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Scheme, blitzing and personnel: How the Rams’ defense might change next season

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  • Scheme, blitzing and personnel: How the Rams’ defense might change next season

    Scheme, blitzing and personnel: How the Rams’ defense might change next season
    By Rich Hammond Jan 16, 2020 6

    The Rams did not scapegoat Wade Phillips. Instead, they initiated an overhaul of their coaching staff, one that will bring in three new coordinators and perhaps two or three new position coaches.

    Now the issue is what will change. And how significantly?

    The biggest shift will be on defense. Set to arrive is coordinator Brandon Staley, age 37, who is making a big jump. Staley has three years of experience as an NFL position coach (outside linebackers for the Broncos in 2019 and for the Bears in 2017-18), but other than one season at the FCS level with James Madison in 2014, he has never coordinated a defense above the Division III level.

    That doesn’t mean Staley is a blank slate. He’s known to be a disciple of longtime NFL coordinator/coach Vic Fangio, even before he worked under Fangio in Chicago and Denver. Until Staley speaks — his hiring has not yet been announced by the Rams — it’s not certain what type of defense he will run, but it’s fair to assume that his tenets will align with Fangio’s base 3-4 front, accompanied by many different looks.

    That’s certainly what one of Staley’s closest coaching associates, Tom Arth, pointed toward during an interview with The Athletic this week. Staley has studied and implemented Fangio’s ideas for years, back to when Staley was coaching at Division III John Carroll University and Fangio was with the San Francisco *****.

    To predict the future, let’s examine the past and look at what Fangio typically likes to run, how it might differ from Phillips’ scheme and how Staley might have to adjust based on existing Rams personnel.


    The scheme
    Surface-level changes might seem minimal, because Phillips also ran a base 3-4, but in both cases that’s very deceiving. According to data from SportRadar, the Rams ran their base look (with four defensive backs) on only 35 percent of their defensive plays in 2019 (and 37.2 percent in 2018), which illustrates how often they used nickel cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman or a third safety, or both.

    That’s even more pronounced with Fangio. In 2018, Fangio’s last year as defensive coordinator in Chicago, the Bears used four defensive backs on only 17.3 percent of their plays. That rose to 27.1 percent in Denver last season, when Fangio was the head coach but remained the defensive architect.

    To call Fangio’s scheme a 3-4 is technically correct but inaccurate in a practical sense. With Denver last season, it seemed to be more of a 2-4-5. In Chicago in 2018, it looked more like a 3-3-5. (These designations are not iron-clad because players can be identified/used in different ways than their natural positions, but they remain instructive in a general sense.) It’s not uncommon for Fangio to use six defensive backs (as was often the case with Phillips).

    Fangio also is known to be very flexible. His stuff can change from week to week or from half to half (sometimes even from play to play). It’s not even possible to completely peg him as a “man” or “zone” guy because he is adaptable to the opponent and game situation, and that ability might be paramount in what attracted McVay to Staley.

    A recent narrative suggested that Phillips’ defense was old-school and inflexible and that McVay wanted/needed to modernize. That’s not fair to Phillips. Yes, perhaps he leaned more toward player development than innovative scheming, but he also was not stodgy or stuck in his ways.

    In the Super Bowl last year, Phillips completely flummoxed New England’s offense until the fourth quarter. The Rams “showed” a zone look before the snap, then played man coverage (or vice versa).

    Phillips is more flexible than quick-twitch revisionist history is giving him credit for — he shifted the Rams’ primary coverage from man to zone in 2018, then back to man in 2019 when personnel dictated — but it’s fair to say that, in general, Phillips prioritized technique and innovative strategy.

    Fangio is more of a wild card, with a complicated defense that might take some time to learn depending on how much of it Staley wants to implement with the Rams. It seems clear that the versatility will follow. In a 2014 interview with the student newspaper at James Madison University, Staley spoke about his philosophy.

    “We want to be aggressive,” Staley said, “we want to be extremely physical and we want to be a defense that’s built to match up so that week to week, no matter who we’re playing against or what style offense we’re playing against, that we’re going to match up with that and we’re going to, by doing that, be able to be really aggressive.”


    The blitzing
    Here’s the folly in trying to make some of these projections: Aaron Donald.

    None of these coaches — Staley, Fangio or Arth — has ever experienced coaching life with a defensive lineman as talented as Donald, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year who, at age 28, is in his prime.

    The primary task for all of Donald’s NFL coordinators has been to best utilize him and find ways to support him amid the near-constant double- and triple-teaming he faces. The Rams, it seems, will be building their defense around Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. No matter what Staley has run in the past and no matter his philosophy, his defense must (and will) center on maximizing Donald and Ramsey.

