Not only were the Rams starting over with a new defensive coordinator in 2017 with Wade Phillips, they were also changing the overall base defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. Phillips very well may be one of the best defensive minds in football history and the Rams were in good hands. Despite not having a lot of say in the personnel, Phillips’ transition went pretty well. The defense ranked fifth in turnovers created with 28, 10 more than they had in 2016 under Gregg Williams. That’s even with being on the field for 17 fewer plays in 2017. There’s no doubt Phillips inherited a talented group of players for his defense, but it’s not that simple. His players were drafted for a different scheme. Despite that, athletes and coaches alike make adjustments. It’s what they do. So let’s take a more in-depth look at what those adjustments yielded.
There were a lot of great defenses in terms of pass coverage in 2017. Despite allowing 16 fewer yards per game in the passing game in 2017, the Rams actually dropped three spots to 13th best. I’m sure they’d prefer fewer yards allowed than a few spots in the rankings. A lot of that was in part to them adding players like Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Not to mention moving former slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner to free safety. That allowed them to keep Joyner on the field for most of their defensive plays, minus the three games he missed. Those three alone were responsible for six of the teams’ 18 interceptions. Tied for sixth most in the league and eight more than they had in 2016. Their touchdowns allowed through the air dropped from 32 in 2016 to 21 in 2017.
When you take a closer look at what appears to be a huge jump in the passing game, you can see there was a lot of the same. Teams averaged 6.8 yards per pass play against the Rams in 2017, as compared to 6.7 in 2016. Seeing as how teams attempted 27 more passes against the Rams in 2016, you could argue they were better on a per play basis a season ago. Eerily similar are the first downs allowed through the air. Teams gained 181 first downs against the Rams in 2017 (32.6 percent of first downs) as compared to 194 in 2016 (33.3 percent). Once again, with the passes attempted, it seems more like a push. 2016 saw multiple plays of 64-yard gains against, while 2017 was multiple plays of 65-yard gains. With Webster the only cornerback under contract for next season, the Rams have their work cut out for them to sure the position up.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the 2017 Rams defensive output was their run defense. They allowed the fifth most rushing yards per game with their 122.3. That’s an average of 4.7 yards per carry, second worst in the league. That’s an extra 18.5 yards per game and 0.8 yards more per carry on seven fewer carries. In total, Rams gave up 1,957 yards on the ground (fifth most) and 297 more than they allowed in 2016. They were, however, two forced fumbles away from the league lead with eight. That is five more than they had in 2016. Though the 1,957 yards were the most allowed by a Rams defense since 2011, there is a reason for optimism heading into the offseason.
A lot of times people look at the undersized linebackers the Rams have manning the middle in Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron. Both of which played safety in college, though Ogletree switched to linebacker before coming to the NFL. We must also take a look at the defensive line, which also had an undersized Ethan Westbrooks playing nose tackle. Now, we don’t know if that’s because rookie Tanzel Smart was not ready for a starting role or if Westbrooks was the best fit in their eyes. Time will only tell since Westbrooks is heading towards free agency. I, for one, would expect them to look for a player in the draft to bolster their run defense.
In terms of total yards allowed per game, the Rams finished as the 19th best team. Their 339.5 yards allowed per game is up 2.5 yards from their 337.0 in 2016, which ranked ninth best. Showing that these defenses were a lot more alike than the stats showed. Where these two teams differed were the points allowed per game. The 20.6 allowed per game in 2016 ranked 12th in the league and down a whole four points from the season prior. That’s 65 fewer points allowed combined on the entire season in 2017 (also 12th best). This season’s 329 points allowed were the lowest a Rams defense has allowed since the 2010 season when they held opponents to 328 points.
This will be the first offseason where coach Phillips will get to make decisions on the players retained or brought in. It will only help with the improvement of the team as he gets to pick players that fit his scheme. Unlike putting square pegs in round holes heading into his first season. Much like how the Rams handled putting players in place that fit their offense in year one, we will see an emphasis on the defensive players. Johnson III was a pick by Phillips and we saw how that turned out. He knows what he’s looking for and who fits what he does best. Given his track record, there wouldn’t be any surprise to see this defense make a huge jump and finally become that top-five defensive unit. Something that was always touted by former coordinator Gregg Williams, but never happened. It did, however, happen in both of the two seasons Phillips was with the Broncos as defensive coordinator. Fans should be excited about what Phillips is going to do for the defense in year two. A jump like the one we saw with the offense under McVay would not surprise me. Something that would surely put them towards the top of the list of contenders this upcoming season.
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