How The Rams Defense Can Be Better Than Last Year Under Raheem Morris
Raheem Morris faces high expectations as the Los Angeles Rams new defensive coordinator. Last season the Rams earned the distinguished place atop the league in both yards and points allowed. Unfortunately for Mr. Morris, only one team in the last 20 years has gone back to back in first place in both those categories.
The 2013 and 2014 Seattle Seahawks defenses were able to successfully contradict the dreaded defensive regression principle. But unlike the Rams, the Seahawks did it with the same defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn. Coincidentally, Quinn was Morris’ last boss before joining the Rams.
Hopefully, some of that back-to-back mojo rubbed off on him, but it doesn’t bode well that Quinn was fired and replaced by Morris last season. So, that will still be filed as a coincidence until further notice.
The challenge of combating defensive regression doesn’t stop with the change at DC. The defense is going to be reshaped in free agency. There is a good chance that the Rams will lose Leonard Floyd, Troy Hill, and Samson Ebukam. Floyd, particularly, played a big role in getting pressure on quarterbacks; he was second in sacks on the team with 10.5.
They may also lose John Johnson. This would dramatically shift how the defense looks and how it can play in the coming season. Johnson was a huge part of Staley’s defense and he was also the defensive play-caller. What was impressive about this is he learned how to captain a very complex defense even though it was the first time that he was at the helm of any defense, and he excelled.
For the Rams defense to get better under Morris, he will have to find a way to retain or replace these key positions and do so on a shoestring budget.
Luckily for Morris, the core of this defense is very much intact. Having Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald will make this effort much easier and Morris is very aware of this. He has called them “potential gold-jacket guys” and he plans to “let these guys get going.” This is a great plan, but he also plans to tap into their versatility.
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Whether it is with veteran superstars, undrafted free agents, or with rookies fresh from the draft, Morris’ reputation is building strong relationships with his guys. He is known for getting the most out of players. That isn’t to say that Staley didn’t. There were several Rams that voiced appreciation for Brandon Staley and his similar ability. But when discussing Morris, it would be hard to not recognize how positively his presence will be on the team.
Where this skill will have a larger influence than Staley, will be in a more normal offseason. Staley didn’t have the opportunity to fully affect the team because of the global pandemic. Morris will get to travel to pro-days, have a normal training camp schedule, and will likely have some sort of preseason games to install, tweak, assess, and refine his defense. With his ability to earn buy-in and empower players, the Rams defense will have a distinct advantage over last year.
A big factor in hiring Morris was his level of experience in the league. Morris was Atlanta’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach last season and was the head coach in Tampa Bay before that. He’s spent the better part of two decades coaching football in one form or another.
The two previous DCs that McVay has hired have been able to operate independently. With his vast experience, Morris will absolutely be able to run his side of things with little oversight or micromanaging.
Of course, this will be influenced by Morris’ existing relationship with Sean McVay. Staley came from a completely different football lineage than McVay.
Morris and McVay cut their teeth in the same place. They came up under John Gruden in Tampa Bay and coached together in Washington for three seasons. So they will benefit from speaking the same language and a built-in level of trust. This will manifest in shorthand and an innate understanding of how business is done. This will create efficiency and cohesion in the coaching staff. Everyone on the same page, everyone working in the same direction.
Obviously, the Rams weren’t negatively affected by Staley being from a different coaching tree, but they will definitely benefit from the current shared roots. This will benefit the players, but it will be even more important as the Rams onboard several new faces to the Rams coaching staff.
The biggest questions around the defense has to do with the scheme. Staley in large part was hired because he was going to run a new hot defense that was designed to stop a team like the Chiefs. And for the most part, it worked.
In order for the Rams defense to be better than last year, Morris will have to build on Staley’s two-high safeties and light-box shell. This is true for a few reasons. First, it minimized what one of the linebackers needed to do. The linebackers are a weak link on defense and won’t likely improve significantly in 2021.
Secondly, Sean McVay and the front office want to “keep the DNA” of Staley’s defense, for the obvious reason that it was successful. Not only will they keep it because it worked, but as Morris will be the third DC in three seasons, teaching and learning a new defense from square one isn’t feasible, even on a normal timeline. Staley kept Phillips’ base defense and tweaked the sub-packages and Morris will do the same.
The challenge that Morris faces, the one that will ultimately determine if this defense is better than last season’s, is how to improve Staley’s defense. The 49ers and the Packers exposed a flaw in their defense. Many commented that the sparse box and the safeties playing deep were daring teams to run.
Green Bay did just that and won. San Francisco took another tactic, but also shredded the defense. The 49ers stretched them horizontally with short passes and jet sweeps, exposing the lack of depth at linebacker.
The NFL is a copycat league and teams also like chopping the heads off the tall poppies. Offensive coordinators will certainly try to take the top defense down a notch by exploiting these holes. Not only will this be important in the regular season, but more importantly the Packers and the 49ers are potential playoff opponents for the Rams too.
And really, when it comes down to it, what being a better defense than last year will look like is winning in the playoffs. More than being a back-to-back number-one defense, Morris wants to help the Rams win a Super Bowl.
Morris said of the high expectations based on last season, “We are here to win a championship, and I wasn’t brought here to try to duplicate what they did last year. We were brought here to win and we’re brought here to win a championship and I want to get that done for Sean. I want to get that done for this community. I want to get that done for you guys.”
You can’t get much better than the top spot anyway. The goal is always to win. Everything else is just a consolation prize. The whole of Rams nation would trade this season’s top defense for another shot at a Lombardi and that is what Raheem Morris is focused on.
You can tell he’s focused on that and that alone. He doesn’t feel the pressure to be better than last season. Morris said as much at his introductory press conference, ”…to join a bunch of really good coaches and really good players, you’re really just fired up more than pressured. It’s an opportunity to be a part of greatness and it’s certainly something that I’m going to relish.”