It’s now just one week from the LA Rams’ season open up against the Chicago Bears, a team whose defense has typically been difficult for the Rams offense to exploit. You see, the Bears embraced the defensive philosophy of one Vic Fangio, while the LA Rams defense had employed the defense of former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
In 2020, the LA Rams made the switch from Phillips’ version of the 3-4 to the Fangio version of the 3-4 when the team hired Fangio’s understudy in outside linebacker coach Brandon Staley. The transformation made many nervous, as it was a new defensive strategy. Not only did it mean a new shift in philosophy, but the Rams defensive personnel was a bit depleted from defections to free agency.
So what the LA Rams did was to shift the emphasis of pass defense from a pass rush to a pass coverage emphasis.
The Rams began to mask coverages, converting to a split field coverage where part of the football field was man, while the other part of the field was zone. The Rams also deemphasized blitzes and looked to the front four to generate the majority of pressure on the quarterback. It was a wise move because slowing down the quarterback’s ability to read defensive coverage created enough time for defensive tackle Aaron Donald to get the sack. To sum it up, here is a video describing the transition from the Wade Phillips to the Vic Fangio style of defense:
The LA Rams haven’t stopped there, however. The team learned that the Brandon Staley defense could shut down big plays, but was a bit susceptible, with the LA Rams emphasis on defensive backs and deemphasizing the inside linebackers. When facing the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers exploited the Rams’ vulnerabilities in the middle of the defense and attacked the team’s interior with a salvo of rushes and short passes.
The Morris method
In response, the Rams will likely be infusing some level of Cover-2 defensive concepts, as explained in this second video here:
In either the split-field/split-zone coverage, or the Cover-2 concepts, NFL offenses have the ability to adjust their plays to create favorable matchups. The advantage that the defense still has in any of the above defensive schemes is the ability to mask what the quarterback sees and can interpret.
One of the new strategies employed by the LA Rams this year will be to make greater use of Jalen Ramsey’s versatility to cover slot receivers running short or intermediate routes if the offense has early success there. That will allow the Rams to go man on the short part of the field while continuing to defend the big play with multiple defensive backs.
Another new wrinkle could be the use of blitzes. While the Staley defense did not use blitzes very often, Raheem Morris has reemphasized the role of the inside linebackers. One such way to deploy a more aggressive pass rush is to drop both outside linebackers in pass coverage, and send an inside linebacker right up the middle through the A-gap after the quarterback. The Rams found great success with Troy Reeder as an inside defender who blitzed against the Washington Football Team in 2020. Look for more of that type of pass rush from the defense in 2021.
The Rams learned that disguising coverages led to great things for the defense in 2020. Now, the team will try to use that knowledge to formulate an even better defensive strategy this year. In the end, it is not just the players, but the game plan, that creates success. But with two All-Pro defenders in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have a head start to finding that success.