Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh playing together on the same defensive line—It’s as scary as it sounds, for reasons both obvious and subtle. The obvious: Donald is the best gap-shooting interior D-lineman in football—a label previously owned by the now-31-year-old Suh.
The subtle: Donald and Suh are both 3-techniques (Warren Sapp’s old position, where the player aligns between the offense’s guard and tackle), but they’re also versatile. Both have thrived at 2-technique (aligned head-up on a guard), at 1-technique (aligned directly over a center’s shoulder) and, especially in Donald’s case, as a sub-package 0-technique (aligned over the center.) Donald and Suh have also played meaningful snaps at defensive end, and Suh at times roamed around as a joker in Miami. An interesting side note? The man who came up with these numbered-technique labels is Bum Phillips, father of the Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
This dual versatility will greatly expand and disguise Los Angeles’s designer four-man rush tactics. Offenses will see Donald and Suh in different locations and struggle to track which D-Line stunt, twist or slant is coming. Suh has always been great on the dirty work here, attacking blockers and attracting double teams to create pass rushing lanes for others. And the longer the play goes, the stronger Suh becomes. (Usually with defensive linemen, the opposite is true.) This season you’ll see Suh attack a blocker while Donald loops behind him to either get the quarterback or make him move back into Suh, who by then will have worn down the blocker.
So that’s the good. The bad—or, more accurately, the caveat—is that this dynamic defensive tackle duo doesn’t suddenly make Los Angeles a surefire top-10 defense. Two big questions remain. First, with both men being classic first-and second-down 3-techniques, who moves to 1-technique on running downs, and how will that go? And second, can a defense afford to have TWO linemen who take as many risks as Donald and Suh? When they penetrate and make the play, it’s beautiful. But when they penetrate and don’t make the play, the defense gets gashed.
Even more aggressive are Los Angeles’s cornerbacks. Only one corner plays a riskier brand of coverage than new Ram Aqib Talib, and that’s fellow new Ram Marcus Peters. These are two of the game’s best playmakers, but they also give up many plays. Some defensive coaches would not be comfortable with that at one outside corner spot, let alone both.
With corners like these, it’s imperative a defense’s pass rush gets home and makes a quarterback throw early, because that’s how route-jumpers like Talib and Peters do damage. If that pass rush fails to get home, the route-jumpers can be liabilities. This undoubtedly factored into the Rams shelling out $14 million for Suh. What’s still missing, though, is a dominant edge rusher. Last year’s top end, Robert Quinn, washed up, so he and his $11.4 million cap number got dealt to Miami. That leaves Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam as the only true edge rushers; offenses won’t be installing any extra chip-blocking protections for L.A.
The Rams need an edge rusher, but few are available. Free agency has none left, and this year’s rookie edge-rushing crop is light. Perhaps that stoked L.A.’s fervor for Suh. Knowing no outside rusher was out there, the next best play was to become super dominant inside. Nevertheless, this front seven is still not great on the edges, which is something that’s been said of few top-shelf defenses before.