The Los Angeles Rams have established a culture of dominant defensive lines since Aaron Donald joined the team. With a new head coach and defensive coordinator leading the group this year, have they maintained that dominance through 14 weeks of 2017?
When Sean McVay took over as Los Angeles Rams head coach, one of the first things he did was hire Wade Phillips to run his defense. Phillips is a legendary defensive coordinator who has coached top-10 defenses just about everywhere he has been.
For the Rams, this meant switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 defense that utilized some of their strengths from the previous scheme. That meant installing a hybrid scheme that would allow the Rams to penetrate and get upfield, but also allow the defensive front to occupy blocks for backers to blitz and make plays.
At the beginning of the season, the entire defense went through some growing pains. Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and Aaron Donald adapted to new positions. Donald held out of training camp which limited his availability and gave opportunities to rookie Tanzel Smart. Connor Barwin was the new starter on the group, coming over via free agency.
These changes are some of the reasons the group is currently allowing the No. 15 most yards per game and No. 21 most points per game. A deeper dive into the stats prove that the defense is closer to elite. Los Angeles is No. three in sacks with 40 and No. five in interceptions with 15 for the year. They’re 10th in both fumble recoveries (7) and forced fumbles (10). The defensive line deserves a lot of credit for the defense’s success considering they are still a focal point of the entire team.
Individually, the group is No. 20 in Football Outsider’s adjusted line yards through Week 13. That means opposing offensive lines are responsible for the 13th most yards versus the Rams when compared to the average running back. However, the same site ranks the Rams as No. five in adjusted sack rate which gives sacks per pass attempt adjusted by down, distance, and opponent.
The Los Angeles Rams have very good athleticism across the defensive front. Brockers, Donald, and Quinn possess elite athleticism by blending speed, explosiveness, agility, and size at their respective positions. Ethan Westbrooks and Barwin are also solid athletes.
This group is very good at being competitively tough from quarter to quarter versus all levels of competition. They compete through injuries, they play multiple fronts and they’re consistently aggressive throughout the contest.
As for play strength, each of the five players shows very good play strength as they are good at winning one-on-one battles. Each player can penetrate the line of scrimmage and stalemate blockers at the point of the attack.
Otherwise, the team is solid at processing and reacting to the offense. They have very good play speed that they showcase by getting off the ball and swarming to the football.
Collectively, the defensive line has very good upfield burst. Donald and Quinn show elite burst while Brockers has a very good ability to quickly attack upfield.
Versus the run, the group can leverage their gap, neutralize a block, extend their arms, shed the block and make a play on the ball carrier. They use their hands effectively to control the chest of blockers and shed blocks before making the tackle.
In the pass rush, the group uses good get offs to get their blockers off balance. They can use hands to visibly knock blockers off balance and get to the quarterback or they can use power and bull rush to get the blocker into the quarterback. Brockers is good at this and the entire interior line is great at pushing the pocket and not allowing quarterbacks a chance to step up.
Otherwise, Donald and Quinn are very good at cornering the quarterback and maintaining lean. Donald also has very good counter moves and pass rush plan to close on the quarterback with speed and power. The group does a good job of getting their hands into passing lanes when they cannot make a play.
Added, this d-line has a very good motor. Donald consistently shows an elite motor to work through double and triple teams. The rest of the defensive line is very good at using their speed, agility and mental processing to move through traffic and swarm to the ball carrier.
The defensive front can struggle with the mental processing speed to discover fakes. They will be overaggressive and bite on screens, draws and play-action fakes.
Additionally, they can also find themselves creating cutback seems versus the zone blocking scheme as they will get too far upfield. Edges can get pushed outside on stretch and outside zone which will create a seem for runners too. Lengthier tackles with good footwork will reach the edges on outside zone too.
Very good offensive lines can push this unit back as their pad levels will get high. They are not the best at dropping anchor, neutralizing blockers, finding the ball carrier and protecting their linebackers as they like to penetrate gaps. The defensive line can be exploited on counters as they will get too far upfield and pushed out by tackles. Good run blockers can also drive and extend the Rams defensive line with superior hand play.
Versus the pass, very good pass protectors can neutralize them with good punch timing and placement to knock them back and control their defender. This group will also lose contain as their over-aggression can get them pushed out of rush lanes. Elite tackles can also neutralize their speed on the edge with good footwork and punch timing. They can lose their leverage and explosiveness on long twists and stunts as well.
The defensive line is also susceptible to cut blocks due to their aggression and mental processing speed.
Grade: B +
Overall, the Rams defense is an elite group based on talent alone. The pressure the defensive line creates is a big reason why they are ranked highly in sacks and turnovers. However, this group has plenty of room to grow as the season continues. The d-line can do more to maintain run integrity as well as dominate elite offensive lines.
Still, it is clear that the Rams defensive line and the entire defense is getting stronger as the season progresses. Specifically, the defensive line is getting better as they are starting to process less and react more. A new scheme is one of the reasons the run defense was so poor at the beginning of the season as they were going too far upfield and taking too much time to react.
Considering this group is the most talented position on the team, it is fair to hold them to a higher standard. Yes, they are an A group but they’re not playing to that full potential just yet. Hence, they’ve earned a B+ grade as they continue to develop cohesion in a new defensive scheme. In recent weeks, they are close to running on full cylinders. When they do, they will be an even scarier defensive line to face.