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Is Chris Shula the right defensive coordinator hire for Rams?

Did Sean McVay make the right decision, promoting Chris Shula to defensive coordinator?

NFL: AUG 29 Rams Scrimmage Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams put an end to their defensive coordinator search last week when head coach Sean McVay decided to promote linebackers coach Chris Shula to take over for Raheem Morris. For the first time in McVay’s tenure, the Rams head coach decided to promote from within on the defensive side of the ball. The question now becomes whether or not Shula was the right hire.

There’s something positive to be said about promoting someone who deserves it. Shula has been with the Rams ever since McVay took over back in 2017 and has made his impression all over the defense. He started as the assistant linebackers coach before moving to outside linebackers. Shula was the linebackers coach during the Rams’ Super Bowl run and then was given the title of pass game coordinator while also coaching defensive backs. Last year, Shula was the pass rush coordinator and once again the linebackers coach.

If the Rams were going to retain Shula, the only other promotion left to give was the coordinator role. While some will point to his “Shula” name, Chris’ time was coming. Last year he interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles for their defensive coordinator role and he was set to interview with the Miami Dolphins this year before the Rams promoted him.

It wasn’t long after the Dolphins interviewed Shula that the Rams made the announcement to promote him as their defensive coordinator. According to NFL Network’s Peter Schrager, Shula was very impressive when the Rams interviewed their in-house candidates.

McVay clearly thinks very highly of Shula and didn’t want to risk losing him. He has been the consistent piece on the defensive staff since 2017. If Shula didn’t become the defensive coordinator for the Rams, another team was going to hire him at some point in the very near future. That team very easily could have been the Dolphins.

However, that’s not to say that Shula hasn’t earned the promotion. He worked under Wade Phillips, Brandon Staley, and Raheem Morris. In fact, it was Shula that suggested Brandon Staley to McVay prior to 2020. Shula took over for Staley at John Carroll as the defensive coordinator in 2014. Unlike other coaches on the Rams staff, Shula has coached several different position groups and took on different roles. It’s hard to argue that anybody knows this defense and these players better than him. Said Shula in regards to coaching several different position groups,

“We’re trying everything we can do to get these guys to play their best, to do everything we can to put them in the best position to make plays and be their best selves. Usually, when you’re doing that, and you prove that you work hard and do everything that you can do it, it’ll work out with the players and and you can sleep well at night...It’s a great thing just as far as developing the whole perspective. If you could just do like an internship and coach every position on offense and defense, not that that’s possible. But, you know, it’s obviously one of the best ways to learn the game.”

It’s certainly a risk hiring a first-time coordinator. With that said, Shula has been a respected coach on the staff. Per a source who helped coach with the Rams last offseason during mini-camp, “I spent all my time with him. He is extremely knowledgeable and is a great coach.”

Additionally, unlike other coaches on McVay’s staff, Shula continued to take promotions from within rather than going elsewhere. That loyalty deserves to be rewarded. Fewer teams do a better job at developing their coaches than the Rams. While this is Shula’s first time being a coordinator, it won’t be his first time being in that position. Over the last two years, the Rams have allowed coaches like Shula, Eric Henderson and Aubrey Pleasant call the defensive plays during preseason games.

While the preseason is different than the regular season, the important thing is putting coaches in those positions so that they are ready when they get that opportunity.

It was Shula’s time. The Rams have been preparing him for this moment. It was hard to ignore the job that he had done over the past seven years at position group that he’s spent time with throughout the last seven years.

In 2018 with Shula as the assistant linebackers coach, Cory Littleton led the team with 125 tackles. Littleton was a primary contributor on the Rams defense despite being an undrafted free agent. Dante Fowler Jr. had a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2019 with Shula as the outside linebackers coach. Leonard Floyd had his first 10-sack season in 2020 while Morgan Fox was a player that came out of nowhere as an undrafted free agent and had an impact as a rotational pass rusher. Justin Hollins also made the transition from inside linebacker to edge rusher under Shula.

Regularly when coaching linebackers, Shula wasn’t given a lot to work with at the position. In 2021 and back to inside linebackers, Troy Reeder was a starting caliber player and had 91 tackles. Ernest Jones made an impact as a rookie down the stretch and showed positive development.

While not the Rams’ best season defensively, Shula was the passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach in 2022. There were still some bright spots with Cobie Durant showing promise as a rookie. Last season as the linebackers coach and pass rush coordinator may have been some of Shula’s best work.

Due to the fact that the Rams didn’t have an elite pass rush, it forced the defense to creative with their pass rush looks. Shula coached linebackers and Jones became one of the best blitzing linebackers in the NFL. The Rams ran a lot of simulated pressures and Shula likely had a hand in developing those. Linebacker Christian Rozeboom was also someone who exceeded expectations on defense as a former undrafted free agent. In the second half of the season, Rozeboom graded as the seventh-best linebacker in coverage via PFF, allowing a passer-rating of 87.9.

Shula has done well in his individual position groups that he’s led. Now it’s about what that looks like when he’s in charge of the entire unit as a whole.

From a philosophical standpoint, it’s unlikely that a lot will change from recent years. In 2020, McVay hired Staley to come in and install the Vic Fangio system. When Staley left, Morris took over and helped move the system forward, adding his own twists as he learned it on the fly. In all likelihood, the general system and ideologies will remain the same. Much like Morris did, Shula will simply look to move the system forward and add his own twists.

McVay has a way that he wants his defense to play. That consists of limiting explosive plays, forcing opposing offenses to work their way down the field, and holding teams under 23 points. That isn’t going to change.

It’s unlikely that the Rams defense undergoes significant schematic changes under Shula as they would have had they hired someone under the Baltimore Ravens/Mike Macdonald coaching tree. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as the scheme has proven to be effective with the right pieces. This offseason, the Rams will have the opportunity to add talent which should help the scheme. Those two things go hand-in-hand.

Shula’s job will be to keep the current trajectory of the defense on track and continue building on what Staley and Morris were doing. With Shula, very little will change from a schematic standpoint which was likely part of the point when he was hired. McVay likely wanted to try and keep some consistently in a young group. Shula is a known commodity among the players and knows the defensive identity. Over the last seven years, his hands have been all over the defense in several different position groups. Only time will tell if he was the right hire.