Los Angeles Rams: Where Does the Defense Need to Improve?

by Blaine Grisak
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After a loss there are going to be a lot over overreactions. One of the main talking points this week for the Los Angeles Rams after the loss to the Cardinals has been the defense. The Rams had the No. 1 defense one year ago. However, a drop-off should have been anticipated considering they lost the coach responsible for it.

Nonetheless, a defense with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey underperformed against the Cardinals. In a society with a short memory, that’s all people are going to remember.

They won’t remember that the Rams hadn’t allowed 20 points in a game in the first three weeks. The Buccaneers eclipsed 20, but it was late and in garbage time.

The fans won’t remember that the Rams rank number six in the NFL in sacks in the first four weeks of the season. They won’t remember that Jonathan Taylor was held to 3.4 yards per carry or that Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones also averaged just over two yards per carry.

A few things can be true when it comes to the Rams defense. In DVOA they are currently ranked 20th. First, there is obviously room for improvement. Secondly, the Rams defense played a very good Cardinals team led by a quarterback playing at a MVP level. Finally, the Rams defense is doing some things well.

I’m going to jump into all of it right here. Let’s start with where the Rams need to improve.

The Defensive Philosophy

A lot of Los Angeles Rams fans will describe the defense as having a “bend but don’t break” mindset. However, The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue described the defense as this:

The scheme rightly allows for bits and pieces to be accumulated by the opposing offense in order to first prevent the explosive pass, then the explosive run, but it also is built to dictate and constrict within that philosophy. The Rams play with a “roof” over the top of the defense, meaning their safeties play from depth and their outside cornerbacks act as overhangs.

 

Playing that way, in theory, “constricts” the receivers’ routes and the quarterback’s options, and the safest options for that quarterback — with the pass rush bearing down — become the small portions of the field right in front of him, often via checkdown. Playing from depth is a smart thing — it prevents explosive passing plays and counters the play action very well — but the defense shouldn’t “bend” to the point that it has.

It’s not a bend but don’t break philosophy. In fact, it’s a philosophy that a lot of the NFL is using in today’s game. Defenses are resorting to playing a two-shell safety alignment (two safeties high). This is supposed to be in place to take away the big play and keep everything underneath and in front.

With Morris and the Rams defense, the keys are simple. Make plays on third down and force field goals instead of touchdowns inside the red zone. The Cardinals actually executed this perfectly. The Rams punted once the entire game last week, but turnovers and a poor performance in the red zone led to 13 points by the offense plus seven in garbage time.

Let’s put it like this. If the Rams get stops on 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-16 early in the game, the Cardinals are likely held to 13 points on the opening three drives instead of 21. If that’s the case, then it’s a much different ball game. Instead, Arizona went 2-for-2 in the red zone and went 4-for-4 on third down, leading to 21 points.

The Los Angeles Rams have been executing this well. They’ve allowed just two running plays of 20+ yards and 13 passing plays of 20+ yards. The 13 passing plays rank 13th in the NFL. This was not the case against the Cardinals.

On individual drives even a single explosive play triples its odds in resulting in a score. The Cardinals’ opening touchdown went 41-yards. Later in the game, Kyler Murray found Maxx Williams for 25 yards on a touchdown drive.

It’s fair to say that everything that could go against the Rams on Sunday did. However, that still doesn’t mean that the defense can’t play better.

Shorten Drives

*Note: Stats retrieved from Football Outsiders

The Los Angeles Rams need to do a much better drop at shortening drives. Getting third down stops early in games will allow the defense to get off the field and put the high-powered offense back on it. The Rams strength is the offense. It needs to be on the field as much as possible.

As it currently stands, the Rams defense is allowing 7.73 plays per drive. That ranks 32nd in the NFL. In other words, the Rams defense is not only not getting off the field on third downs, but they are also allowing long drives. It really is death by 1,000 paper cuts.

Additionally, each offensive drive is going 41.49 yards which ranks 29th. The only teams worse are Washington, Seattle, and Kansas City. To put it simply, if an opposing team takes over at the 25, their drive on average is going until the Rams’ 35 yard line. This essentially means that the average opponent drive is going into field goal range.

