The LA Rams have done some positive things defensively through the first five games of the season, ranking fifth in points allowed, first in net yards per pass attempt allowed and fourth in passing yards allowed. But skeptics will point to the fact that the Rams have faced Daniel Jones, Alex Smith, Kyle Allen and Carson Wentz in half of their contests with Jimmy Garoppolo almost exclusively burying them at the line of scrimmage with Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.
In the two games before the bye week, Los Angeles will face Nick Foles and Tua Tagovailoa in his NFL debut, so there could be opportunities to pad those defensive stats. However, the second half of the schedule includes two games against Russell Wilson and DK Metcalf, two games against Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, a rematch against Samuel and Kittle, plus Tom Brady and the Bucs in Week 11.
The Rams will not be judged by how well they play against Foles or the New York Jets in Week 15. They’ll be judged on how they do against the offenses they’d be likely to face in the postseason, should they make it that far. Teams will change significantly between now and then, including when it comes to LA’s defense.
They have more difficult tests ahead but they also haven’t fielded their best possible starting 11 + rotation yet. These are four elements that could improve the defense over the next 10 games.
Jordan Fuller returns
Drop preconceived notions about rookies and look at it only terms of the real world value that Fuller has brought to the Rams during his three complete games and it is barely even questionable that he was the third-best player on that side of the ball when he played. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, sixth round rookie safety Jordan Fuller.
The Rams have allowed 17 points, 19 points and 10 points during his three complete games. He played eight snaps against the Bills and all I gotta say is they didn’t score when he was on the field.
Is Fuller actually the third-best player on LA’s defense? We can’t rule it out. It would be unexpected but the league missing out on a great player because they didn’t get a proper evaluation on him would be far less surprising. What needs to happen is more time on the field for Fuller but he’s on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
With any luck he can return in the second half and move Taylor Rapp into a role better suited for him.
A’Shawn Robinson joins the defensive line
The Rams have not been one of the better run defenses in the NFL but Sean McVay is hopeful that he can return in Week 9 against the Seattle Seahawks. Greg Gaines has seen his playing time increase in recent weeks, so it could be that Robinson’s return eats into Sebastian Joseph-Day’s snaps.
Terrell Lewis ramps up
After falling in the draft in part due to his lack of playing time at Alabama because of injuries, Lewis has fittingly missed most of his first year with the Rams due to a variety of injuries and ailments. Through six games now he has spent time on the reserve list and now played in 23 snaps over the last two weeks, recording no stats. He has one snap on special teams.
But LA doesn’t have a second consistent pass rusher after Donald and there is a need at linebacker. Brandon Staley knows good linebackers so he must have had a positive endorsement on Lewis’s potential, which is something we could see in the coming weeks if he manages to hold his reputation for maladies at bay for a few months.
Finding the right players
Which leads right into an ambiguous but important part of the equation: McVay and Staley are trying to figure out what the best combination of players on defense is and without a preseason they’ve been peppering in options during games.
I have wondered recently if the reason that Van Jefferson and Cam Akers have seen their playing time go down is that McVay wanted to use the first month of the season as an opportunity to get their feet wet in moments without great consequence for the Rams. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of the NFL, perhaps the head coach wants to pull back the reins and put his best players on the field.
Gaines has seen his playing time go up. Lewis is entering the fold. Samson Ebukam has seen his playing time rapidly decrease and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo went on injured reserve. Terrell Burgess is getting a few more snaps recently. Kenny Young is kind of all over the place. Troy Reeder had to step in for Micah Kiser but then he didn’t play any snaps the next week. Darious Williams was a full time player, then McVay pulled him in base last week, going with Troy Hill instead.
The defense has already undergone notable changes midseason. We should expect quite a few more in the future.