After looking at the offseason in it’s entirety, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Los Angeles Rams have taken a serious interest and intrigue into improving the run defense.
In 2018, the Rams allowed 116.3 rushing yards per game (18th in the league) and 4.8 yards-per-carry (27th in the league). The first value (YPG) isn’t terrible per se, but it’s also not extremely valuable because of how potent the Rams’ offense was. When a team is consistently behind by two or three scores, they’ll obviously abandon the run and that’s why the YPC metric is more appropriate when evaluating a run defense (with other stats to boot). The Rams were nearly dead last in that regard.
So what did they do in the 2019 offseason?
They revamped the defense. They let NT Ndamukong Suh walk in free agency and replaced him with fourth-round pick Greg Gaines from Washington. Gaines is a noted run-stopping specialist who figures to get plenty of playing time sandwiched between DT’s Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.
They signed OLB Clay Matthews in free agency, and though Clay isn’t the player he once was, he still holds value by way of leadership, effort, and the ability to compete in the run game. Matthews’ addition slides former starter Samson Ebukam to the bench. For comparisons sake, Matthews has averaged 0.85 tackles-for-loss per game in his career, Ebukam only 0.25 per game. Matthews is a clear upgrade all the way around, but especially as a run defender.
The Rams replaced FS Lamarcus Joyner with veteran FS Eric Weddle who they signed via free agency. The signing wasn’t some massive upgrade in the run department per se, but it does allow the Rams to feel more comfortable and versatile allowing either Weddle or incumbent SS John Johnson III to play more freely near the line of scrimmage. Weddle is a football player who reads coverage's well, has a high football IQ, and can be trusted to survey the field properly on the backend. That will allow Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips more freedom to call run blitzes without leaving the Rams defense as vulnerable as it was last season on the backend.
Arguably the biggest addition will be inserting fifth-round rookie draft pick in 2018 ILB Micah Kiser into the lineup. The Rams decided to cut Mark Barron prior to free agency, and though that was a tough decision, it’s one you can’t disagree with. Barron was once a ferocious, tough, and dependable player regardless of position. The past two seasons have been injury-riddled and far too costly, making his release inevitable. Barron was being phased out of the defense in 2018 as he was replaced by SS Marqui Christian on third downs with Christian logging over 350+ snaps in his role. Kiser — who will now replace Barron at inside linebacker — is built like a brinks truck, and he excels at two things: stuffing the run and blitzing quarterbacks. I even wrote an article last year about Kiser potentially replacing Barron, and though it never came to fruition, it very well could have. Kiser’s ability to play in coverage is a major unknown at this point, but Barron didn’t offer anything as a coverage player anymore either, so Kiser should be a welcomed addition by way of his improved play against the run and versatility to blitz.
All of that brings me to my last point: inside linebackers being replaced by safeties? Perfect, that’s where newly-drafted second-round pick S Taylor Rapp comes into play. Rapp wont see starters minutes because of the solid starting duo the Rams already possess in Johnson and Weddle, but he can certainly replace the 400+ snaps that Marqui Christian and Blake Countess offered the Rams in 2018. Rapp has the potential to sub in for Kiser on passing downs, making a major impact as a defender on limited snaps.
Now that the 2019 offseason has essentially come to an end, we can fully evaluate the Rams’ plan from the start. And in my opinion, the priority was to fix the effectiveness in stopping the run.