Raheem Morris as the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator is a bit of a polarizing topic in the fanbase. While most respect him as a high-character person, his style of defense isn’t always what is preferred. The Rams defense last season was known for playing a match zone coverage that called for defensive backs to play off of receivers and limit explosives. The result was a defense that ranked 28th in dropback success rate.
During the offseason, Morris was a finalist of the Indianapolis Colts head coaching job. There were some that wanted Morris to get the job just so head coach Sean McVay would have to make a change at defensive coordinator. Instead, the Colts chose Shane Steichen and Morris was brought back for another year in Los Angeles.
The fact that he was brought back shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Morris has been the glue in the Rams locker room over the past two seasons. Following no-win November in 2021, Morris helped get McVay back on track for the Rams playoff run.
Last season when Sean McVay mentally checked out after a difficult season, according to The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue, “players gravitated toward defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ office as their head coach drew inward.”
Morris’ friendship and history with McVay going back to Washington is partially a reason why he’s in Los Angeles. There’s no questioning the defensive coordinator’s ability to lead and connect with people. That’s one of Morris’ best qualities as a football coach along with his ability to teach young players.
In 2020, the Atlanta Falcons were in complete re-build mode. From Weeks 1-5 with Dan Quinn at head coach, the Falcons ranked 30th in defense EPA per play. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions were worse. From Weeks 6-17 with Morris in charge, the Falcons defense ranked 14th in EPA. The Falcons went from having one of the worst defenses in the NFL, to being in the middle of the pack.
During that same time period, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal were all in the top-25 at their position according to Pro Football Focus. Jones ranked inside the top-10 and arguably had the best season of his career.
Among rookies, Marlon Davidson was a top-10 rookie defensive lineman, Mykal Walker was the highest-graded rookie linebacker, and AJ Terrell was the eighth-highest graded rookie cornerback.
Morris has an effect on young players because of his ability to teach. The Rams currently have the second-youngest team in the NFL and the defense is extremely young. Morris said this week about coaching a young defense and seeing their growth,
“It’s been awesome because we kind of started the process, right? Last year at the end we got to see some young people go out there and play with the same football team that we planned coming up here. Some of those guys have emerged as...whether we want to call it leaders, or guys that kind of hold the banner high. And to watch those guys grow in the offseason and to watch them really earn their respect from themselves, from their teammates, from their coaches, to put themselves in the position to go out there and play, it has been absolutely outstanding.”
The question biggest question with Morris comes down to scheme. How the Rams played defense last year was exactly how it was designed. The philosophy was to limit explosives and for the offense to be able to score points. In 2022, the Rams had the number one red zone defense in the NFL, allowing a touchdown just 44.4 percent of the time. Unfortunately, due to injuries, the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
It’s possible that the Rams still utilize some off-coverage match zone concepts, but they will likely be mixing in more aggressive concepts as well. As Rodrigue noted,
“The Rams mixed more man concepts with a tighter zone in their practices over the last month than they demonstrated throughout 2022...Seeing more aggressive concepts from the defensive backs so early this summer is a clue that the Rams feel optimistic about their current offense. There has been an effort from the defensive coaches to prepare the defensive backs for coverages they didn’t feature very often in 2022, because of the potential they won’t have to compromise with the offense quite so dramatically in 2023.”
If the Rams defense struggles like some tend to think it will, there’s a chance that there will be outside pressure from the fanbase to move in another direction. Whether or not that is fair is a conversation for later as the Rams depleted their defensive talent this offseason.
Morris may not be the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, but he may be the right one to coach the young players in the current group. His history with young players shows that. McVay opted to keep Morris despite making changes in several other areas of the coaching staff. Whether or not that was the right call is something we’ll find out the answer to soon enough as the NFL season kicks off on Sunday.