Rams Primed to Make Some Noise in the NFC

Earlier this offseason, we wrote about the attributes of Matthew Stafford’s game that make him an upgrade at quarterback over Jared Goff. The most notable difference is that Stafford is a much better quarterback when the success of the play is more reliant on the quarterback than the scheme.

This includes 3rd downs, against the blitz, and in those situations where things don’t go exactly as planned – like when the pass rush disrupts the timing of the play. In those instances, Stafford has been better than Goff at navigating the pocket, maintaining a downfield focus, and sticking with the play. Below is a great example:

2020_StaffordG_vsCHI_Movement3rdandLong_EZ

Sean McVay’s passing game is heavily schemed. It’s a good system that creates lots of completions and yards regardless of the quarterback. But no matter how good any system is, eventually it will run up against defenses and situations where it’s simply not as effective.

That’s when the quarterback who runs it has to be able to elevate the system. This doesn’t mean running around and making highlight-reel plays necessarily. This means creating completions via pocket movement (as you saw above). It means creating completions via anticipation, tight-window throws, and the manipulation of defenders. And, yes, it means the occasional scramble.

Each of these are areas where Stafford has been better historically than Goff.

Between Stafford, McVay’s system, a strong offensive line, and an assortment of good receivers, every sign is pointing toward an improved offense from one that surprisingly finished 22nd in scoring last season.

I have more questions about a Rams Defense that was the best in the NFL by almost any statistical measure in 2020:

Screen Shot 2021-08-09 at 9.56.50 PM

Perhaps that feeling just comes from the fact that there is only one direction to go from the top. More likely, my concern comes from the loss of some key players this offseason:

  • S John Johnson – 16 starts, 100% of snaps played, led team in tackles
  • CB Troy Hill – 16 starts, 94.9% of snaps played, 3 INT (T-2nd on team)
  • DE Michael Brockers – 15 starts, 60.9% of snaps played, 5.0 sacks (4th on Team)
  • DE Morgan Fox – 16 games, 2 starts, 39.4% of snaps played, 6.0 sacks (3rd on Team)
  • OLB Samson Ebukam – 16 Games, 14 starts, 35.5% of snaps played, 4.5 sacks (5th on Team)

That’s a lot of production and contribution that will need to be replaced in 2021. However the Rams fill those holes, it will have to come from internal promotions and mid-to-late round 2021 draft picks. That’s not impossible, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

The other major change comes at defensive coordinator, where Raheem Morris replaces Brandon Staley. The good news for L.A. is that Morris has at least shown some signs of recent success.

Morris has primarily spent his coaching career on defense. However, he spent more than 4 seasons on offense with the Falcons from 2015-19. Experience on both sides of the ball can definitely be a plus.

Midway through 2019, with their defense reeling, the Falcons moved Morris from wide receivers coach to secondary coach. He also took over play-calling duties on 3rd down. As we wrote last offseason, the change was dramatic.

Atlanta went from being the worst third-down defense in the NFL through their first 8 games (53.0% conversion rate) to the best in their final 8 (25.8% conversion rate). Opposing quarterbacks also played to a 137.1 passer rating on 3rd down through their first 8 games, and then played to a 39.0 rating after Morris took over.

Morris accomplished all of this by changing the Falcons’ tendencies on 3rd down. He played more zone than Atlanta had previously. More specifically, he increased Atlanta’s use of 2-deep safety looks from 19% to 46%. Morris’ overall philosophy seemed to generally focus on getting more bodies in coverage.

If you’re looking for continuity or similarities between Morris and Staley’s approach, there you have it. Last season, Staley predominantly had his defense operate out of quarters coverage (a 2-safety shell) and didn’t blitz often.

That said, Morris didn’t exactly have a ton of success in 2020. After being promoted to defensive coordinator, his defense allowed 32.2 points per game on their way to an 0-5 start. Dan Quinn was promptly fired and Morris took over as interim head coach.

Morris has enough experience and enough success to support the notion that he can help this Rams Defense pick up where it left off a year ago. He certainly will have more talent to work with than he’s ever had before. It will also help to have a player like Aaron Donald anchoring the defense:

1_2020Wk1_DALOLARD_DonaldPressure_EZ

Perhaps one of the changes we’ll see out of the Rams is Jalen Ramsey playing a little more man coverage than he did under Staley, especially on 3rd down. Maybe he’ll get to follow #1 receivers a little more as well. Either way, Morris will have lots of flexibility with this group.

Regardless of the changes on this side of the ball, the Rams should still have one of the better defensive units in the league. They look to be the best all-around team in the NFC West and should be one of the top teams in football. Don’t be surprised to see them challenge the Buccaneers and Packers for the NFC Title.

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