- Intruiguing new pieces on defense mean the playmaking ability on both sides of the ball might be the best in the league
With the NFL season just a couple weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Los Angeles Rams, who finished 11–5 in 2017. This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in June for The MMQB's California Week.
1. Brandin Cooks was a steal. For the 23rd overall pick, the Rams add one of football’s fastest wide receivers to an offense that already averaged more than 25.6 points a game last year (including playoffs). Cooks also has outstanding throttle-down ability, a potentially lethal weapon for a speedster. He will be an X-receiver, aligning up on the line (as opposed to off the line, where you can go in motion).
On third down, Cooks will often be by himself on the weak side. This is where he’ll most influence coverages. If a safety rolls over the top to help against Cooks, then Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will capitalize on the other side. Coach Sean McVay is masterly at featuring those two in designer route combinations. Against zone, McVay gets them matched on linebackers and safeties. Against man-to-man, he uses switch releases and natural rubs to create space. It helps when the receivers do their part. Woods has become a meticulous underneath route-runner who occasionally surprises with big-play ability. Kupp has a shrewd understanding of why certain plays are called and of how routes relate to coverages.
Rolling a safety over to help on Cooks not only leaves more one-on-one coverage on the other side, but it renders the defense predictable. No play-caller is more dangerous than McVay when facing predictable looks. When a safety does not help on Cooks, the Rams themselves might be predictable, but only because many of their calls will fall along the lines of “Hit Brandin over the top.”
2. Jared Goff is the right quarterback to lead McVay’s system. He’s a timing and rhythm thrower, which helps in a scheme that emphasizes play-action. He can be better than McVay’s previous QB, Kirk Cousins, because he has enough high-level attributes to function when things break down—assuming they don’t break down too often. He’s not Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson outside the pocket, but his vision is sharp and his arm is strong enough to cash most of its checks. What Goff must improve is his footwork, which sometimes wavers. And though he’s tough under pressure, he’s still developing the mental comfort needed to make throws with bodies around him.
3. No team has a better backfield passing game. It helps when your backfield features Todd Gurley. He’s sensational in space. Once McVay realized this, he made backfield screens and designer routes to the flat staples of his scheme.
4. One reason Gurley had 788 receiving yards is his offensive line, particularly All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and nearly All-Pro (one vote shy) left guard Rodger Saffold, who was outstanding blocking in space on the perimeter. Another reason is that Jared Goff paid close attention to the body language and mechanical nuances that are important for baiting a defense on screens. All of this speaks to strong coaching. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and QB coach Greg Olson worked closely with Goff last year. This year it will be new OC Shane Waldron and QB coach Zac Taylor, who were promoted from within. For the linemen, it’s veteran assistant Aaron Kromer, who oversees much of the running game. Kromer’s O-line as a whole was the NFL’s most improved unit in 2017.
5. Tavon Austin only played 22 percent of the snaps last year, but his presence was significant on most of those. True, not significant enough to justify his restructured $5 million salary, which is why he was dealt to Dallas for a sixth-round pick. But Austin as a movable gadget piece added a lot of dimension and deception to L.A.’s approach, in both the run and pass game. McVay understands that jet-sweep action, ghost reverses and orbit motion (where a motioning player loops deep behind the running back) skew a defense’s numbers and assignments. It’s imperative McVay find someone to fill Austin’s role. If it’s not an ancillary receiver like Pharoh Cooper, Josh Reynolds or Mike Thomas, expect it to be Kupp. He’s not as dynamic as Austin, but he has the requisite attributes.
6. It’s exciting to see high-risk playmaking corners like Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib together, especially with a rangy safety between them (rising fifth-year converted slot man Lamarcus Joyner, who’s also a demonic hitter). It’s even more exciting when you have Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh pushing the pocket in front of them. The one concern: who will collapse the pocket? Robert Quinn was no longer worth the $11.4 million he was owed, so he got traded to Miami. In his stead is Matt Longacre. He’s a hardworking finisher who plays faster than you’d guess, but he doesn’t have Quinn’s suppleness. Opposite Longacre, questions abound. What can second-year man Samson Ebukam do with more snaps? Michael Brockers is as technically adroit as anyone, but is he twitchy enough to turn the corner in obvious passing situations? These are important questions, because if the Rams’ pass rush cannot get home, the gambles that Peters and Talib like to take become detrimental.
7. Another concern with this D: its coverage inside. Alec Ogletree, traded to the Giants, was a quality cover linebacker. His absence hurts, especially in a Wade Phillips scheme that moves its corners around against unbalanced formations. (This forces linebackers to cover in unfamiliar spots outside.) In Denver, Phillips didn’t have great coverage linebackers, so he replaced one with a third safety in obvious passing situations. But that may be difficult here because…
8. The third concern on defense is the lack of depth. The front-line rotation is decent with run-stuffer Tanzel Smart and versatile inside-outside guys Ethan Westbrooks and Dominique Easley. But at linebacker and safety? (Crickets.)
9. The lack of depth becomes extra interesting when you consider how creative Phillips is with personnel packages. He’ll take away your run plays out of three-receiver sets by playing three corners and just one safety behind his base front seven. He’ll interchange his defensive backs and rotate at safety. He’ll tinker with his slot, where Joyner and Nickell Robey-Coleman are both good options. With so many unknowns this year, will Phillips sub less and rely on more every-down players? Or will he try to mix-and-match his way out of it by substituting in even more specific ways?
10. Aaron Donald is football’s best 3-technique, but it’s hard to understand how a defensive tackle on the league’s 30th ranked yards-per-attempt rush defense can run away with the Defensive Player of the Year award. Donald surely wasn’t to blame for the run D, but he was still part of it. No doubt that poor run D helped inspire the pursuit of $14 million one-year free agent rental Ndamukong Suh.
BOTTOM LINE: The offensive and defensive playmakers should be prolific enough to offset the defensive deficiencies, but this is not the flawless team that many people see.
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