Monday, September 14, 2020

Brandon Staley's Tweaks of the Rams Defense

 By John Turney

Joseph-Day, Brockers, and Donald  Credit: NBC

The Rams let Wade Phillips go after three years as their defensive coordinator after the 2019 season and singed young up-and-comer, Brandon Daly, as his replacement.

With no preseason games and little reporting from the Los Angeles/Rams media, we could go little sense of what Daly was planning on doing or what changes or impression he was going to make on the Rams defense.

We were told and knew it would remain a base 3-4 defense. Stay was from the Vic Fango coaching tree and Fangio is a 3-4 disciple. 

Other than that, we knew little. 

Last night we got some answers. More will come as Taylor Rapp gets healthy—more on thta later in the post. 

But in addition to the Rams defense doing a solid job in a win over Dallas we know the starters (not announced by NBC's Sunday Night Football) are as follows:

Base 3-4 defense

Rams base 3-4 defenses
3-3 Nickel (5-1 or Penny front)
DE—Michael Brockers
DT—Aaron Donald
NT—Sebastian Joseph-Day
ROLB—Samson Ebukam
LOLB—Leonard Floyd
LB—Micah Kiser
Slot—Troy Hill
CB—Jalen Ramsey
RS—Jordan Fuller
LS—John Johnson III
Rams 3-3 nickel personnel (a 5-1 look)
LE—Leonard Floyd
RE—Ogbonnia Okoronkwo/Samson Ebukam
DT—Michael Brockers
DT—Aaron Donald
WILB—Micah Kiser
SILB—Kenny Young
Slot—Troy Hill
CB—Jalen Ramsey
RS—Jordan Fuller
LS—John Johnson III
Nickel on long (i.e. 3rd and 10 et al) distances
LE—Leonard Floyd
RE—Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
DT—Michael Brockers
DT—Aaron Donald
WILB—Micah Kiser
Slot—Troy Hill
CB—Jalen Ramsey
CB—Darious Williams
RS—Jordan Fuller
LS—John Johnson III
"Long nickel/prevent-type" nickel personnel

The front is the same as it was under Phillips with Donald playing 3-technique and Joseph-Day the shade or nose tackle and Brockers is the end or 5-tech. Donald flops from side to side depending on where the tight end or strong side is. Nothing new here so far in terms of where players line up. However, it seems the Rams front they use most is a 3-3 nickel in a 5-1 alignment (Penny front) and they are not one-gapping or two-gapping, they play it soft—a gap-and-a-half, where they really try to just slow runs rather than get one-gap all-out penetration and let the second and third level Calvary arrive. 

In the gap-and-a-half system a player would take his gap and then rather than [penetrato too far he'd SQUEEZE the gap next to him. So, he has the B-Gap he would control his gap then he'd push his blocker inside to the A-Gap to help out the player next to him, who in theory is also playing half that gap.

The inside linebackers are Kiser and Young. We only counted a handful of plays the Rams were in base defense. Kiser is the "Will" the weak-side inside 'backer and Young is the strong inside backer. Wade Phillips called it the "Mo" but other coaches call it different things among them "Will". So, as of now, we are calling Young the "strong" inside linebacker because he almost always is on the three-receiver side and when there is motion he follows it, and he and Kiser switch. 

Kiser is usually on the weak or two receiver side and when there is only one linebacker on the field, he is it—Young goes to the bench, exactly like Cory Littleton last year when he stayed on the field and Reeder (and before him Hager) went to the sidelines in sub defenses. We are curious as to whether there are more reads we are not aware of. Most often the tight end is on the three-receiver side, making Young the "SILB" or "money 'backer" but we will follow this for a few weeks to make sure we have it down. Often the bigger, stouter linebacker is the strong-side guy and the smaller, quicker inside 'backer in the weakside guy, but this seems to defy that tradition. It also looks like the inside backers could play on a certain side game-to-game rather than always on the strong or weak side.

