There is no bigger flashpoint for the Los Angeles Rams than Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris. Even with a Super Bowl ring in his credits, his bend-but-don’t-break defensive schemes have had fans in an uproar since early in his tenure. Groaning aside, Morris faces the biggest challenge of a long career. One that could define his career going forward.
With training camp less than a week away, Morris faces a total rebuild on the defensive side of the ball. Only Aaron Donald and Ernest Jones return as regular starters. 2021 starter, safety Jordan Fuller is back, although his injury history returns as well. Certainly, there are few others that earned starts due to injury, but for all intents and purposes, they have been rotational players.
Having a basically clean slate to start, the 2023 defensive unit will have an unmistakeable Morris flavor, for better or worse. The Rams have drafted 16 defensive players under Morris watch and 15 are still on the roster. 20 undrafted free agents were also brought in with 19 still contracted. Only three players, Donald, Fuller and DT Marquise Copeland pre-date Morris’ arrival.
There is never a bad time to remind you that this is the Rams' defensive depth chart.— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) May 15, 2023
Michael Hoecht! Christian Rozeboom! Derion Kendrick! Russ Yeast!
Poor Raheem Morris. pic.twitter.com/Lk7WrqmjG8
Morris has used a multiple defensive scheme in L.A. He inherited the 3-4 from Wade Phillips and Brandon Staley, but as his first two seasons have progressed, he has began moving more to the traditional 4-3. It’s not the 4-3 of days gone by, modern NFL offenses throw more often than run with West Coast and spread concepts ruling the day. The lumbering, thumping linebacker unit is a thing of the past, seldom do you find three bullish linebackers on the field, replaced by cornerback/safety packages and sub-packages. Even tackle-gobbling middle linebackers are smaller and faster.
In today’s NFL all teams run multiple defenses, not one is strictly 4-3 under, 4-3 over, 3-4 two gap, 3-4 one gap or any of the myriad of coverage packages. But, most good defenses have a a basic core concept or structure. Do you play press in front of Cover3? Play man behind a four man rush? Gamble with a heavy blitzing and Cover1?
Looking back at a coaches past influence’s and coaching background can help shine light on his core concepts. The who's and what’s of Morris’ past may help us decide what his core concepts are and if he’s the right choice to rebuild the 2023 defense and put his stamp on it going forward
Kiffin and Tony Dungy were the masterminds of the Tampa 2 defense of the mid-90’s. It’s 4-3 over/under scheme with the middle linebacker taking deeper than normal drops into the middle of the field. It was based on and nearly a carbon copy of the Bud Carson “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 70’s, where Dungy had played. Noted for its simplicity, the scheme values speed (flying to the football), ball hawking and aggressive play/tackling style tackling (constantly trying force turnovers), and commitment to scheme fundamentals (holding contain).
A 3-4 disciple known for creative, complex schemes. In passing situations, Haslett was known for all-out blitzes on first down, filling all gaps and trying to force opponents into 2nd or 3rd and long situations. Depending on his talent, injuries, and/or opponent, Haslett could morph from multiple blitz pressure to flooding pass routes with eight-man zones coverages. Against the run, he preferred the spread of five players across the front to limit plays wide runs and a big run-stopping nose tackle to clog the middle.
Smith and Morris were only together one season 2015, known mostly for the Super Bowl meltdown loss to the New England Patriots.. Smith was an old-fashioned aggressive 4-3/man coverage defensive guy and didn’t ever mesh into Quinn’s zone concepts.
Long-time friend of Morris. Best-known for those “Legion of Boom” defenses of the Seattle Seahawks. His was a simple, time-tested 4-3 under defense with a Cover3 in the secondary and press coverage underneath it. A variation of his mentor, Pete Carroll’s style. Against the pass, Quinn made nuanced movement to get advantageous 1on1 matchups for his best pass rushers. It’s a defense built on physicality, speed, and relentless effort.
Morris cut his NFL coaching teeth under Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He stayed with the Bucs from 2002 through 2011, taking the 2008 season off to become a college Defensive Coordinator at Kansas State. He worked his way up the ranks in the Tampa 2 scheme, starting out as defensive quality control assistant, through roles in the defensive backfield, and finally replaced Kiffin as DC in 2009. He never called a defense that season, the Bucs decided to move on from Jon Gruden and selected Morris as his successor as Head Coach. After a 17-31 record over three tears, he was let go.
Washington Commanders DC Jim Haslett took in Morris as defensive backs coach, where he stayed for three years (2009-2011). According to Pro Football Reference, Washington’s pass defenses ended at #30, #20, and #24 over those three seasons. Both Haslett and Morris were fired after the 2014 season. The highlight of Morris’ time in the nation’s capitol was the grooming of his kinship with Sean McVay.
In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons hired Morris to coach defensive backs under new DC Richard Smith. After one season schooling the “Birds secondary, he was moved to the offensive side of the staff in a career turnaround. He was wide receivers coach as well as titled as assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. He stayed in that role from 2016 through 2018 and in 2019, was reassigned as defensive backs coach. Morris bumped up to DC in 2020 and after an 0-5 Falcon start, replaced the fired Dan Quinn as interim head coach. Under his watch, the team finished 4-7.
