Brandon Staley Is Building A Playoff Caliber Defense
It’s a real heat check for a young coach to fire one of the most respected coordinators of all time, but Sean McVay did just that. McVay let Wade Phillips go after three years of service including two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
Aaron Donald would win a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017 and the defense ranked 7th overall in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. That number would drop to 14th in 2018 but 8th in pass defense. His defensive scheme was awesome in the Super Bowl but was overshadowed by an inert offense. Unfortunately, Wade’s scheme didn’t adjust mid-game, and in 2019 that caused them to be figured out while the offense was in a state of flux.
McVay wanted a defensive plan that evolved as the game did and thus he brought in first-time coordinator Brandon Staley. Staley was tasked with creating a defense that was malleable and could rise above its weakness at linebacker. In the first two weeks of the season, Staley has done just that.
The hiring of Staley was a bit of a head-scratcher at first. He was a linebacker coach that had never been a coordinator before. The 37-year-old only had his first NFL gig in 2017 as a linebacker coach for the Bears before following Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to Denver when Fangio became Head Coach. Staley would remain the linebackers coach and go from coaching Khalil Mack to Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.
Given the superstar linebackers, he’s coached it’s easy to dismiss his skillset but McVay saw something in Staley and has routinely praised his energy and ability to think outside the box. Stories have been told about the players loving Staley’s passion and his desire to get all the players involved in his scheme. The Rams’ defense needed malleability and Staley brought that in from day one.
For the first time in his short career, Staley doesn’t come into a situation with an all-star linebacker. Yes, he has Donald and Jalen Ramsey on the line and in the secondary, respectively, but at linebacker, he didn’t have an All-Pro to build around (rookie Terrell Lewis is currently on IR).
That’s one of the consequences to the Rams building a top-heavy roster and the big question is what do they do in the middle of their defense?
They brought in Leonard Floyd, who played for Staley in Chicago. to help boost what had become a fledgling pass rush, and the rest of the linebackers would be made up of their young guys that hadn’t quite cracked Phillips’ rotation.
In order to alleviate the pressure that such a young group would face, they decided to beef up their secondary with guys who could play in the box and help out in coverage. What they didn’t know is that they’d hit paydirt early with their young talent.
The defense overall played well against what was a stacked Cowboys offense in Week 1. The Rams held Ezekiel Elliott to under 100 yards and held Dallas’ vaunted receiver corps in check. That wasn’t just Ramsey, in fact, the big hero of the game was 6th round rookie Jordan Fuller. Fuller led all defenders with 8 total tackles including the big one on fourth down.
In Week 2, the defensive stud was Micah Kiser, who was second in tackles against Dallas. Kiser recorded 16 tackles in Philadelphia and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. What’s notable is that not only were Fuller and Kiser the two tackling leaders in both games but how the stars Staley has on his defense have impacted the game without impacting the box score.
Ramsey and Donald are among the highest-paid players at their positions. That comes with heightened expectations from people who are looking to dunk on players for not living up to their gargantuan contracts but it’s not all about what shows up on the stat sheet.
In Donald’s case, his impact is clear. Yes, he had one sack on Dak Prescott in the opener and made tackles when he could but because he’s being double and triple-teamed on every play he’s allowing the young Ram linebackers such as Kiser and Kenny Young to make an impact. Donald didn’t even have any tackles against the Eagles as the offense ran to the outside to avoid him allowing everyone else to flourish.
This is Staley’s defensive philosophy in practice. Anybody can step up and make a play and the young guys are buying in completely. Now that Ramsey has had a full year and will have many more in LA, he’s stepped up as a mentor and that’s started to translate on the field.
It hasn’t been a perfect installation and was never going to be. Week 1, the defense missed a lot of tackles, which kept the Cowboys in the game until Ramsey drew the game-sealing flag. The Eagles were able to run the ball effectively on Sunday (although they didn’t have a 100-yard rusher) and there were instances where the young secondary looked green. The good news is that the defense has been “bend but don’t break” for the first two games and are tied with the Ravens for allowing the fewest second-half points. Not bad for a defense coordinated by a guy who had never called a defensive play until week one.
The Buffalo Bills bring a new challenge to Brandon Staley and his largely young defense. They have a mobile quarterback in Josh Allen and a solid running game. If Staley can create a plan that neutralizes Allen’s feet and tests his already shaky accuracy, then the rest of the league will know that Staley is for real. Firing Wade Phillips was a gigantic risk for McVay because it wasn’t clear he could find someone better. Two weeks in, it appears McVay has found the right guy to take his defense to the next level.