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5 defensive questions that need to be answered as Rams open training camp

The who, what, where, why, and when’s of a young defense

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams
Can Ernest Jones lead the Rams young defense?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Both rookies and veterans for the Los Angeles Rams descend on Crawford Field in Irvine this afternoon for Day 1 of 2023 training camp. It’s been an offseason of big changes in L.A. and questions abound about their range of outcomes. No one faces more questions than Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris and how he navigates his units total rebuild will be at the center of the storm.

When digging for information, the five w’s, who, what, where, why, and when are the gold standard of questions. Day 1 of training camp is the right time to query Morris and the Rams defense, trying to get a glimpse of his perspective and hopefully, the building blocks to answers. To that end, here are five questions that need to be answered in camp.

Los Angeles Rams v Baltimore Ravens
Jordan Fuller steals away an interception
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Who will replace Jalen Ramsey in the “Star” role?

Or will it disappear completely? The Rams were tight-lipped about any technical aspects of their defense during OTAs. In this year of changes, there is no real hint of what the defensive identity will be and the role might end up unnecessary. One thing that is almost certain, the Rams will make copious use of soft, high-shell coverages,

As possibilities, DC Morris has only made mention of DeCobie Durant and Shaun Jolly in OTA press conferences, lauding their short area quickness and ball skills, but dancing around the subject by explaining that Jalen Ramsey was such a one-off talent. They are both on the small side for a position that combines cornerback, safety, and linebacker responsibilities.

Fans could also wonder about where the secondary production will come from. Ramsey’s void leaves 88 tackles, 18 passes defended, four interceptions, and four tackles for loss, stellar production for a secondary player.

What does success look like for such an inexperienced group?

With a young group, gradual improvement would be the norm. As players absorb and understand the system they begin to get comfortable in it and begin to naturally play fast and loose.

For the defensive line and edge units, it’s getting consistent pressure while maintaining the production versus the run. Integrating the rookies into the rotation and them to take quickly to speed, strength/power, and technical prowess of the pro game. And of course, getting someone to step up and take some of the double-team pressure off Aaron Donald.

For the linebackers it’s making tackles, somebody has to replace the 145 tackles of Bobby Wagner. They don’t have to be dominant, but do have to fill gaps and not get washed away in the LOS melees.

In the secondary, if history repeats, it’s making the tackles on the short completions underneath. But there is a big chance for the safeties to improve over last year, just by keeping contain and not letting opposing wideouts from getting behind them and taking good angles on downfield runners.

Where will the pass rush come from?

Whether or not the Rams can pressure opposing quarterbacks may be the most important piece of building a successful 2023 defense. The soft, umbrella zone coverages are predicated on forcing quarterbacks off their spot and into mistakes. Last year, according to Pro Football Reference, L.A. had a pressure rate of 17.9% per drop back, 29th in the league. Even with a strong defensive front in 2021, the Super Bowl winning squad, that percentage was 22.8, 25th overall.

23 of the Rams 38 sacks left during the offseason. The L.A. braintrust recognized the weakness and injected plenty of draft capital into the problem. They used five selections, including two of their top three, on the defensive front. Of these conscripts, two, edge Byron Young and defensive tackle Kobie Turner, are projected to battle for plenty of snaps, if not starting roles. The other three will likely need developing, but this area is not a deep pool, so who knows? Round 5 edge Nick Hampton shows potential as a pass rusher, but is on the small side, as is Round 7 defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson. Edge Ochaun Mathis is a raw, physical monster who had 31 tackles for loss in college.

Aaron Donald is back and healthy, that’s a huge piece and Michael Hoecht has had a full offseason to learn some of the intricacies of the edge position. The Rams also have a handful of workman-like returnees who have not shown much pass rush production. One, or more, needs to take the next step.

Carolina Panthers v Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald powers through another double-team
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Why didn’t the Rams add a run-stopper on the defensive line?

It seems every year there is a head-scratching move, the 2023 move is actually the the lack of a move. As camp opens L.A. has yet to add a run-stopping wide body in the middle. Nothing grinding out of the rumor mill, either. This deepens the mystery of what the Rams defensive schemes will look like.