    That said, there’s value in looking at how the Rams pressured opposing quarterbacks in 2019 and how that might change in a Fangio-like scheme.

    Per SportRadar, the Rams blitzed on 29 percent of their plays in 2019, 16th-most in the NFL (a blitz being defined here as a play in which five or more players rush the quarterback). The Broncos blitzed 24.9 percent of the time in 2019, while the 2018 Bears blitzed on only 21.1 percent of their plays.

    That’s not a dramatic change on a per-game basis, but it’s more instructive to look at the genesis of the blitzes. For the Rams last season, 83 percent of blitzes came from linebackers, compared to 16 percent from defensive backs and 1 percent from defensive linemen. For the Broncos last season, 87 percent came from linebackers, 11 percent from defensive backs and 2 percent from linemen.

    The Broncos, under Fangio, not only blitzed less often than the Rams but also blitzed their defensive backs less often. It will be interesting to see what that means for aggressive players such as safeties John Johnson and Taylor Rapp as well as some of the Rams’ cornerbacks.


    The personnel
    Before Phillips departed, the Rams’ offseason dilemma on defense seemed rather easy to define. They have three potential unrestricted free agents — lineman Michael Brockers and linebackers Dante Fowler and Cory Littleton — and, at the moment, probably only enough salary-cap room to retain one of them.

    It also seemed likely that the Rams would part with veteran safety Eric Weddle, who intimated at the end of the season that he didn’t want to return in a backup role.

    How might Staley’s arrival change things?

    Fangio is known to value smart safeties who can serve as coach-like figures on the field by calling plays, getting teammates lined up and making adjustments. That is, almost to a word, the job description the Rams hoped Weddle would fill when they signed him as a free agent last year.

    Weddle had an inconsistent season — part of which might be attributed to kept-it-quiet injuries — but he brought great value to the Rams with his communication and leadership. Given that the Rams’ other safeties are still young, might Staley view Weddle in a different light and seek to retain him? That’s still probably not wise, considering Weddle’s departure would create $4.25 million in cap room, but it’s something to ponder.

    Beyond that, let’s assume Brockers leaves via free agency, leaving the Rams to focus on retaining either Fowler or Littleton. Which way would Staley lean?

    In his brief NFL career, Staley already has worked with some extraordinary edge rushers, with Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Bradley Chubb atop the list. Fowler, with 11.5 sacks, was by far the Rams’ best edge rusher in 2019. Given the importance of supporting Donald with outside pressure, would Staley lean toward keeping an effective rusher like Fowler?

    Perhaps, but traditionally, edge rushers are easier to replace through the draft or on the free-agent and trade markets. The Rams also have a bit more depth there than they do at inside linebacker, where Littleton evolved from a 2016 undrafted free agent to an all-around talent.

    Middle linebackers also are critical pieces in Fangio defenses, and if the Rams split with Weddle, it seems dicey for them to lose the two players most capable of serving as on-field defensive “quarterbacks” without any natural replacements lined up. A Littleton return probably would better suit the Rams, but he’s due for a major raise from his 2019 salary of $3.1 million. The Rams must decide how high they want to go.

  • #2
    Sure hope Littleton remains a Ram.

    And that's just one of the pieces of the 2020 giant 'D' puzzle!

    Comment


    • #3
      Really informative article, great post Nick. I was happy to read that the departure of Phillips was not meant to scapegoat him, but rather to change the scheme, which is what I've thought from the outset.

      It seems as though linebackers will be a more prominent part of our defense. That will be good for the Rams as this is a good linebacker draft from what I'v read. I was encouraged to see that Joe Barry has decided to remain with the Rams as their linebacker coach. While there may other issues involved with that decision, it does tell me that there must be a level of respect by Barry towards Staley, who beat him out for the job. His ability to develop LB's (e.g. Littleton) will prove to be critical based on the gist of the article.

      With a solid defense and a much improved running game we can contend for the division crown and beyond next season. As always we'll need to perform some cap magic and draft well in the interim.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by mde8352gorams View Post
        It seems as though linebackers will be a more prominent part of our defense. That will be good for the Rams as this is a good linebacker draft from what I'v read. I was encouraged to see that Joe Barry has decided to remain with the Rams as their linebacker coach. While there may other issues involved with that decision, it does tell me that there must be a level of respect by Barry towards Staley, who beat him out for the job. His ability to develop LB's (e.g. Littleton) will prove to be critical based on the gist of the article.
        Retaining Barry is fantastic, as it not only gives Staley an experienced assistant on the defensive staff that he can bounce things off of and contribute to the planning and scheming, but it also may be a good sign towards potentially retaining Littleton who has developed under Barry.

        Comment

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