By the end of the 2016 season, the Los Angeles Rams had become the laughingstock of the NFL. They had fired coach Jeff Fisher only weeks after giving him an extension; their first overall pick, Jared Goff, had just put up one of the ugliest statistical seasons for a quarterback in NFL history; and they wouldn’t even have their top-five pick in April’s draft (having traded it for Goff) to help improve the roster.
On Sunday, though, the jokes all stopped. Goff looked like a different quarterback altogether, the offensive scheme seemed to actually mesh with the offensive talent, and the Rams’ defense outscored the Indianapolis Colts‘ offense on its own.
It’s easy to point to the fact that the Colts threw out a revolving door of backup quarterbacks in Week 1 with Andrew Luck hurt and write off the Rams’ performance as a fluke, but when one digs deeper they will see it was far more than that. The Rams dominated at every level of the defense, leaving the Colts — backup quarterbacks or not — little chance of success offensively. And they did it all without perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL, as defensive tackle Aaron Donald had just ended his holdout the day before the game and sat Sunday out.
When it comes to personnel changes over the course of the offseason, the Rams were largely static on the defensive front. In fact, they actually lost 2,217 snaps from their 2016 defense, as defensive end William Hayes and safety T.J. McDonald walked in free agency to Miami, cornerback E.J. Gaines was traded to the Bills, and defensive linemen Eugene Sims and Cam Thomas weren’t re-signed. Their replacement plan for those five wasn’t to go out and throw money at a big name. They signed some budget free agents in slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and defensive end Connor Barwin, but any improvement defensively was going to come from internal development. On paper, this is nearly the same defense that finished eighth in points per drive their last season in St. Louis. They simply needed a defensive coordinator to get them to perform at that level once again.
Enter defensive coordinator Wade Phillips — the man who was the architect behind one of the greatest modern pass defenses in the 2015 Denver Broncos. In terms of points per drive, here is how his defenses have finished recently.
|Year||Team||Points Per Drive||Rank|
Besides the outlier year of 2013, in which everything fell apart on both sides of the ball in Houston, Phillips has consistently fielded top-10 defenses. How does he do it? By consistently giving his defensive line and secondary the freedom to make plays. I went more in depth on the scheme and exactly what that means after the Broncos won the Super Bowl, but at its core the key tenets are this: blitz and play man coverage. Last season, the Broncos blitzed on 40.3 percent of opposing quarterbacks dropbacks (fourth-highest rate in the NFL) and played man coverage on 48.8 percent of snaps (fourth-highest rate in the NFL). In fact, that blitz rate was actually the lowest of any defense he has coordinated in his past five seasons.
While the Rams already blitzed a lot a season ago (39.4 percent of snaps, fifth in the NFL), Phillips brings an air of unpredictability that was sorely lacking a season ago. On first and second downs last year, the Rams blitzed on 33.6 percent snaps. That number jumped up massively to 54.4 percent on third downs — the highest rate in the league — to the point where offenses knew it was coming. On first and second downs last year, Phillips blitzed 40.3 percent of the time. On third downs, he blitzed 39.6 percent of the time. He brings the heat indiscriminate of the down and distance, making his defenses all the more difficult to game-plan for. The same was true in Week 1 as Phillips dialed up a blitz 37.5 percent of the time on first and second downs and 54.5 percent of the time on third and fourth downs.
The men that will benefit from this the most? Donald and outside linebacker Robert Quinn. Teams knew they would be getting to the quarterbacks quickly with a blitz on third downs and in turn called quick passes. Opposing offenses averaged 2.54 seconds from snap to throw on third downs against the Rams last year — the quickest time in the NFL. The Broncos were at 2.7 seconds — 12th in the league. That extra split second was so often the difference between a sack and a normal hit or pressure last year. As a team, they converted pressured dropbacks into sacks only 13.7 percent of the time last year, the sixth-worst rate in the NFL. Against the Colts in Week 1, they converted four of 12 pressured dropbacks (33.3 percent) into sacks.
With Phillips at the helm, Donald returning and a young secondary, the sky is the limit for the Rams’ defense in 2017. With the state of the offensive lines around the NFC West at the moment, quarterbacks in the division will dreading seeing the Rams on their upcoming schedule.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.
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