While it is too early to panic about the defense of the LA Rams — surely facing Daniel Jones, Jared Goff, and Davis Mills after this week will help — the hard truth is that they are not as talented on that side of the ball as they were last season. Better put, the Rams are not as ready to be a talented defense as they were when Brandon Staley helped guide them to the number one ranking in yards and points allowed in 2020.
Through the first four games of 2021, the LA Rams rank 18th in points allowed, 27th in yards allowed, and 20th in DVOA.
One thing that will help immensely can only be remedied with time and experience: continuity and chemistry.
Safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill played the most snaps of any Rams defenders in 2020 and both joined the Cleveland Browns in free agency. They’ve been replaced by Taylor Rapp and David Long, two players who were in on under 40% of the snaps last season who are now being asked to work in sync with Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, and Jordan Fuller.
Being out of sync is maybe what’s causing players like Rams cornerback Darious Williams to not have the type of year he was hoping for so far.
Additionally, the team has made sweeping changes at defensive line and linebacker, also based on the necessity of names who were going out the door, such as Michael Brockers, Morgan Fox, and Micah Kiser. That means that Kenny Young has gone from playing in 46% of the snaps to playing in 91%, while Justin Hollins was on the field over 70% of the time prior to his recent injury.
Hollins is one defensive player who was highlighted early in the season for helping the Rams get better on that side of the ball, but without him, LA’s issues have only been exacerbated. Sean McVay and Raheem Morris are looking for more defensive players like Hollins, while also waiting for Hollins to return from injured reserve, and there are a few names I think we should keep our eyes on in that regard.
As well as some who might need to start playing less.
Poised to Break Out
OLB Terrell Lewis
The big concern with Lewis has always been his knees and his health. Those injury issues cost him most of his rookie offseason and season, with Lewis playing in only 12% of the defensive snaps in 2020.
Through the first four weeks, Lewis is playing in 38% of the snaps, and he was in on 56% of the snaps against Arizona in Week 4. Lewis created three defensive pressures, with four tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble.
#Rams’ defensive pressures in Week 4 (PFF):— Nick Cothrel (@NickCothrel) October 4, 2021
Leonard Floyd: 5
Terrell Lewis: 3
Aaron Donald 2
Sebastian Joseph-Day: 2
Kenny Young: 2
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 2
In total, the pass rush recorded 16 pressures, 13 hurries and 3 sacks.
Above all other players on defense who have yet to prove to be valuable to the Rams (Aaron Donald, Ramsey, Fuller, Williams, Leonard Floyd, Sebastian Joseph-Day being the obvious candidates), Lewis is my player with the most potential. The Rams desperately need a true edge rushing partner for Donald and Lewis doesn’t just look like the best candidate.
He’s finally starting to play like it too — but more importantly, is finally starting to play.
In the 1st game after losing EDGE Justin Hollins, #Rams played Terrell Lewis for 56% and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo for 44%.— Matt Schauf (@SchaufDS) October 4, 2021
Lewis seeing more than double his initial playing time. Upside matchup in Week 5 with Seahawks, who have allowed 3 sacks in 3 of 4 games. #IDPHits pic.twitter.com/UxE42572pi
NT Sebastian Joseph-Day
Despite playing pretty consistently during his first two campaigns, SJD has seen a huge increase in playing time in 2021: from 40% of the snaps last season to 68% of the snaps through four games. But unlike some of his teammates, SJD isn’t only getting ‘de facto snaps’ because of a departure or a need.
Joseph-Day has demanded more playing time because he is a fantastic weapon for LA’s defense alongside Donald. Through three weeks, he was one of the top run defenders in all of football, getting a Run Stop Win Rate of 52% — second in the league.
Best DT Run Stop Win Rate Through Week 3 (ESPN)— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) September 28, 2021
Derrick Brown, Foley Fatukasi-46%
Corey Peters, Christian Wilkins-44%
Of course, no player is going to be like Donald or nearly as good, and every player is going to be better next to Donald, but it is getting easier and easier to recognize the individual effort that Joseph-Day gives on each play. He’s been a viable threat to stop the run or to eat up blockers and the Rams are going to have to make a big decision on his 2022 free agency.
CB Robert Rochell
Call this one more ‘wishful thinking’ because Rochell has only played in 16% of the snaps over three games. But LA has few other options at cornerback and the continuity issues in the secondary could be what implores McVay and Morris to keep digging for opportunities to put the rookie on the field.
But Rochell is coming off of a career at Central Arkansas and he’s had few matchups against NFL caliber players, so a growth process that takes two or three years would be acceptable. It’s just that the Rams have few other young defensive pieces of note that even have evidence to start pouring through right now.
I would also put Justin Hollins here, once returns from ‘missing substantial time’.
DE A’Shawn Robinson
It’s been over a year and a half since the Rams signed Robinson and there’s no other way to put it: I keep forgetting that he’s on the team.
It was a little odd at the time and there’s no way I can imagine A’Shawn Robinson sticking around with his $9.5 million cap hit in 2022. But Robinson has posted 11 tackles in the last two games, playing in only 54 snaps, so who knows what that could mean for now or the future. He might finally be finding his fit though.
I think the Bucs tried running at A'Shawn Robinson like 5x and maybe gained 5 yards total on those plays. He was immovable.— Sosa Kremenjas (@QBsMVP) September 28, 2021
They say the best ability is availability but what about accountability? Because I keep forgetting to account for A’Shawn Robinson. Who is on the Rams, by the way. Perhaps now he’ll be harder to ignore.
ILB Kenny Young
Should Kenny Young be starting on an NFL defense as an inside linebacker? At the moment, Kenny Young doesn’t seem to be good in coverage or as a blitzer and he has missed almost 10% of his tackle opportunities.
Les Snead drafted inside linebacker Ernest Jones in the third round and McVay kept Travin Howard on the final roster. We haven’t seen much of either — a combined 19 snaps, all by Jones — so will that change at any point in 2021?
CB David Long, Jr.
When I went to the Cowboys-Rams joint practice in training camp, the clear “low light” was David Long, Jr. against the Dallas receivers. He was no match for them. He was no match for DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green in Week 4. Will he be a match for DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in Week 5? What about the weeks after that?
However, I don’t want to put all the blame on Long. The blame could easily also transfer to Snead, Morris, McVay, or the other cornerbacks who aren’t Jalen Ramsey.
David Long Jr has trouble trying to read the play and mark his guy. Seen this too many times this season with him.— Jagged (@xxJaggedxx) October 3, 2021
The Rams couldn’t afford to keep Johnson and Hill and they decided to go another direction, instead signing Leonard Floyd to a long-term deal. I’m not sure that’s where I would have allocated that money but I’m not in Snead’s position either. In any case, one player who has rarely been in a position to make the stops that LA needs is David Long, Jr. and that’s one more reason for concern.
S Taylor Rapp
We gotta know.... Why not Terrell Burgess?