Compare these stats to last year in which the Rams allowed an average of 5.6 yards per play for an average of 24.96 yards which led the NFL.

The Los Angeles Rams defense has been on the field a lot. They currently rank 32nd in time of possession per drive.

How the Rams are playing right now simply is not sustainable. That’s especially the case when this team has Super Bowl aspirations.

Third Downs

That leads us directly into our next point. Through four weeks, the Los Angeles Rams defense has shown that it needs to get better on third downs. If they can get stops on third down, then it’ll shorten drives which were mentioned above. The Rams are allowing third downs at a rate of 50% right now. Last season, they allowed third downs at a rate of 35%.

On Sunday, the Cardinals converted 8-of-13 third down tries. Again, make that 6-for-13 and it’s likely a much different ball game and that’s still a 46% conversion rate.

While the Cardinals 61.5% conversation rate is high, that wasn’t completely abnormal for the Rams defense. The Colts converted 5-of-11 third downs for a rate of 55%. The Buccaneers were 6-of-13. Even the Bears were 5-for-11. If the Rams can get another stop or two per game on third downs, it’ll make a big difference.

More Punts

The Los Angeles Rams can shorten drive a few different ways. Forcing punts is one of them. The Rams are currently forcing .243 punts per game. This currently ranks 30th in the NFL. The Bears punted one time and the Colts punted just twice. The Rams did better against the Buccaneers, forcing four punts, but again, forced just two against the Cardinals and both of those came in the first half.

Not forcing punts is fine when you’re also forcing turnovers. Look at the Colts and Bears games. The Rams were able to steal possessions via turnover and it’s essentially the same thing. However, the Rams are pretty average here as well. They are forcing just .108 turnovers per drive which ranks 15th. If you’re not going to get off the field on third down, you have to be able to force turnovers.

As mentioned, the Rams need to get off the field on third down and shorten more drives. The best way to do that is to force three-and-outs. The Rams currently force .135 three-and-outs per drive which ranks 25th in the NFL. This is below the NFL average of .198. Again, comparing this to last year as well, the Rams forced .282 three-and-outs per drive which led the league.

Individual Performances

Raheem Morris

While it’s pretty easy to point at Raheem Morris and say that he’s doing a poor job, it is still up to the players to make plays. It’s worth noting that Morris did coach the Atlanta Falcons to the 14th ranked defense via DVOA last year. They were without a doubt the best unit on that team .

It’s also worth noting that Morris was brought to the Los Angeles Rams and is coaching a scheme that he also had to learn. While it might not be Staley’s scheme to a T, they are very similar. This isn’t Morris’ scheme by any means. The Rams essentially took an algebra teacher and told him to teach physics. While there is math involved, it’s not at all the same thing.

Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller

Jordan Fuller is a fan favorite, but he’s gone through a bit of a sophomore slump right now with the Los Angeles Rams. He’s allowed 15 completions on 18 targets and a passer rating of 117.8. That’s a completion percentage of 83.3%. Fuller is taking a much larger role this year and he’s been a little bit of a letdown. He’s young and it will be a good experience for him, but it might have been too much too soon. Pro Football Focus has credited him with a coverage grade of 52.7.

Additionally, Taylor Rapp is allowing a passer rating of 139.8 in coverage while giving up a 75% completion rate. His 201 yards given up in coverage rank second just behind Fuller. The Rams simply need better play from their safeties. Rapp leads the team in tackles, but in coverage is where he falters.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

It’s time for Okoronkwo to show what he’s got. He has 2.5 sacks in two years of play and he hits the free agent market after the season. He’s not giving the Rams a good reason to bring him back. Justin Hollins had been dominating the snaps prior to getting injured. However, Okoronkwo was in the rotation last week and will continue to be.

He had just one pressure, missed a tackle, and was overall underwhelming for someone in their fourth year. The Rams need more out of Okoronkwo moving forward and hopefully he can play better against opponents that aren’t the Cardinals.

Where they are good

Red Zone Touchdowns

As mentioned above, a key aspect of the Los Angeles Rams’ philosophy is to limit teams to field goals in the red zone. Despite last week’s performance, the Rams rank 11th in this category, allowing .563 touchdowns per red zone trip. This comes out to 4.75 points per red zone trip for opponents.