The Morris core concepts
Although keeping the Staley 3-4 as his “base” and quarters (Cover 4) pass coverage, Morris is a 4-3 man at heart and likes to mix in Cover 2 and 3. Without getting too deep in X’s and O’s, they are all high-shell coverages, relatively simple to run in their basic form, and can easily be built upon. Here’s a more in-depth and I think, a very good breakdown of the Rams Cover 3 and quarters defenses from the 3-4.
Fans have seen the Rams going with more 4 man fronts with one linebacker (over 60% in 2022), bringing in defensive backs for both the Cover 3 and quarters zones. If the Rams young safeties can show the requisite ball-hawking skills, Morris may use more Tampa 2 looks. But with the Rams lack of size on the defensive line, there will still be need for the 3-4 to help clog the middle and force the run game outside where it can be gang-tackled.
The one thing all these shell coverages need in common is a strong pass rush and that’s been lacking under Morris. In 2022, L.A. was ranked 28th (17.9%) in quarterback pressure and 25th (22.8%) in 2021 after never being worse than 17th under Staley and Phillips. Morris also called upon the blitz more than his predecessors.
Morris’ run defense tries to funnels the A & B gaps to the linebackers and the others to the outside and has been generally successful. It was particularly good last year with Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones combining for over 255 tackles. But to be honest, the 2021 LB corp of Troy Reeder and Jones did pretty well as well. Outside runs were stretched out and Jalen Ramsey, Nick Scott, and Taylor Rapp were good at supporting the run.
Aubrey Pleasant has his group of DBs on the hit sled today, hitting and shedding and working leverage angles, as Raheem Morris stands on top of the sled shouting technical tips. Pleasant keeps yelling, “VIOLENCE”.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) June 6, 2023
Is Morris the right guy to rebuild this Rams defense?
Morris has certainly paid his dues as an NFL coach, but looking at his career progression, it appears his grooming has been for a head coaching job rather than DC. While Morris has a long history of coaching in the secondary, his stint with the Rams has been his first full seasons as a professional coordinator. In total, he has called defenses for 39 regular season games.
He did spend a year (2008) as a college DC at Kansas State and was hired twice for NFL DC jobs (Tampa Bay and Atlanta). But due to circumstances, both turned quickly into head coaching jobs. He was promoted in Tampa Bay before the season started and the Atlanta DC gig lasted five games before he got the interim nod.
The Rams two defenses under Morris have not been bad overall, but not anywhere near Brandon Staley’s 2020 unit that was rated 1st overall, 1st in pass defense, and 3rd vs. the run, according to Pro Football Reference. Using those same statistics, Morris’s units have finished 18th and 22nd in scoring, 22nd both seasons versus the pass, and 6th and 13th against the run.
Morris’ numbers are more akin to the Wade Phillips squads of 2017-2019. Son of Bum rated better in scoring 12th, 20th, and 17th, as well as pass defense 13th, 14th, and 12th. Things changed against the run, with SOB’s run defense lacking at 28th, 23rd, and 19th.
Football Outsiders had a higher opinion of Morris’ defenses, ranking the Rams 5th in DVOA for 2021 and 18th in 2022.
The Rams have delivered Morris some good pass rushers to work with, Aaron Donald and Von Miller were great, but the supporting group were generally decent players as well. Now, AD is all alone without much pressure creating support. The Rams obviously saw this and drafted three edge and two defensive linemen. Morris knows how important QB pressure is to his schemes and told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
To have a successful defense, it starts with affecting the quarterback,” Morris said. “Whatever that means. A lot of people, when you say affect the quarterback, they automatically go right to sacks. You’ve got to get him off the spot.
“You got to get him with disguises. You have to get those guys to think a little bit. Get those guys out of their comfort zone. Outside of their box.”
No matter how he orchestrates it, blitz-heavy or not, the pass rush has to improve. He has to design an emphasis on getting the pass rushers 1on1 looks and have the right ones on the field to win those matchups. It’s just not logical to expect such a young secondary to provide many coverage sacks. In fact, there should be a fair share of growing pains.
The defensive line’s size and inexperience will surely be tested by opposing offensive coordinators, probably sooner than later. Morris has to keep those bodies fresh. As an example, in last years first game versus the Buffalo Bills, the Bills used eight different defensive linemen with none playing less than 25% of snaps and none more 69%.
Morris may have to simplify things to start, but stay open-minded, if another team has something that works, steal it. There are no copyright laws in the NFL. Use some deception, but not so much that the kids are thinking too much. In camp, drill it into them to rely on fundamentals and execution, but when the season starts, take those young dogs off the leash and let them play fast, loose and physical.
It cannot be stressed enough how important this defensive rebuild is to the Rams 2023 fortunes AND to Raheem Morris’ coaching future. If he’s going get the reins of another NFL team he has to show he’s the right man to build a team. The 2023 Rams defense would be a great achievement.