as a force off the edge. He was drafted to rush the passer, but also does a great job at stopping the run.

There are also a handful of edge rushers like Derrick Moncrief, Justin Lawler, and John Daka competing for a roster spot along with rookies Chris Garrett and Maximilian Roberts. Moncrief was on the practice squad in 2020, Lawler was a seventh round draft pick in 2018, and Daka is with his third team in two years.

Garrett is also a seventh round rookie who comes from Division II Concordia St. Paul and Roberts is a Free Agent rookie signing out of Boston College. There is a low chance all five guys make the final 53-man roster in September so this will be a position battle to watch.

Pass Coverage – Inside Linebackers

Although the front seven are adept at rushing the passer, the other way to stop the pass is in coverage. Again, this is where Morris can be most helpful. With the Falcons, Morris reworked the defense in 2020 to play in multiple fronts, more zone coverage, and finding ways to affect the quarterback. This didn’t just result in sacks, but throwing off timing and disrupting passing lanes.

Morris has stated the 2021 Los Angeles Rams will have a base 3-4 look. However, in his time in Tampa Bay, Morris ran a Tampa 2, and the Falcons employed more Cover 3. This defense will be anything but “basic”.

Expect to see multiple looks in situational downs. However, adapting and simplifying the defense for the Falcons allowed their linebackers to run around and make plays. Being able to read and react with lightning quickness can only be possible when the linebacker can play to their instincts. Currently on the roster are four guys with significant playing time under their belts as a starter or in rotation. A simplified coverage scheme will do well to allow these young linebackers to develop.

Stuffing the Run – Inside Linebackers

All eyes will be on Micah Kiser in 2021 after two seasons spending time on IR. His 2020 stint on IR was due to a knee injury after nine games. Those first nine games were impressive for the first year starter as he recorded 77 tackles.

Kiser returned after six games for the playoffs but only in a special teams role. He has the best chance to step up significantly in 2021 and turn into one of the great Los Angeles Rams linebackers. Kiser is not the biggest or fastest guy on the field, but he makes plays.

Coupled with a defensive scheme that could simplify things for him and let him make plays, the sky is limit for Kiser. As you can see below, he plays with a great pad level, uses his hands to control the blocker, while tracking the running back to make the tackle.

Joining Kiser as the current projected starter in the middle is Troy Reeder. Reeder was a free agent acquisition in 2019 who stepped into a starting role both seasons when Kiser was injured. The former Delaware linebacker played in 13 games last year and started seven. Six of those starts came in the seven games that Kiser missed. In his first start, he totaled an impressive 15 tackles. He also had an impressive three sacks against Washington. Reeder finished the season with 81 total tackles, showing vast improvement from 2019 and proving he’s worthy of a starting role.

Competing for a rotational spot on the roster are Kenny Young and Justin Hollins. Young compliled 52 tackles on the season with a pick-six against the Patriots in Week 13. Hollins added 28 tackles of his own in a rotational role. Travin Howard and Christian Rozeboom were practice squad members who are hoping to make the leap in training camp.

Despite the relative experience ahead of him, the big name worth watching this training camp is third round rookie out of South Carolina, Ernest Jones. He flies to the ball and was dominant for the Gamecocks last year. His athletic profile and draft capital alone gives him the opportunity to compete for a starting role opposite Kiser. At a minimum significant rotational playing time in year one.

To add a twist to the entire uncertainty of the linebacking group. Rumblings out of Rams camp are that backup safety Jake Gervase may be working at LB. As DTR’s own Jake Ellenbogen tweeted in early July, Gervase’s Relative Athletic Score (RAS) is better than some of the best linebackers in the game. This just shows how wide open the competition will be this year to lock in those four starting linebacking spots.

2021 Season Outlook

It’s not a slight to the Los Angeles Rams linebackers to say they have nothing to lose. Expectations are not high for this specific position group, given the inexperience. We should expect to see the greatest contribution from the linebackers in the pass rush and stopping the run in the box.

The inside linebackers can all run in the 4.6 range but aren’t sideline to sideline defenders. However, with guys like Floyd and Lewis setting the edge, we should see a stout run defense as well as a dominant pass rush.

The best thing about this linebacking group is that they are young, hungry to prove themselves, and have depth. Like any year, as long as the linebackers stay healthy they will contribute to the best defense in the league.

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