The Rams put together an awesome defensive showing on Sunday against Washington recording eight sacks (four by Aaron Donald) but now things are looking murky. This week rookie safety Jordan Fuller and third-year linebacker Obo Okoronkwo were placed on IR and are slated to miss three weeks and six weeks respectfully. The strategy going into the season was to have enough defensive flexibility to both develop young players and to survive injuries. That will be put to the test as they lost two emerging starters at two very important spots.
Coming into the season the Rams’ defensive line and linebacking corps were banged up. Free-agent signee A’Shawn Robinson has yet to play due to a cardiac condition and rookie linebacker Terrell Lewis was on the PUP list (more on him later). Robinson is still out but that part of the field has been able to manage a steady rotation of Donald, Michael Brockers, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and Morgan Fox.
With Lewis’ injury, the Rams’ defensive flexibility was already being contested with each snap. The linebacker position is and will remain the weakest part of the defense because aside from Leonard Floyd the position hasn’t had a solid starter. Micah Kiser seemed to break out early but now he’s experiencing some injury issues of his own as well as a decline in production. Samson Ebukam hasn’t broken out and while Troy Reeder recorded three sacks against Washington he hadn’t cracked the line-up much and hasn’t proven he can consistently deliver. This makes Okoronkwo’s injury even worse as he had begun to take more snaps and started emerging as a consistent source of pressure which the Rams sorely lack.
The injuries at linebacker make Terrell Lewis’ development even more crucial as he has the potential to be the pass rusher the Rams desperately need but the rub is he too has an extensive injury history. The Rams’ depth at linebacker is severely limited which makes Sunday’s supposed layup against the hobbled Niners a lot tougher than Vegas would have you believe. Their run defense has been bend don’t break and if they sustain any more injuries, the Niners run game can help them pull an upset.
Jordan Fuller’s injury also compounds this problem as he’s been a solid tackler in addition to the coverage skills he brings in passing situations. Fuller’s injury forces another start by Taylor Rapp who looks increasingly lost with each passing week. Fellow rookie Terrell Burgess could see increased snaps but he too hasn’t looked entirely on point thus far. The Rams’ luckily still have John Johnson to anchor that part of the defense but he’ll have a tough time compensating for Fuller’s injury. This will also mean that Darious Williams, who already has an 88.3% snap share, should see even more action as he has been one of the best surprises of the secondary.
Brandon Staley’s scheme allows for as much defensive flexibility as possible and while that’s been true from a schematic perspective now he’ll find out how much that extends to depth. The losses individually aren’t as devastating as they might appear, but they do speak to the downside of the Rams investment in young players. Sunday will prove whether the flip side to betting big on young guns will come back to bite them or their “youth” can remain complementary with Donald, Floyd, and Jalen Ramsey. Luckily they’re at a place in their schedule where they can see which level of Kama Sutra their defensive flexibility has reached.
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