This is actually very comparable to last year and is better. The Rams allowed .587 touchdowns per red zone trip in 2020 which averaged out to 4.74 points per trip.

Additionally, the Rams are allowing field goals at a good rate as well. The Rams have a touchdown to field goal ratio of 1.43. This mark ranks just outside the top-10 at 11.

The Rams need to be able to limit opponent points. One way to do that is by holding opponents to three points instead of six. Through the first three games, the Rams did a good job of this. In fact, they did well against the Cardinals in the second half.

However, it was the opening half that was tough to watch. The Rams defense allowed the same amount of points in the first 30 minutes against the Cardinals than they had in a full game all season. If they allow two field goals and a touchdown over three touchdowns in the opening half, it’s a much different narrative this week.

Getting Pressure

The Los Angeles Rams defense has been one of the best units in applying pressure this season. They currently rank sixth in sacks with 12. This trails the Chicago Bears by three for the lead. What might make this more impressive is that it’s not just coming from one player. This production is coming from everybody.

Leonard Floyd has three sacks. Aaron Donald has just two. Justin Hollins and Sebastian Joseph-Day also have two sacks and the Rams have eight players who have combined for 12. The Rams as a team rank sixth in pass-rush win-rate at 51%. A key component of playing good defense is getting pressure on the quarterback.

Through four weeks, the Rams have been able to do that. Floyd, Donald, and Joseph-Day each of double-digit pressures. The Rams pressures are coming from all levels and multiple players. That’s tough for offenses to gameplan against. You can slow down Donald, but other players are winning their matchups at this point.

Individual Performances

Leonard Floyd

Some criticized the Los Angeles Rams for the contract that they gave Leonard Floyd in the offseason. Floyd has done nothing but shown that he was worth that contract through four games. He leads the team with three sacks and has 17 pressures which trails just Aaron Donald.

Floyd showed last season how valuable he is in the run game. However, he still managed 10.5 sacks last season and five of those came in two games. Floyd already has three and will have a good chance to hit double-digits once again this season. The Rams lacked a pass rusher on the outside. Floyd has shown that he’s someone that defenses also need to account for.

Troy Reeder and Kenny Young

The Rams linebackers take a lot of heat and Reeder did get beat by Maxx Williams last week. However, for the most part this season, Reeder has played very well. The Rams rotate Reeder and Young with Young getting a lion’s share of the snaps. Still, Reeder has allowed just three receptions on six targets and has tackled well. His interception against the Colts in the red zone was a game changer.

Young meanwhile has been a forgotten asset of the Marcus Peters trade. While he will never be Marcus Peters, he’s elevated his play this season. He has 23 tackles and 10 stops. He’s also forced a fumble that the Rams just missed out on recovering. After getting ejected against the Colts, Young stepped up in a big way against the Buccaneers and has been a solid piece in the Rams linebacker group.

Conclusion

It’s unrealistic to expect the Los Angeles Rams to get back to playing at a No. 1 defense level. It was always going to be difficult to repeat that level of performance. With that said, the Rams defense is a lot better than it showed last week and it starts by performing better in key areas.

The Rams defense is predicated by limiting points and getting off the field. That didn’t happen last week against the Cardinals and the result wasn’t pretty. Some of the numbers above weren’t good, they were inflated some by Sunday’s performance.

What needs to be understood is that last week was in fact an anomaly. Through the first three games, the Rams defense was playing well. In fact, just a week before Sunday, they had completely shut down Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense that had scored 30 points in each of its first two games.

This is a defense that is still led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to best utilized those players. It’s only a matter of time before this defense is back to playing at the level that fans expect.

 

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Deven Vernazza
Deven Vernazza
3 days ago

I love this article because I feel the same way. The Cardinals game felt like the Rams came in with a horrible game plan (which happens) and were punished for it because of those turnovers. Not for a second did I feel that the Rams playing anywhere near to their capabilities, it didn’t seem like the same team at all. I have faith in the players and coaching staff to realize these mistakes and make changes. It won’t be easy, but the Rams will regroup and show the NFL that they’re the best team in the league. Superbowl aspirations are… Read more »

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