Bobby Brown has been taking his time developing and is the only defensive lineman weighing over 300 lbs. Rookie UDFA Taron Vincent is listed by some at 300 lbs. and few biscuits less by others, but he’s likely a camp body. The Rams two DL draftees, Turner and Johnson, were on the smaller end of the spectrum and join holdovers Jonah Williams, Marquise Copeland, Larrell Murchison, and Earnest Brown in the 285-295 area. Not tiny, by any means, but certainly well under the offensive linemen average of 315 lbs.

When will Morris tighten up the 3rd down defense?

For Rams fans, one of the most aggravating things about DC Morris’ scheme is the cushion that L.A. coverage’s allow, particularly on 3rd down attempts. That goes across the board, for cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers. Even with all the injuries, the run defense was a mid-pack unit last season and in the Top 10 for 2021. It’s one thing to be pounded on 3rd and 3 or less and the chains move, but it’s cringe-worthy and demoralizing when the line to gain is 6-7 yards, the corners are 10 yards off and allow pitch-and-catch conversions

Overall, the defense bent for 40.4% of 3rd down conversions. The pass defense allowed a poor completion percentage of 67.4, but with a stellar average depth of target of 6.8 yards. It doesn't take a math major to figure out that’s a lot pitch-and-catch on short throws. With the NFL trending to wide receivers who have run after catch skillsets, some consideration must be made to keeping those weapons from getting the ball with a step in space to juke or overpower the coverage.

Maybe some of the reason for all the soft zone is the players that DC Morris inherited were not particularly good at it. Fair enough, there’s a point there. Now though, he’s had three drafts to bring in the type of player/skillset he covets. Jordan Fuller is the only holdover from the secondary or linebacker unit that pre-dates him.

The conclusions?

The defense might not need a “Star” role, with all the young players it might be better to have simpler, designated roles. Ramsey was a generational talent, the type of player whose athletic abilities and pride made him a success wherever he’s plugged in. As much as I like the young secondary’s potential, none are in Ramsey’s class. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole.

With a bend-but-don’t-break style defense, it’s all about forcing field goals and creating turnovers. There is such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. Would you believe that the Rams 2022 true scoring defense is almost the same, to the number, as the 2021 Super Bowl winning team at 21.7 points per game. While there are no guarantees, if this young defense can settle into the 21-22 points per game area, that should be considered a success.

As a level of protection for the young secondary, it is imperative that the Rams create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The don’t have to lead the league in sacks, just get enough pressure to keep QB’s from throwing on time. Make them, at least, try to get through their reads. DC Morris has to configure a way to create 1on1 pass rush opportunities, and that would include shifts, stunts, or loops and play the players that can win them. I believe this smaller, more athletic line could handle these moves. If he can’t find a way to get single blocking, the blitz will have to be dialed up.

What happens if fans get their way and DC Morris tightens coverage to some degree? Will opposing OC’s attack the Rams small defensive line? It would seem logical that teams with even a modicum of a ground game could/should pound away. This puts Ernest Jones, and whoever breaks through and wins the other “backer and box safety roles under the microscope. Not long after Morris came to L.A., I latched onto the thought that the run game defense is not truly as strong as it ranks, it’s more of a case that short and medium yardage situations are attacked through the air because of the coverage cushions.

DC Morris does tend to tighten up as the season matures. At least that’s how it appears in his first two years. It was quite obvious in 2021 and maybe less so last year because of the team having so many problems. There are no simple answers, certainly a lot of it is scheme and the cushions, but I do think the defensive linemen could do a better job getting their arms up to help narrow passing lanes. Also, the Rams do play well in the red zone, it seems that they could rework a similar scheme to be utilized on those 3rd and medium plays.

All the speculation now becomes a day-to-day reality, starting this afternoon. Player stocks will rise and fall, position battles will be waged, injuries will both take and give, and roster bubbles will be burst. Right now we can question the process, on September 1 we can question the decisions.