But playing into that tradition is that Kiser is usually in the middle of the field and Young shades to the tight end, making him, perhaps, more of a "Sam" type nickel 'backer. Again, we will see what happens in Philadelphia and Buffalo and update this post then. So, we'll wait and see if Kiser emerges as the "Mike" depending on the reads we see. As of Week 1, we're going with the three-receiver side being the strong side, but of course, Staley may have something else as his key. 

"Wait", you say, "'Will' is the weakside outside backer". No, not in this scheme. The outside linebackers do not flop sides (change sides based on where the tight end lines up), they line up left and right. Floyd is the left outside linebacker and Ebukam is the right outside linebacker. This is new.

Under Phillips, one linebacker was the "Sam" the other was the "Will". The Will was a defacto defensive end in the "Will Weak" under front Phillips used most of the time. He rushed most of the time and had a run fit. The Sam would rush some, cover some depending on the call. 

Players like Robert Quinn or Dante Fowler rarely dropped into coverage—they were the Wills in the Phillips schemes.

Apparently, Daley will have his outside linebackers, in base anyway, skilled in playing with a tight end in front of him and without. This is akin to what Fritz Shurmur did from 1983-90, the last time the Rams ran a base 3-4. Then, Mel Owens, then later Kevin Greene, were left linebackers, and first George Andrews, and then Mike Wilcher were the right outside linebackers. 

If a tight end were in front of them they'd squat with hands in front of them ready to jam the tight end to interfere with his release. If there was not a tight end in front of then they'd have the inside foot forward and were in a rush position. 

Of course, in nickel and then the Eagle/Hawk things changed in the 1980s Rams defenses but that is a conversation for another day.

So, with left- and right outside linebackers they can both play roles, depending on where their nickelback is. So in one instance, Floyd can rush and the opposite OLBer can drop or vice versa meaning either one can be a "Jack" backer—the linebacker that is opposite of the nickelback. It would seem this can be a way to disuse the defense to some degree. 

The Rams showed Cover-2/4 or a two-deep look almost all of the time but played it Cover-2/4 very little with one of the safeties "robbing" or rotating into the box. They mostly played match quarters or cover-6 among some other things we need to study more. The played their cornerbacks "off" at around eight yards much of the time as well, apparently to allow them to play out of phase and break to the ball to break up passes.

The corners for the Rams moved around, Ramsey was on both sides, sometimes following Cooper we will see if that continues during the season.

Most interesting were the safeties. Johnson III was the left safety and Fuller was the right safety. They were not strong and weak. One of the safeties didn't follow the tight end or go to the three-receiver side (the strong side). They stayed on their side. Usually, they showed a two-deep look, then rotated with Fuller often going deep middle and Johnson III lurking or "robbing"—coming up to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage, but of course, not all the time which is the advantage of playing left- and right- as opposed to strong and weak. Against Dallas, especially early in the game, Fuller was in the box almost as much as Johnson III, though we didn't do a count. This, of course, could change and we will take notes in the upcoming weeks. 

This is uncommon, but not unheard of—Fango and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell ran it that way in Denver in 2019 for example but you have to look hard to find examples. The duo of Fangio and Donatell (as defensive coordinator and defensive back coach respectively) when they were previously with the Bears and 49ers together deployed their safeties in the traditional strong and free alignment.

The last time the Rams did this was in 1983 preseason with Johnnie Johnson and Nolan Cromwell. But by week one of the season Cromwell (because he made so many good plays covering tight ends) was just moved to strong safety and Johnson to free safety. The plan was to go left- and right- but Rams coaches just thought switching them to strong and weak was better for the scheme so that is what they did rather than follow the "plan". The previous three seasons Cromwell was the free safety and Johnson was the strong safety. It got discombobulated in 1984 when both Johnson (early in the season) and Cromwell (late in the season) got injured and both were free safeties that year. But in 1985 they were back to Cromwell strong and Johnson free.

