On the brink of the first Sunday of NFL action in 2020, the LA Rams move into their luxurious SoFi stadium full of optimism. Following a disappointing 2019, Rams fans will be expecting Sean McVay & coo to lead to them back to the playoffs. However, the Rams defence causes concern and could the hold them back?
Aaron Donald is possibly the best player in football and a complete game wrecker. Jalen Ramsey has just reset the cornerback market with his new contract, and is amongst the best in the game at his position. So what is it about this unit that causes concern for 2020?
The Rams 2019 defence
The 2019 Rams defence was a fairly good unit, ranking 9th overall in DVOA (Defence-adjusted value over average) at -6.1%. With weighted DVOA, which weights later season contents more favourably, they were still 9th in the league.
Add in an 8th place in pass defence, and 17th place in the league against the run, the Rams were far from terrible. However, perhaps more concerning, the LA Rams defence ranked 29th in variance (a statistical model on variance in week to week) showing them to be incredibly inconsistent over the course of 16 Games.
Incomings and development
The Rams did not bring in a huge amount on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason to upgrade.
Leonard Flloyd comes across from Chicago but is more of a run stuffing defender, rather than a pass rusher. Despite a promising start in the Windy City, his time their fizzled out and his production dropped year upon year. He will be hoping a change of scenery will provide fresh impetus
John Johnson returns after injury, and Taylor Rapp looks a decent prospect heading into his 2nd year in LA. The cupboard, however, is pretty bare behind the duo at safety, with later round rookies Jordan Fuller and Terrell Burgress.
Another name that surprised me that made the 53 man roster was Jachai Polite. Early draft predictions in 2019 had Polite as a borderline first rounder before he slid down to the 3rd round, and was cut by the Jets before the season even started. After time on the practice squad, he is now on the roster.
Key players on the defensive side of the ball include Dante Fowler Jr, Clay Matthews and Nickell Robey-Colman.
In his single season on the Rams defence, former Packer Matthews recorded 2 forced fumbles, 3 passes defended and 8 sacks (his best total since 2014). Whilst not the force he was in Green Bay, he was still relatively productive and provided some much needed experience and know-how.
Fowler Jr, was also productive off the edge for the Rams in 2020. He registered 11.5 sacks, 9th equal on the league alongside the now highest paid pass rusher in the league, Joey Bosa.
It is difficult to see on the current Rams roster where they are going to replace the pressure off the edge that both Fowler and Matthews provided.
Jalen Ramsey is obviously a star at the cornerback position and is now being paid as such. However, Nickell Robby-Colman a nice, solid compliment. He is now an Eagle. With Troy Hill slated to start across from Ramsey, this seems a downgrade.
Co-ordinator changes on defence
Perhaps more than the loss of any personnell, the loss that may be more felt than any is the fact that Wade Philips is no longer calling plays for the Rams defence.
Philips himself appeared to be surprised that he was let go at the end of the 2019 season
A respected veteran, Phillips has been coaching in the NFL for over 40 years. Under his guidance, greats such as JJ Watt, Reggie Whyte and Bruce Smith have all won Defensive Player of the Year. Mike Croel and Shawn Merriman also scooped defensive rookie of the year gongs whilst playing under Phillips’ wing.
However, head coach Sean McVay felt change was needed. That change comes in the form of Brandon Staley. He has most recently operated as OLB coach in Denver and Chicago, coaching stars such as Von Miller and Khalil Mack. He has previously spent time as a defensive co-ordination at James Madison in the college ranks.
Going from a NFL defensive stalwart in Phillips, to someone who has never called a defensive play in the NFL in Staley is a risk. However, coach McVay has never shied away from doing things his way. Will this risk pay off? That remains to be seen
For the Rams to make it back to the Playoffs, they are going to have to do things the hard way. They are in an ultra-competitive division with the reigning NFC champion 49ers, the Seahawks and an improving Cardinals.
They also face a high end offense in the Cowboys. Although they do not have the most difficult of schedules (they play the AFC East and NFC East this year), their divisional rivals also play the same outfits.
Divisional matches will hold huge significance in the race to the post-season and do the Rams have what it takes to keep the others at bay? I’m not so sure.
If another season out of the playoffs beckons, does Sean McVay’s bright star start to lose its luster?
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Title image: USA Today