4 Ways Wade Phillips Can Improve Defense of Los Angeles Rams in 2017

Oct 30, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

The Los Angeles Rams announced in January that Wade Phillips is the new defensive coordinator under new head coach Sean McVay.

As crazy as it sounds, Wade Phillips will begin his 40th NFL season in 2017 with the Los Angeles Rams after taking the defensive coordinator job in January. Most recently, Phillips commanded the Denver Broncos historic 2015 defensive unit that led them to a Super Bowl 50 Victory over the Carolina Panthers.

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To help put the 2015 Broncos into perspective, Phillips’ defense shutdown three of the highest scoring offenses in the league, allowing only 14.6 points per game in the playoffs. They defeated the likes of Big Ben, Tom Brady and Cam Newton while having one of the worst offenses in NFL history. The 2016 Broncos lost multiple starters (Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan) in free agency, but Phillips unit barely dipped from first to fourth in total defense.

After a contract dispute with John Elway, Los Angeles has acquired an elite defensive coordinator that can take a very talented defense to new heights, all while possessing 25 years of experience as a coordinator and multiple stints as a head coach. This wealth of knowledge will be extremely useful for first time head coach Sean McVay (Age 31), who has been alive close to as many years Phillips has coached in the NFL.

Lets take a look at 4 different ways Phillips can improve the Los Angeles Rams defense:

1. Install the 3–4 hybrid defensive front he has ran his entire career

Phillips explained why he prefers the 3-4 over a 4-3 in a recent interview, and it’s easy to understand why when looking at the type of success he’s had with it throughout his career.

Not knowing where the rush is coming from helps your pass defense when the quarterback is getting the ball out quicker than normal. The Rams already have a bevy of talented defensive lineman that should be able to create a consistent pass rush under Phillips tutelage. The ability to generate that relentless pass rush will be key if Los Angeles expects to take major strides in 2017. Check out the video below in which Phillips explains in detail the intricacies of his hybrid 3-4.

2. Continue Building Around Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald has ranked first and second in PFF’s Top 101 player list over the past two years, respectively. Despite moving to a 3-4, the 2013 first-round pick should remain his dominant self in Phillips’ defense since he plays predominately inside at defensive tackle. Look for Donald to be utilized across the defensive line dependent upon personnel on the field.

Donald finished 2016 with 47 tackles, eight sacks, and two forced fumbles. His eight sacks was a drop from 11 in 2015, but Donald led the NFL with 31 quarterback hits and was tied for the lead with 17 tackles for loss. Pro Football Focus tabbed him with 82 total pressures, which was five more than any other interior defender.

The former Pittsburgh Panther will need to continue to play at this elite level for the Rams on defense to succeed. Phillips’ schemes and blitz packages should help keep opposing offensive lines off-balance, and this confusion will open up more 1-on-1 opportunities for Donald along with the rest of the pass rushers on Los Angeles.

3. Develop Elite Secondary

The other component of this Phillips’ defense relies on how good his defensive backs play. This could be said about every team in the league in regards to needing a good secondary, but this is particularly true when dealing with Phillips defense due to the amount of man coverage he likes to play. Los Angeles will need to make multiple moves this offseason if they want to play this style week-to-week.

Step one on the to-do list this offseason should be retaining free agent corner Trumaine Johnson. Over the past two seasons, Johnson has surrendered an average of 591 receiving yards and 2.5 touchdowns while allowing receivers to catch over 60 percent of passes thrown into his coverage, according to ProFootballFocus.com. His critics say he is more likely to be a team’s No. 2 cornerback instead of a No. 1, but it’s easy to disagree. Johnson intercepted seven passes in 2015 and has shown he can be a play maker in this league. I trust Phillips to get the most out of the talented 6-foot-2, 204 pound corner, if he is retained.

With spread passing offenses only growing in popularity, the demand for talented defensive backs grows every year. Los Angeles didn’t possess many reliable options beyond Johnson and slot Lamarcus Joyner. Troy Hill and E.J Gaines struggled at times last season opening the door for a second corner, and the Rams should not have an issue re-signing safety T.J McDonald, who is entering the free-agent market for the first time in his career.

Los Angeles does not own a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and experts have tabbed this a talented defensive back class where the Rams could find some value in later rounds. Hopefully, the team can utilize a second or third-round pick on a defensive back as well as add depth through free agency to give Philips a complete arsenal to work with going into 2017. Some of the free agency options Los Angeles could look into depending on Johnson’s status include Dre Kirkpatrick, Ross Cockrell, Morris Claiborne, or even Prince Amukamara.

4. Who Will Play Strong Side Linebacker?

The one position the Rams may have some trouble filling in 2017 is the Sam (Strong Side) linebacker. No player really fits the mold of what Phillips will expect from this position on the roster. This is Von Miller’s spot in Denver Broncos’ defense or can also be compared to Khalil Mack’s role with the Oakland Raiders. Former All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn will most likely not want to stand up on the strong side due to increased coverage responsibilities, but he can play with his hand in the dirt at the Will linebacker position.

Los Angeles will need to draft someone to play Sam and/or sign a free agent replacement. Chandler Jones, Nick Perry, and Melvin Ingram all were double-digit sack artists in 2016 and will be free agents this offseason. Some other realistic free agent alternatives who fit this defensive scheme include Demarcus Ware, Julius Peppers, Trent Cole, Paul Kruger, Mario Williams, and Dwight Freeney.

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All of the alternative options listed above most likely will not be able to be every down contributors so the Rams will need to get younger at this position. Since taking Robert Quinn in 2011, the Rams have drafted just two defensive ends, both in the seventh round, Michael Sam in 2014 and Martin Ifedi in 2015. That will not cut it under Phillips.

Final Thoughts 

The bottom line with Phillips is he produces a top-notch defense when given the necessary talent to succeed. The Los Angeles Rams possess the key pieces Phillips needs to keep this unit in the top 10.  If the Rams can find a strong side linebacker, re-sign Trumaine Johnson, and add overall depth across the unit, this defense has the potential to become one of the best in the league under Phillips leadership.