It has been well documented with the Rams that along with the new hire of Coach Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator, he will also be bringing a new defensive scheme to Los Angeles. The modern version of the 3-4 defensive, which Phillips will be implementing, is not all that different from the 4-3 in today’s NFL, but it does force the opposing offense to identify the fourth pass rusher out of a base set with no blitz called.
It will be interesting to see how Coach Phillips utilizes the Rams personnel to plug players into positions that make the defense flourish most effectively. Strictly speaking about the transition from this past season to the 2017 season, the Rams were atypical in their defensive approach as they primarily lined up in the nickel (replaced one linebacker with a defensive back), so they played with only two linebackers, Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree, more often than not.
However, the Rams have always taken pride in bolstering a formidable front seven and have a majority of those core players returning for the 2017 season.
Let’s start with the three down linemen, which I believe, will have the easiest transition. In a 3-4, the down linemen are responsible for two gaps, one to their right and left. The man in the middle, the nose tackle, needs to be a space eater and take on blockers (think Vince Wilfork). With current players in place, I believe this is where Michael Brockers will find his niche as he has continued to be a reliable force for the Rams in the trenches, a role he essentially played for his whole career thus far at 1 technique (outside shoulder of center).
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When it comes to a defensive end in the 3-4, the prototype would be a player like J.J. Watt. William Hayes and Aaron Donald would be the logical players at those spots. This still allows Donald to be a disruptive interior force, as he will not be far removed from his normal 3 technique alignment (outside shoulder of offensive guard). Hayes will be shifted inside slightly from his normal alignment, but as his playing style is more power than finesse, he shouldn’t be hindered, as he has remained solid for the team since joining in 2012. Last year’s backups that would be in consideration: Matt Longacre, Ethan Westbrooks, and Dominique Easley are all pending free agents.
The four linebacker spots can be broken down as two inside “traditional” linebackers and two outside “hybrid” linebackers who need to be able to rush the passer while also drop into coverage at times (think Von Miller). From a personnel standpoint, the Rams may be short on today’s version of stand up edge rushers. This is where things may see the biggest shake up while also allowing Coach Phillips to be creative. When Rams fans hear the name Robert Quinn they think of a dominant edge rusher playing with his hand in the dirt.
Will he be utilized as an outside linebacker this coming season?
When healthy, the league knows his effectiveness as a pass rusher, but whether or not he can play in space and cover remains to be seen. This position, alongside Quinn, may have to be addressed in the draft or free agency, but for now, we can only address who is on the current roster. When the Rams did operate with three linebackers on the field last year, the third man was Josh Forrest, a rookie from Kentucky, who recorded nine tackles before injuring his knee in late November.
I would speculate that Barron and Ogletree will man the middle of the Ram’s defense again in this new scheme. How and where the linebackers will be used is probably the biggest question mark surrounding this talented front seven if they wish to bounce back from a defensive season tied for 23rd and 24th in turnovers and sacks respectively. However, it is difficult to be less than optimistic about this defense with its abundance of young talent and Coach Wade Phillips, who is well respected around the league and has coached in big games with notable success.