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Rams defense eventually settles down, but it’s too little, too late in playoff loss to Detroit Lions

Are big changes in the works for 2024?

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Detroit Lions
Aaron Donald pressures Jared Goff
Photo by Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images

Dreams of a Los Angeles Rams playoff run ended in Sunday’s razor-thin 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions. For the L.A. defense, it was another split personality performance, not having any answers to stop the opposing offense in the first half before battening down the hatches in final 30 minutes. Now, big changes may be in the works.

Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris will have multiple interviews for a head coaching job and defensive line coach Eric Henderson is moving back to the Rams old digs at the Coliseum as USC’s co-defensive coordinator. If Morris leaves, there’s a high probability he takes along some of his assistants.

Personnel decisions must be made on unrestricted free agents, starting cornerback (CB) Ahkello Witherspoon, safeties (S) John Johnson and Jordan Fuller, as well as rotational defensive tackle (DT) Larrell Murchison. How will restricted free agents edge (E) Michael Hoecht, DT Jonah Williams, and linebacker (LB) Christian Rozeboom be tendered?

We’ll have all off-season to cuss-and-discuss the possible changes, but let’s review the Rams defense’s final performance of 2023-24.

It appears obvious now that the Rams opening game plan was to play soft and let the Lions shoot themselves in the foot. They used either the 5-2 base or 5-1 nickel fronts well over 90 percent of the time and the secondary stayed in what appeared to be a Cover3 umbrella for a like number.

I guess L.A. bought into the reported metrics that proclaimed Lions quarterback (QB) Jared Goff as one of the NFL’s best under pressure, even though that was not the case in Goff’s years as a Ram. On Detroit’s first three possessions, all 75 yard touchdown drives, the Rams blitzed only twice, one was half-assed delayed safety blitz that didn’t reach the line of scrimmage and the other a standard, linebacker (LB) Ernest Jones through the A gap. Goff responded to the availability of pitch-and catch by completing 14 of 15 passes for 156 yards and scoring 21 points.

Juxtapose that with the Lions final five possessions, where they netted 115 yards, were limited to three points, QB pressure had a direct hand in stopping all five drives and almost forced Goff to turn it over twice. It wasn’t the exotic rush packages we saw the Rams using after the mid-season bye, but there were some faux charges and simulated blitzes that certainly flustered Goff.

Drive #1

The vulnerable areas in a Cover3 scheme are underneath passes, particular in the flats and the Lions and QB Goff took full advantage of the pitch-and-catch. He completed five of five passes for 51 yards as the Lions marched on a 10 play, 75 yard drive without being slowed. Lions 7, Rams 0.

Drive #2

A mirror of the first drive, 75 yards, but this time in only six plays. On the first two drives, when Detroit got inside the red zone, the Rams questionably used a 5-1 formation. Indeed, the defensive backs were a little tighter to the line of scrimmage, but it still seemed a soft formation against a team with a strong offensive line. Lions ran it in on both drives. Lions 14, Rams 3.

Drive #3

Another 75 yard touchdown drive, without much resistance. The lone bright spot was DT Kobie Turner breaking through off the snap and forcing QB Goff to overthrow an open receiver, but the pressure was not sustained.

On the touch down, the Lions bring in a lineman as an extra tight end and line him up eligible. Opposite that, they stack three tight ends in the slot and the Rams counter with E Michael Hoecht, ILB Christian Rozeboom, and S John Johnson in coverage of the three. No timeout to adjust and an easy touchdown pass, without a rub/screen. Lions 21, Rams 10.

Drive #4

After an 11 yard run to open the drive, some semblance of a pass rush proved QB Goff can be flustered. DT Aaron Donald broke of his block quickly and set his sights on the QB, rather than take the sack, Goff pitched the ball wildly backwards. Luckily for him, the Lions recovered, albeit with a big loss. L.A. allowed Goff to dig out of that hole with a pair of mid-length completions, but a pair of short runs gave the Rams to get off the field. On 3rd and five from the Rams 40, E Michael Hoecht got outside and around the Detroit tackle and hit QB Goff’s arm, sending the ball fluttering to the ground. It was a half-step away from a strip sack. Lions 21, Rams 17.

Drive #5

To start the second half, the Rams get a chance for a quick three-and-out. On 3rd and six, the Rams show and blitz six, CB Ahkello Witherspoon has press/man, but doesn’t get a hand on wide receiver (WR) Amon-Ra St. Brown, who hole shots past him for a short fade that goes for 30 yards. Another 17 yard completion to St. Brown put Detroit on the Rams 29. After an outside run for a loss of five, LB Ernest Jones dances around the center and trips up QB Goff for a sack to force third and long. A short completion followed, just enough to allow the Lions to convert a 54 yard field goal. Lions 24, Rams 17.

Drive #6

Detroit open with an underneath catch/run first down and followed it with two short run plays between the tackles. On third and six, the Rams dial up a simulated blitz with LB Ernest Jones rushing between the guard and tackle, while E Michael Hoecht dropped into coverage. Pressure flushed QB Goff from the pocket and as he took off, his feet tangled up and he tripped to the ground where he was touched down for a sack. Lions 24, Rams 20.

Drive #7

A clutch and much-needed three-and-out. On the first play, E Michael Hoecht made a nice inside move and got quick pressure forcing a throw away. After a six yard run, Hoecht again got inside pressure to hurry QB Goff and force a wild-high, missed throw to an open receiver at the stick. Lions 24, Rams 23.

Drive #8

With four minutes left in the season, L.A. stops a first play run, But lined up in a 5-1-5 formation on 2nd and nine, they drop both edges, Michael Hoecht and Byron Young into short coverage and send ILB Ernest Jones on a delayed rush. A wide-open flat pass compounded by a missed tackle by Hoecht gets Detroit a first down.

The dagger to the heart was another 2nd and nine completion, this one with 2:00 in the game. The Rams are again in the 5-1-5 and do bring the front five, but they had zero effect on a quick pass. With S Quentin Lake playing off eight yards, WR St. Brown presses right at him and does a little comeback catch a yard short but writhes past the stick. Game over. Lions 24, Rams 23.

In the end

I’ve been doing weekly breakdowns of the defense since preseason, and while there has been incremental change and improvement, most of the negative issues followed the Rams throughout the season. And they were still all there in the playoff loss.

There was not enough pass rush pressure, troubles setting the edge, bad tackling plagued way too many individuals, and explosive plays were a common occurrence. The scheme was too predictable and the coverage was generally too soft, even for an umbrella, allowing opposing QB’s to play pitch-and-catch.

But it wasn’t all bad. Even with a Bottom 5 pass rush, the missed tackles, and penchant for giving up explosive plays, the defense allowed 22.3 points per game and only 10.1 in the second half. Even when things looked grim, the Rams defense played with heart and L.A. has a decent base of support players coming back. Aaron Donald is back for one more season and rookies Kobie Turner and Byron Young should see a dramatic step up in play with the experience they gained.

Now, if you are listening Les Snead, build on this momentum. Bring fans two playmakers and this defense will shine in 2024.