After starting 57 games for the L.A. Rams in three and a half season, the defensive backfield will look vastly different this year without Jalen Ramsey. The Rams are prepared to start the season with some combination of second-year players Cobie Durant and Derion Kendrick, third-year pro Robert Rochell, and rookie Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
But could this relatively unknown, youthful revival prove to be what Raheem Morris’ retooled defense needs the most?
The staple of the Rams defense is Cover 4, which they ran 7.1% more than any other team last season. This defense focuses on zone coverage much more than man to man. This allows a lot more flexibility at corner, as it puts less individual pressure on young corners by allowing help over the top rather than putting them singled one on one with a receiver. This “bend don’t break” style of defense is great for limiting explosive plays, but susceptible against underneath passes and quick screens, as most of the corners are playing off the line of scrimmage and giving cushions.
The #Rams ran the most Cover 4 in football last season. Also ran a good amount of Cover 3.— The GOAT House (@GoatHouseNFL) February 25, 2023
They ran the least amount of Man Coverage in the league.
So a Zone defense is likely for Jalen Ramsey.
If Los Angeles continues to run zone coverage defenses, this new crop of young players may actually fit the defense better. Nothing can be taken away from Ramsey, but when L.A. did go man to man last year, they were ranked dead last in QBR allowed. Ramsey himself has said that zone is not his preferred style of play, but was going to do whatever the team needed.
Paying Ramsey on a potential new deal would have been a mistake for the Rams because his superstar abilities affect the game less in this zone style defense than it would in a defense committed to more man to man where pressure is put on the corners to solo wide receivers. In Ramsey’s case, it’s like having Peyton Manning and paying him a massive amount of money, only for him to hand the ball off each play. While he is a top tier player, his skill set is almost under-utilized for what the Rams do.
Rookie Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson is coming from a 3-3-5 stack defense at TCU that used zone and man, having five defensive backs on the field and allowing safety help over the top. Hodges-Tomlinson could end up being a great fit in the Rams style of defense, as he is used to a crowded defensive backfield. He has experience in the zone, handing off receivers to safeties and linebackers based on routes ran against him. Hodges-Tomlinson is physical in run support and could allow for some corner blitzing, and his experience in man to man is beneficial in the times it is used. There is a good opportunity for Hodges-Tomlinson to take over as the starter at the nickel position this year.
Cobie Durant will most likely be taking one of the starting outside cornerback positions. In 2022, he was top-10 in interceptions for the entire NFL with three. And while he struggled some in coverage, it was clear that Durant had a nose for the ball with playmaking ability. He was arguably the best corner on the team behind Ramsey, while being hampered by a hamstring injury most of the year. He ended his rookie season with a PFF score of 73.3, which is very promising for a fourth round pick and it will be interesting to see what he can do with another offseason under his belt and a full slate of health.
Cobie Durant vs Broncos:— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) December 26, 2022
• 1 TOT
• 2 PD
• 2 INT (1 TD)
The Rams rookie CB had himself a GAME pic.twitter.com/Yw1NpUTzTu
I don’t think the return of Jordan Fuller can be understated at the safety position. Fuller is one of the few veteran leaders this defense has outside of Aaron Donald. After missing most of last year with injuries, I think getting Fuller back by itself could greatly improve this defense. Fuller has worn the green dot, calling the defensive plays in the past and he has proven to be one of the most talented safeties on the field, not just with the Rams but in the NFL, when healthy. Having him back on the field will fix a lot of the communication issues the team had last year, which is pivotal in a zone defense.
Robert Rochell and Derion Kendrick are probably the biggest question marks at corner. Kendrick was pretty good at stopping the run and tackling with 40 solo tackles last year but was not great against the pass. He will need to improve this area, but I believe he has the potential to be the starting corner opposite of Durant. He is very physical with 40 solo tackles last year and is one player I believe could really benefit from the likes of Fuller behind him. Rochell looked like he was going to be a starter after his 2021 campaign where he helped win a championship in a rotational role. If he can get back to that form after a down 2022 year, he could be great depth piece at corner. This is a make-or-break season for Rochell and he could be ready to make a leap after not getting much playing time.
While Ramsey was great for the Rams, and the fan base will always appreciate what he did, I believe Los Angeles will be better off in 2023 with the benefit of more solid depth talent across the board and the ability to interchange all of these young, versatile defensive backs in Raheem Morris’ new look defense.