Evolving from the 2018 season, the Los Angeles Rams entered 2019 with a completely different defensive line with high expectations. Defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, and edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. returned to the starting unit, though additions such as edge Clay Matthews were added to the unit in hopes of increasing the productivity alongside the leagues best player in Donald.
The nose tackle position transitioned from Ndamukong Suh to young players with almost no career NFL starts such as interior defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day, Greg Gaines, and Tanzel Smart.
The unit as a whole changed up, from starters to backups, and thus far, the results have been interesting to note. We’re going to use NFL’s Next Gen Stats to help us view certain statistics that can help breakdown just how the defensive line is performing (deeper than sacks). Let’s get into it:
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton
Time to throw: 2.24 seconds (worst in league)
Average completed air yards: 4.9 yards (9th worst in league)
Average intended air yards: 6.3 yards (8th worst in league)
Longest completed air distance: 33.7 yards (5th worst in league)
New Orleans Saints QB Teddy Bridgewater
Time to throw: 2.89 seconds (10th in league)
Average completed air yards: 3.9 yards (6th worst in league)
Average intended air yards: 6.8 yards (11th worst in league)
Longest completed air distance: 28.8 yards (3rd worst in league)
Now you’re probably asking, “What the heck are these numbers and what do they mean?”, so let’s explain. Time to throw is what you think it is, it’s the average amount of time the quarterback has to get rid of the ball. Sometimes some of these numbers can be skewed as a mobile quarterback may be pressured more often than a non-mobile one, but can buy himself more time using his legs (making it look like he was pressured less). Average completed air yards is pretty self explanatory too, it’s the average air yards for every completion. Air yards are counted from when the ball leaves the quarterbacks hands to the point it reaches the receivers hands, no yards-after-catch included. Average intended air yards is the same thing, though it accounts for all attempts, not just completions. And lastly, the longest completed air distance stems from the same aspect, except it takes the figure which was the longest completion for the quarterback (by way of air yards).
So, what does this mean? Well, there are a lot of factors to it. In terms of week one, the Rams’ pass rush was pretty effective, though the Panthers’ game plan was clearly to work in the quick passing game, not allowing Newton to take deep drop backs and force their offensive line to block for a longer period of time allowing their weapons to work deep. Newton regularly threw the ball within 10 yards, evidenced by his low air yardage stats across the board. Part of the reason for that gameplan by the Panthers is the attempt to neutralize the Rams’ defensive line, simply not giving the defensive line enough time to impact the game as much as they’d like.
Week two was more of the same, though Bridgewater held it longer than Newton did. Bridgewater looked downfield relatively often, though the Rams’ secondary performed brilliantly, keeping everything in front of them and forcing Teddy to re-evaluate his options. Once again, Bridgewater would take a deeper shot from time to time (not deep per se, more intermediate) though those passes were generally incompletions. Majority of the Saints’ offense were short completions in long down-and-distances where the Rams were playing zone coverages and defending the sticks (first down marker).
Looking at it in a more conventional sense, the Rams are tied for 14th in the league with five sacks on the year (two for Fowler, two for Matthews, one for Brockers).
Taking a step back, the Rams’ defensive line should have more opportunities to create havoc in week three against the Cleveland Browns as quarterback Baker Mayfield has one of the highest average intended air yards figures in the league, meaning he’ll happily sit back in the pocket, allow deep passing plays to try and develop, and regularly pushes the ball downfield instead of checking it down.
It’s tough to evaluate the defensive line through two weeks as the sample size is small and the Rams have faced a backup quarterback for 50% of their matchups thus far. Week three will tell an entirely different story though, as the Browns’ offensive line has looked suspect, giving the Rams’ pass rushing unit every opportunity to dominate the game.
Up to this point, Aaron Donald has been swarmed with double teams (nearly every play) and triple teams far more often than any man should have to endure, leaving it to guys like Fowler, Matthews, and Brockers to produce. To this point, they’ve been okay in that regard, as Fowler has one sack against a running back in pass pro (Christian McCaffrey), an unblocked sack on a stunt, Matthews has one completely unblocked sack, one on a missed facemask against a tight end in pass pro, with Brockers’ requiring more quality as he actually beat an offensive lineman. The reason for all the non-offensive line blocks are obviously because of Donald, who often times faces triple teams (as mentioned above). That leaves the players surrounding him with much easier matchups, meaning it’s incredibly important for the rest of the defensive line to take advantage of those situations as they present themselves.
To this point, I’d say the defensive line has been okay, though I’d love to see more production from guys not named Aaron Donald against legitimate blocks from offensive lineman. “High quality” sacks as they’re called, are far more accurate in terms of projections and evaluations for pass rushers. They’ve taken advantage of the “gimmes” against running backs, tight ends, and free-be’s, which is obviously ideal.
Week three will be a litmus test where we can focus on the defensive line and truly come away with a solid idea of what they are and what they can be moving forward as Mayfield and the Browns will likely give them every chance to prove themselves.