In 2019, these were the leaders in snaps on defense for the LA Rams:
1. Cory Littleton, ILB, 93%
2. Eric Weddle, FS, 93%
3. Aaron Donald, DT, 83%
4. Dante Fowler, OLB, 79%
5. Taylor Rapp, SS, 74%
6. Michael Brockers, DE, 69%
7. Nickell Robey-Coleman, NCB, 63%
8. Clay Matthews, ILB, 55%
9. Jalen Ramsey, CB, 51%
10. Samson Ebukam, OLB, 51%
11. Troy Hill, CB, 48%
12. Sebastian Joseph, NT, 43%
What we can learn from this is under Wade Phillips last season, a “starting” defense for the Rams would feature four linebackers, two defensive linemen, three cornerbacks, and two safeties.
Had Ramsey been with the team the whole season, he gets Marcus Peters’ snaps and of course moves up the list considerably. Had John Johnson not gotten hurt, he would take Rapp’s snaps, though the rookie may have found his way onto the field in other ways. In general though, LA did basically run out nickel most of the time and Robey-Coleman led all Rams cornerbacks in snaps. Again, because of the changes they made midseason, but he played nearly two-thirds of the time.
Joseph-Day managed 43% and I’m not sure if we can expect A’Shawn Robinson to play considerably more than that. Perhaps, if that’s working, but as we know the league isn’t the same offensively as it was a decade ago either.
As Doug Farrar noted on Twitter on Wednesday, teams were actually in dime (six defensive backs) more often than they were in base (four defensive backs) in 2019.
You know the whole "Nickel is the new base" thing? Very true, as nickel made up 59% of all dropbacks. But this surprised me -- in 2019, defenses played more dime (20.9%) than base (18%). Which means that defenses are putting six DBs on the field more than they're putting four.— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) July 9, 2020
The Kansas City Chiefs have been praised from here to galaxy EGS-zs8-1 for their signing and utilization of do-everything “safety” Tyrann Mathieu last year, helping them win the Super Bowl and playing all over the field and never coming off of it; Mathieu was in on 97% of defensive snaps for the Chiefs.
In fact, Mathieu has played in all but a handful of snaps over the last three years despite the case that he’s been with three different teams in that time.
Mathieu’s success in 2019 was certainly a factor in the selection of Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons by the Arizona Cardinals with the eighth overall pick in 2020. I’m not saying that Simmons isn’t deserving on his own, but much of the hype around him has been “Holy mango, this is the Toxic Avenger version of Tyrann” for whatever defense adds him. That defense is the Cardinals and the Rams will now get a two-times-per-year dose of its effectiveness.
More specifically, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett and Cam Akers may all get a dose of a versatile hybrid corner/safety/linebacker like Simmons. (If he works out, of course.)
LA’s version of hoping that plan works out is third round pick Terrell Burgess and while he may be in the competition to start at nickel, he might also end up just “starting” anyway even if he loses that job to David Long or Darious Williams. The Rams drafted Burgess with “versatility” at the forefront of their minds and Burgess says he’d be happy to play anywhere so long as he’s in a position to make plays.
“I’d say I’m a football player. I wouldn’t say that I’m best at any position but I do love to play in the box. I love to play in the box and being able to read lineman but I also like just being in a position to make plays,” Burgess said. “I don’t care where it is. I just want to play and help contribute.”
So while we may think of the Rams as a “3-4 base” defense, perhaps it will end up being more accurate to say that they’ll be more concerned with the guys at “2-4-5” or “3-3-6”. Perhaps some games you see more Robinson and some games you see more Burgess. Much of that also depends on the mysteries surrounding how much different new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is to Phillips.
Ramsey, Johnson, Rapp, Hill, Long, Burgess could potentially all get in their snaps next season and that may be another reason we don’t have to think as much about who “wins” the fourth linebacker position either. Maybe it’s Burgess.