Stacking the Back: A lesson from the Rams.
In their Week 16 matchup with the Saints, Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris & Co. took away one of the biggest weapons on the New Orleans' offense using one simple alignment.
One of the hottest teams heading into the NFL playoffs is the Los Angeles Rams. Not counting the 49ers game, where Head Coach Sean McVay opted to rest several key starters, the LA has reeled off a record of 6-1 since losing to the Packers in Week 9. The sole loss came to the Ravens, arguably the best team in the NFL right now.
The offense has been the catalyst for wins, and the unit currently sits 7th in DVOA (FTN). Last year, the unit finished 25th. Key additions in record-setting rookie WR Puka Nacua and second-year RB Kyren Williams have inserted juice back into the Rams’ offense. A healthy Matthew Stafford and decent offensive line play have also contributed to the late-season success. The Rams will face the Lions in Detroit on Sunday night.
But football is a complementary game. Defensively, last year was a far cry from the caliber of play that Rams fans have become accustomed to. Soft coverages, predictable pressures, and an overall lack of talent hindered DC Raheem Morris’ ability to call plays (I wrote about this last season in the link below). Paired with a stale offense, the Rams sputtered to a 5-12 record, going 2-9 post-bye to finish the year.
The offseason recharged the batteries of McVay and Morris. They came into this year determined not to become passive like they had in ’22. How the Rams have drafted (or not drafted) in recent years has put a premium on developing talent and finding diamonds in the rough in later rounds or college-free agency (CFA). With cap limitations and few picks, the Rams coaches had to develop the talent already on the roster.
Of the Rams’ starters on defense, only Aaron Donald was a 1st Round pick. DE Jonah Williams, EDGE Michael Hoecht, and ILB Christian Rozeboom come from the same ’20 CFA class. Everyone on the starting lineup, minus CB Ahkello Witherspoon (3rd/49ers), was an in-house pick-up for the Rams. The continuity has paid off over the past several years, even if the talent is not considered high caliber. Ironically, the Rams, known for “F- them picks!” are now the poster child for internal development.
The ’23 defense is not a juggernaut by any means, sitting 22nd in DVOA, but with the offense humming, it doesn’t need to be. Morris has decidedly moved away from passive defense, especially in the secondary. Last year, the Rams ran the least amount of press in the NFL. The next closest team had well over 100 more snaps more than the Rams. Currently, LA sits 17th in press usage.
Coverages were static last year as well. Morris ran Cover 3 on 53.3% of his snaps, leading the league in its usage. This year, the Rams are running a more varied palette of coverages. Cover 3 still dominates at 38.6% of the snaps, but coverages like Quarters and Cover 6 (HQQ/QQH) are more prominent. The defense, as a whole, is more well-rounded.
Along with the offense, the defense has shown that it can be multiple and mitigate some of the issues given the roster’s talent. Still, the Rams have future Hall of Fame’er Aaron Donald, and they use him as a lever to manipulate protections. To that note, Morris’ schematic acumen was fully displayed against the Saints in Week 16.