In 1986 and 1987 the Rams used a three safety rotation with Cromwell, Johnson, and Vince Newsome. but that is also a conversation for another time but in general, when Cromwell and Johnson were in the game Cromwell was strong and Johnson was weak. When Newsome and Cromwell were in Newsome was strong and Cromwell free and when Johnson and Newsome were in Johnson was free and Newsome was strong. 

Prior to the 1983 preseason, one would have to go back to the early 1960s to find left- and right safeties likely 1961. Since 1962 (possibly 1961-still checking) or so they had been going strong/free until 2020.
Lindon Crow #41, likely the rams first strong safety as opposed to "left" safety—1963
Strong and free safeties came about in the NFL when teams began to use tight ends full time and that was in the early 1960s. Prior to that teams still would use three backs (one motioning to the slot or to the flank) or three ends, one of them in the slot or sometimes one "tight". But it was varied. Both safties were expected to be able to handle any situations, whether there was a big-man tight on their side or if they were on the three-receiver side or the two-receiver side.

But as the tight ends got bigger and used more often, in the early 1960s, coaches countered with having one safety always on the tight end or three-receiver side and the other om the weak side, being "free" to cover the middle zone, double-team a particularly tough end, blitz (think Larry Wilson), or lurk or "rob" in the middle of the defense—lots of things. 

Strong safeties were bigger, stronger, and able to cover tight ends, but also to force run plays inside by taking on blocks of pulling offensive linemen and tackle fullbacks. So the skill sets grew apart over time. 

In recent years the skill sets are closer, but even so, rarely do coaches play safeties exclusively left and right for a whole game in both base and nickel. For whatever reason, coaches stick to strong and weak or one safety who is a 'box' safety and another who is more of a MOF-type "middle of the field" safety. Not always, of course, some safeties are excellent at both, they can cover, man or zone, play in the box, blitz, tackle, have great range, but that is not all of them. So, coaches have to make choices. 

So, it was interesting to watch last night, twin safeties, not a common thing. We will know more about the coverages when the All-22 comes out tomorrow but it was kind of a treat to see this tactic deployed.

Also of note, John Johnson III is the player receiving the defensive play calls, presumably from Staley—he has the green dot on his helmet rather than Kiser, the every-down linebacker which does happen, a safety taking the plays, but it's not common.
John Johnson III with the "green dot" 
And kudos to rookie Jordan Fuller. Not only was he the starter he had to play both techniques, the strong and weak depending on which was the strong side. And though he did seemingly miss a tackle early in the contest he did make the defensive play of the game when he made a fourth-down tackle stopping a Dallas drive that potentially could have given the Cowboys the lead. 
Fuller makes 4th and one tackle
We like Taylor Rapp a lot, but he missed time in camp and never got his starting job back. He only played in the 3rd and really long packages, and on the final drive in addition to special teams. When he was in he was a linebacker in the nickel, and on a couple of plays he played left safety with Johnson dropping into the linebacker spot in that "long nickel" package. 

Time will tell if he can supplant Kenny Young as the WILL in the nickel which, really, is a starters position, or if he can move the rookie Jordan Fuller out of the right safety positions. Fuller looked good. Johnson III played some linebacker in sub defenses last year under Phillips so it is possible he could do some of the same with Rapp playing left safety but this is all speculation. All we know is Rapp is a high draft choice who missed a lot of reps in camp and only had a role in really, prevent defenses in game one—along with special teams and that is not why he was drafted so high.

But McStaley (McVay and Staley) is going to play who earns the spot so the onus is on Rapp. 

We will keep readers posted on other changes we see in the Rams scheme as we look at more film. 

1 comment:

  1. Does Daly like to call a lot of zones? As a Bronco fan, I know that is a trademark of Vic's (although he plays too lose late in games and allows too many completions, like last night).