The Los Angeles Rams are in the market for a new defensive coordinator following Raheem Morris’ departure for the Atlanta Falcons to be their next head coach. The opening leaves head coach Sean McVay with a unique opportunity. With a young defense that’s still learning their identity and moldable, it gives McVay a chance to make a philosophical change on the defensive side of the ball.
Over the past four seasons, McVay has embraced the Vic Fangio system. It’s the system that stumped him in Chicago back in 2018 and one that the entire league used against him. In retaliation, McVay hired Fangio’s right hand man in Brandon Staley. The two coaches would become known to challenge and test each other during practices. As detailed by The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue,
“It was the first time the Rams’ offense had truly seen Staley’s defense outside of a computer screen. Some themes were familiar — especially the core constructs pulled from Broncos coach Vic Fangio’s defense; the same defense (led by Fangio then as the Bears defensive coordinator) that truly flummoxed McVay’s own system for the first time in 2018, and certain elements of which were used against him over and over again afterward, including in the Super Bowl by the New England Patriots.”
The Rams went on to have the number one defense in 2020. When Staley left to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, McVay naturally wanted to keep elements of that defense that had been so successful. Said McVay at the time, “There are different ways that we will still kind of keep foundational principles. But Raheem has got his imprint on this and then you always evolve.
Kaelyn Jones from The Ringer detailed how Morris kept the Rams defense on track once he took over. Said Jones,
“After Staley succeeded in 2020 by deploying a system heavily influenced by former Broncos coach Vic Fangio, McVay wanted to maintain a similar defensive scheme. But that was different from the scheme Morris ran when he was the Falcons defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2020...Morris ended up molding his ideas to fit his players. Morris demonstrated a level of humility and willful evolution that many stubborn coaches don’t during their careers. He significantly upped his usage of two-high shells and light boxes.”
Fangio is one of the more influential defensive minds in the modern NFL. Most defenses in the league to some extent have his stamp on it. However, as is the case in the NFL, the league is cyclical. Nothing remains true forever. Offenses counter off of what defenses are doing and vice versa. It’s fair to wonder if some teams will try to get ahead of the curve as offenses begin to figure out how best to attack the Fangio defense. It’s also fair to wonder the effectiveness of the current Fangio-style defense.
This past season, Vic Fangio’s Dolphins finished ranked 15th in defense EPA. Brandon Staley’s Chargers finished 24th. Joe Barry used some elements of Fangio’s scheme in Green Bay and the Packers defense ranked 23rd. Sean Desai was a Fangio disciple and his play-calling duties were revoked in-season by the Philadelphia Eagles and he was later fired. The Eagles finished 29th in defense EPA. Clint Hurtt was another Fangio disciple who was the defensive coordinator in Seattle last season. The Seahawks defense finished 30th in defense EPA. Ejiro Evero and the Carolina Panthers defense was the bright spot of that that team last season. However, they still only ranked 26th.
The Fangio scheme has lost steam. Now, the next big thing looks to be what Mike Macdonald is doing with the Baltimore Ravens. No defense has defended the Shanahan-tree quite like the Ravens have this season. The Ravens defense held Ben Johnson and the Detroit Lions to six points. They forced three turnovers and completely dominated the San Francisco 49ers in primetime, winning 33-19. Just last weekend, the Ravens once again had a vice grip on Bobby Slowik and the Houston Texans in a 31-10 divisional playoff victory. Macdonald’s defense held the Texas to nine points in Week 1. The Ravens beat the Seattle Seahawks led by McVay disciple Shane Waldron, 37-3.
Shanahan offenses have been killing the league this year and Mike McDonald has been putting all of em thru hell. Every owner should want that.— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 21, 2024
Only two Shanahan-influenced teams seemed to have success against the Ravens this season. The Rams who lost in overtime 37-31 and the Cincinnati Bengals who scored 20 points, but lost, in both meetings.
How did Macdonald do it? Ben Solak from The Ringer wrote about the Ravens defense. Said Solak,
“With tons of resources invested in traditionally non-premium positions—linebacker, safety—and bargain buys at the hallmark spots like cornerback and edge rusher, this defense has been dominating top opponents...Per Next Gen Stats, when facing snaps when the offense uses motion, the Ravens defense is first in EPA per play. The Ravens are second in yards per play surrendered on such plays...However Macdonald’s defensive philosophy was concocted (he coached under two legends, Dean Pees and Wink Martindale, for much of his time in Baltimore), his defense wants to accomplish the same goals that Spags’s does. He wants to change the picture.”
NFL offenses are using motion and pre-snap motion at higher rates than ever before in league history. Understanding how to defend that is key, especially when six of the top offenses such as the Dolphins, Rams, 49ers, Packers, Lions, and Seahawks all ranked in the top-7 in snap-motion.
Final motion report for the 2023 season!— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 16, 2024
In 2017 NFL teams put a man in motion at the snap 4% of the time, on average. In 2023 the average was 22%!
Data via @ESPNStatsInfo video tracking team. pic.twitter.com/Ar67rJ9yWE
McVay has done a good job with his coaching hires and wanting to stay within league trends. It’s why he hired Brandon Staley back in 2020 and it’s why he hired Mike LaFleur last season. LaFleur helped implement more motion, especially in the run game, and helped the Rams transition to more of a gap/power scheme. The ability to adapt but keep an overall identity is what makes McVay so special as a coach.
Sticking with what the Rams have done on defense with the Fangio scheme would be the easy thing to do. McVay could hire Brandon Staley and few questions would be asked. If he gets the opportunity to hire Evero, it would be seen as a good hire. However, if McVay wants to evolve the defense and get a leg up on the offenses that he’s trying to stop, especially the one in San Francisco, he may need to adjust the type of defense he wants. He should want part of the defense that put Shanahan and others through the spin cycle this past season. That defense is the one in Baltimore.
With that being said, options like Dennard Wilson, Anthony Weaver, Zach Orr, or even Jesse Minter should be on the table. It’s worth noting that Minter has been connected to Jim Harbaugh with the Chargers. However, coaches like Wilson, Weaver, and Orr could bring elements of Macdonald’s defensive system with the Ravens to the Rams.
While the Fangio system is familiar, pulling from MacDonald’s tree and the Ravens may actually be the best move for the Rams defense moving forward.