The Los Angeles Rams will be without Aaron Donald for the first time in his illustrious NFL career. A’Shawn Robinson has also been moved to the injured reserve list with a knee injury. Greg Gaines, the third member of the Rams 3-4 base defense, has also missed time due to injury. For Gaines, it was an elbow injury that limited his snaps in Weeks 6 and 8 and caused him to miss all of Week 10.
The defensive line has been the most consistent position group for the Rams, not just from a performance standpoint, but they have also been freakishly durable. During the Rams Super Bowl run last year, these three played a lion’s share of the snaps in every single game from Week 1 till the Super Bowl. Obviously, Donald’s durability is unquestioned, he played in almost 90 percent of all defensive snaps in 2021. They have been durable until just recently, of course.
Since this is such a rare occurrence, many aren’t familiar with the backups that will try to fill the very large shoes of the Rams defensive line.
It’s obviously a pretty significant drop-off in talent, but a lot will be learned about the quality of depth behind the starting front three.
Rams Defensive Line Depth
The Rams added Marquise Copeland as an undrafted free agent in 2019. For much of his first two seasons, he was a member of the practice squad. But midway through 2021, Copeland was added to the active roster shortly after they moved Sebastian Joseph-Day to the IR.
In his first few weeks of action, Copeland played well. Especially against the 49ers. On the whole, the Rams defense didn’t stop the 49ers rushing attack, giving up 156 yards that night. But it wasn’t because of Copeland. He led the team in defensive stops with five and also led all first and second-level tacklers with five tackles as well.
Other than that game, he wasn’t a driving force for the defense, but he also wasn’t a liability. This year he has become more of a consistent producer along the line as a run-stopper, although he is yet an unproven pass rusher. So far he has only generated three pressures. Although neither Robinson nor Gaines has been the same pass rushers this year as they were last year. Copeland has a higher pressure rate than Robinson and has the same as Gaines, 1.8.
Copeland will be the top candidate to fill in for A’Shawn Robinson. Robinson moves around on the line but plays a large chunk of the game at left end. The Rams rush defense has been one of the league’s best. They allow successful rushing plays only 34.2 percent of the time, third best in the league. Robinson is a big reason the Rams have been so successful against it. Copeland will have to rise to the occasion to ensure the Rams don’t get run over by Kenneth Walker III this week against Seattle.
Michael Hoecht (pronounced HOYT) is having himself a year. He returned a kickoff for 22 yards and blocked a punt. He has lined up at tight end (For four snaps) and he is a stalwart special teamer. Last week he lined up as an edge rusher. There, he played 64 defensive snaps last Sunday. That accounts for about a third of all defensive snaps he has played in his three-year NFL career. He had himself a good day; two pressures and four tackles.
Hoecht was an undrafted free agent signed by the Rams in 2020 from Brown University. Yes, he is an Ivy Leaguer. He was also a team captain of the Brown Bears football team. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned that he is 6’4” and 310 pounds? He is the kind of football player that Coach Sean McVay goes a little nutty for.
Now that Daniel Hardy has been activated for return off IR, the Rams will need him to move back in as a defensive tackle. But with the season where it is, I would also expect McVay to get creative with Hoecht. Jourdan Rodrigue has speculated that he may end up in the offensive backfield as a fullback.
The biggest thing they will need is for him to generate some pass rush from the interior or the exterior. Donald has been the only consistent Ram when it comes to getting heat on opposing quarterbacks. Without him, the rest will need to offer something in that realm
Bobby Brown III
Bobby Brown was a highly anticipated addition from the 2021 draft but has yet to see much of the field. Because he plays behind Donald and the line was so healthy, Brown played only a handful of snaps in his rookie season. Then he missed the first six games of 2022 serving a suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances. But now he is being thrust onto the field. He will see the biggest increase in playing time of all the defensive linemen. Therefore, Brown will be seen as the one trying to fill in for one of the greatest football players of all time. No pressure, young man.
And a young man he is. Although playing in his second season, he is still the youngest player on the roster. He is just a few weeks younger than Kyren Williams and Derion Kendrick. So, it’s not a surprise the Rams have brought him along slowly. And there are few better places to learn than under defensive line coach Eric Henderson and alongside Aaron Donald.
So in a way, it’s a luxury that has allowed Brown to progress in a deliberate manner. Brown came into the league with all the size and traits you need, but he was raw. Technique takes time to learn. The Rams and the rest of us will get their first real look at his progress this weekend against the Seahawks.
No one can replace Donald. Period. But Bobby Brown doesn’t need to. He needs to find out who Bobby Brown is on an NFL field. He’s had over a year and a half to prepare for this and everyone at SoFi will be cheering him on
But he does need to become the best player in this group. He is the most physically gifted and he is the only member of the current defensive line depth that was drafted. In a year that has made the Rams look like they have been doing it wrong, a great performance from a guy they have invested a lot into would go a long way in restoring some credibility to the front office.