The Los Angeles Rams defense is set. While final cuts have been decided, final tinkering and additions transacted, and practice squad filled, the defense may still be a work in progress. What began the preseason with the promise of a young and inexperienced group has shaken out to be a very nice mix of youth and veterans.
The Rams preseason was defense was a mess, opposing offenses used the runaway train approach to both pass and run. But preseason games mean very little to the L.A. braintrust and trying compare schemes, formations, and/or plays is futile. Even attempting to glean individual performances is tough, the program is set up more to show who can’t play.
Expectations of success are not high. In their annual positional rankings, Pro Football Focus had the Rams ranked #32, dead last, in the secondary and at linebacker. Even the great Aaron Donald could not rise the defensive line above #22. Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris is ranked at #7 amongst his brethren.
The negative narrative aside, it’s time to meet and greet the Rams 2023 defense.
Aaron Donald, Bobby Brown, Jonah Williams, Larrell Murchison, Earnest Brown, Kobie Turner, Dejuan Johnson
BBrown is tasked with taking over the hole-clogging, run stopper role from A’Shawn Robinson. His play this preseason was much like his first two seasons, very inconsistent. For every play that he used his length, leverage, and power to break down opposing blockers, there were four where he was pushed back or didn’t apply much effort.
Williams, Murchison, and EBrown are all rotational grade players and each moved up and down the defensive line last year. One will get the starting 5T role when the Rams are in their 5-2-4 base defense. All three are effort players, what they lack in “starter” talent as individuals, I think they can make up for as a group.
With five experienced players ahead of them, the rookies Turner and Johnson will likely be brought along slowly. Johnson may struggle to get on the active game day roster.
Michael Hoecht, Byron Young, Nick Hampton, Nick VanValkenburg
If the Rams continue their preseason trend of switching to a 4-2-5 in passing situations and the red zone, Hoecht and Young will have huge roles. L.A. was subbing out the down linemen in those situations, not the edges. Young impressed the Rams coaches enough in joint practices to sit him out of the last two games. Hoecht looks to build on his edge game after moving outside for 2022’s last six games. Over that short span, he had 12 pressures and 4.5 sacks.
Hampton doesn’t look quite ready and is likely a candidate to be a healthy inactive on game days. VanValkenburg had a solid preseason and looked strong against #2’s and #3’s, but was better against the run than rushing the passer. He needs to show that same ability to to defend the run versus starting offensive linemen and at least a little juice rushing the passer.
Off ball linebacker
Ernest Jones, Christian Rozeboom, Jake Hummel
After showing improvement in his first two seasons, Jones gets his chance to be a Rams star. He his proven to be solid versus the run, but to now prove he can fill now-departed Bobby Wagner’s shoes, he must play better against the pass and be able to get home on the blitz.
Who starts next to him? In theory, if the Rams run defense is as bad as it showed in preseason games, then maybe it should be Rozeboom. He is an aggressive downhill player who really takes on blockers in the gaps. Hummel is more athletic and a better overall fit for the “will” role, but has been just a count late reacting and needs to play more instinctually to the ball.
John Johnson, Jordan Fuller, Russ Yeast, Quentin Lake, Jason Taylor
The addition of Johnson and the return to health and lineup of Fuller makes this a solid unit and arguably, an upgrade over last year. Not a particularly fast pair, but savvy in coverages, good ball skills and good tacklers.
Yeast and Lake can continue to develop while playing in nickel and dime packages. Yeast played deep in preseason while Lake would play some deep and sub in for a linebacker in passing situations. Taylor should be active for special teams play.
DeCobie Durant, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Derion Kendrick, Shaun Jolly, Duke Shelley
Witherspoon has proven to be a good coverage man, it’s his health history that fans need to worry about. Hopefully, he can last long enough to help get Hodges-Tomlinson comfortable as a pro. Speaking of THT, he had good reps in preseason and joint practices, showing he can be sticky in covering pro grade wide receivers.
Durant had some injury woes as a rookie and was brought along slowly, but showed real potential in coverage and making plays on the ball. For what it’s worth, in a small number of snaps in the slot, Pro Football Focus named him as the top slot corner in passer rating allowed. He is tasked with replacing Jalen Ramsey in the “star” slot/safety/linebacker role.
Rams coaches love Kendrick and Jolly, but both missed a good amount of time in camp with soft tissue injuries. Both are expected to have roles in corner rotation/packages. Shelly was a post-final cuts addition. He had a nice season as a rotational player with the Minnesota Vikings in 2022.
The Rams DBs are younger than ever, yet asked to play more aggressive coverages in camp than all of 2022.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) August 31, 2023
Will this translate to the season?
I spoke with them, and DC Raheem Morris, to see whether the shift can “stick” and found a story with many layers: https://t.co/UH6luWqErD
Can the defense be better? Or at least as good as last year?
Well, no. You cannot lose eight starters from any defense and expect to be better. But maybe a better question for 2023 is, “Can they be successful?”
The answer to that is a resounding, ”Maybe.”
The veteran signings of cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety John Johnson add solid experience to what started the preseason as a very young and inexperienced secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, last year DeCobie Durant was tops in slot corner coverage. Not a huge body of work, but very good just the same. Hodges-Tomlinson had some very good reps in preseason games and working against Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders in joint workouts. Recently added, Duke Shelly is a solid cover man.
How much does the “AD effect” count for? We’ll soon find out. The Rams struggled to get consistent pressure last year ranking towards the the bottom of the league in quarterback hurry, knockdown, and pressure percentages. There wasn’t much pass rush in 2023 preseason games.
The pass rush will be the defining aspect of the defense. Donald is going to continually draw double teams all season, it is imperative that the others on the defensive front win their 1on1s. The Rams did show a corner blitz regularly in preseason, expect that to continue.
Last season, L.A. did pretty well against the run. Some of that was opposing teams ability to play pitch and catch seemingly at will against off coverage, but with linebackers Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones each making 100+ tackles, the run defense was sound. Early in preseason games, the Rams run defense was good against zone runs, but the under-sized line was dominated by gap/power blocking. I don’t think it’s time to push the panic button on stopping the run yet. Defense can be improved somewhat by week to week scheme and the “AD effect” spans the run game as well.
A strange positive is the Rams soft scheme, the whole set up is to give a little ground. Teams will likely move the ball as they have in the past, whether by the short pass or more by the run. The key to success will be the same, forcing turnovers and shutting things down when they can use back of the end zone as an extra defender and forcing field goals.
But this years secondary has shown the potential and skillset to stop wide receivers from running loose deep in the secondary and giving up long pass plays. Whether biting on double moves or just letting guys run right past them, last years group allowed that too often for the type of coverage they played. I also think this years group can help get the pass rush some coverage sacks.
Speculation ends in less than a week, the 2023 defense gets their chance to show what it’s made on Sunday against a Seattle Seahawk team that beat L.A. twice last year by a total of seven points.