Playing good defense in the NFL starts with generating pressure and stopping the run. The Los Angeles Rams have been much better at the former than the latter. This is mainly because the Rams don’t have all the personnel needed to run the 3-4 defense at its peak. Unfortunately, there is not a true nose tackle on the roster, and it’s a recipe for a second-worst yards per-carry (4.5) allowed in the NFC.
Digging deeper into the scheme
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips uses a variation of the 3-4 known as the 3-4 under. In this scheme, the nose tackle plays the one gap. The one gap is responsible for bouncing runs to the outside, where unblocked linebackers should be ready to make the tackle. Known as the zero-technique, and made famous by Haloti Ngata and Vince Wilfork, rookie Tanzel Smart currently mans that position for the Rams.
Smart plays with a high motor and has a future with the team. However, that future is as a rotational five-technique, not as a nose tackle. The Rams miscast Smart in this system, which is holding the team back against the run. The Rams allow 118 yards per game on the ground, showing that the run defense is definitely an Achilles heel. It is important to note that Smart excels in pass defense, which is why he has a future with the team.
Phillips masks the team’s weakness in run defense by blitzing. His run blitzes help stop the run by getting tacklers into the backfield and also generate sacks, which put the opposing offenses in long yard situations. Fans should definitely expect more of the same. While Smart has struggled against the run, the same cannot be said for the rest of the Rams defensive line.
Aaron Donald is once again earning a Pro Bowl bid, and fellow lineman Michael Brockers appears ready to join him. Brockers continues to improve every game. He adjusted well to his new role as a five-technique defensive end, which helps Donald get one-on-one matchups. The partnership between Donald and Brockers remains the Rams’ best shot at balancing out Smart’s struggles on the other side.
Outlook for the rest of the season
The Rams are in for a test with the NFL’s second-toughest remaining schedule, including five games against possible playoff teams. Stopping the run will be a determining factor in their success. Whether it be the ways in which they use Donald and Brockers or their blitzing techniques, the Rams need to do everything in their power to make sure teams don’t run the ball down their throat. Running the ball and controlling the clock is the way that Washington and Seattle beat the Rams, and surely the remaining teams on the schedule will be looking to do the same.