How can the Rams stop Jimmy Graham?
That question poured into our text line in early March when the Seahawks acquired the tight end from the Saints in exchange for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and the No. 31 overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Seattle was coming off their second Super Bowl appearance in as many years and already featured the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson in their offense. How were the Rams supposed to take the next step towards being a contender when their biggest hurdle within the division just got stronger?
Building one of the most versatile and deepest defenses in the NFL would be a good start.
When two-time Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson arrived in the NFL after a decorated career at the University of Miami, opponents mocked the coach, saying the Cowboys’ defense was “nothing but a bunch of little guys.” But Johnson laid the groundwork for how a fast group of versatile defenders could create havoc by generating relentless up-field pressure.
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ influences originated with Buddy Ryan, not Johnson. But, the philosophies of all three men are similar: Send pressure, penetrate, be aggressive, be detailed in assignments.
In order for those words to be more than just coachspeak, a defensive coordinator needs to have the right mix of players.
The Rams now have the deepest and most versatile group of defenders of any time during Jeff Fisher’s tenure in St. Louis.
Two days after the Seahawks traded for Graham, the Rams signed former Patriot and Titan Akeem Ayers to a two-year deal. According to Pro Football Focus, Ayers finished with four sacks, five quarterback hits and 23 hurries for New England.
At first blush, the Ayers deal signaled the Rams’ desire to add to a strength by signing another pass-rusher. True, but St. Louis also added defensive flexibility, because Ayers is a hybrid defender that can play both outside linebacker and defensive end. He also has the ability to cover tight ends, as he’s done throughout camp for the Rams.
Ayers wasn’t the only signing the Rams made this offseason to give themselves defensive flexibility.
A day after inking Ayers, the Rams signed Nick Fairley to a one-year, $5 million contract to give themselves added depth behind starting defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.
Fairley failed to deliver on his first-round expectations in Detroit, but the Rams won’t ask him to start. His job will be as a pass-rusher in sub-packages. He should excel in the role, considering all of the one-on-one matchups he’ll draw due to opponents forced to deal with the presence of Donald, Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
When the Giants won Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012, they too had versatility along their defensive line. They were able to constantly rotate their defensive ends and defensive tackles to 1) keep everyone fresh and 2) create mismatches for the offensive line, depending on the situation.
The Rams now boast the same flexibility thanks to Donald, Quinn, Brockers, Long, Fairley, William Hayes and Eugene Sims. Ethan Westbrooks and rookie Louis Trinca-Pasat have also flashed ability to rush the passer from various spots along the defensive line.
While discussing versatile defenders, Alec Ogletree has to enter the conversation.
Ogletree might be the most versatile player St. Louis has on defense. The Rams ask him to set the edge against mobile quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick four times a season, as well as blitz and play in a variety of coverages.
Ogletree has emerged as one of Williams’ best chess pieces, and playing alongside a veteran like James Laurinaitis (whose strength comes in being the quarterback of Williams’ defense) has enhanced his development.
Like Ogletree, safety T.J. McDonald is another young player on the ascent.
The Rams play plenty of Cover 3 under Williams, and McDonald offers the defense strong side force against the run in that scheme. He still struggles at times in coverage, but McDonald has the athleticism and length to get underneath out routes or drop into the flat to take away easy passing windows for the opposing quarterback.
In camp, McDonald and fellow safety Rodney McLeod look more comfortable in their second year in Williams’ scheme, which helps them identify their keys quickly and play faster.
Fast, aggressive, flexible, and versatile…Those are the trademarks of the Rams’ defense under Williams.
How do you stop Jimmy Graham? By having versatile players that can match up with him at the line (teams that are physical with Graham at the line often have success with him) and in coverage.
But, those players have to execute.
Again, Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys. The Giants won two titles over the last 10 years. One can draw similarities between Johnson and those New York teams, but the Rams still have to execute and play with discipline, which has been an issue at times under Fisher.
The Rams boast flexibility and versatility, two underrated trademarks for winning defenses. But now it’s time for them to prove that they can be dominant week in and week out.
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