The offense is a big part of what people focus on with these Los Angeles Rams, but last year the defense was pretty great too and kept the team in a lot of games. A lot of it was due to the man running the show, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, Phillips was once the head coach in Dallas before being fired midseason and replaced by Jason Garrett. Of course, Phillips went on to win a Super Bowl running an impressive defense with Denver, and now he’s in Los Angeles.
But in 2018, the Rams defense has taken a significant step back. Giving up 358.6 yards per game has them ranked 19th in the NFL - only three other playoff teams have worse ranked defenses. The Rams also rank 20th in scoring defense, allowing 24 points per game. Their passing defense is their best aspect, ranking 14th in the league, but their run defense is awful; they give up 5.1 rushing yards per carry, which is the most of any defense in the entire NFL.
For what it’s worth, rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season and last week, against the Seattle Seahawks, Elliott picked up an average of 5.3 yards per carry. The Cowboys already make it a point to give their star running back a lot of carries, but don’t be surprised to see him get even more Saturday night.
But while the Rams are one of the worst at stopping the run, it’s just not that easy. This is mostly because the Rams have a guy named Aaron Donald on their team, who is not only the best defensive player in the NFL but one of the best overall players right now. In Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, Donald has put up a lot of eye-popping stats. He leads the league in sacks with 20.5, and he’s forced four fumbles and recovered two fumbles. He’s also fifth on the team in tackles with 59, as well as having 25 tackles for loss and 41 (!) QB hits. Then there’s this:
This is outrageous, via NFL Next Gen Stats... Not only is Aaron Donald leading the league in sacks (10), he's doing it while being double-teamed 70% of the time... practically twice as often as the other leaders. #LARams pic.twitter.com/r53be6M2YB— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) October 31, 2018
In their base defense, Donald will sometimes line up against Zack Martin, but Phillips will undoubtedly move his star defender all over the line of scrimmage and try to give him opportunities to go up against the Dallas offensive line’s weaker points, most notably rookie Connor Williams and backup Joe Looney. And while double-teaming Donald clearly doesn’t neutralize him, it may be the most effective way to contain him.
Aside from Donald, though, Los Angeles has other pieces in the front seven to worry about, though not as much. Nose tackle Ndamukong Suh has been a dominant force for a while, but age and a new scheme have seemingly slowed him somewhat, as he’s only posted 4.5 sacks and 19 QB hits. Cory Littleton, Samson Ebukam, and Dante Fowler have all pitched in as edge rushing linebackers as well, with nine sacks combined, but overall it’s been a disappointing year for the Rams’ pass rush outside of Donald. And there’s Michael Brockers, a big space-eating defensive tackle who’s been good against the run, but his one sack leaves a lot to be desired on passing downs.
Littleton and Mark Barron man the middle of the defense, and while Littleton’s 125 tackles lead the team, Barron has only chipped in 60 total tackles on the year. Furthermore, the former safety has zero interceptions and only one pass defensed, tying him with Donald in that regard. Safety John Johnson has been utilized more effectively in the run game than Barron, and he has 119 tackles to show for it. But the fact still remains that this defense struggles significantly against the run, and their +1.5% DVOA ranks their run defense efficiency 28th in the NFL.
The bright side for this defense is that their secondary is very good. We already talked about Johnson’s run-stopping ability as a safety, but he also leads the team with four interceptions and is second with 11 passes defensed. Fellow safety Lamarcus Joyner is an athletic presence in coverage who makes it hard for opposing quarterbacks to throw deep against this secondary. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talin are the Rams’ two top cornerbacks, with Nickell Robey-Coleman providing great production out of the slot. This trio has five interceptions between them and 17 passes defensed.
This secondary as a whole has been hard to beat pretty much all year, as opposing quarterbacks are averaging seven yards per attempt against this unit, tied for sixth best in the NFL. The Rams are also third in the league for interceptions with 18, and their pass defense efficiency rating of +0.2% puts them at ninth overall. But the one defect of this ball-hawking group is their aggression; they bite on double moves and pump fakes more than most, and Dallas needs to exploit that if they hope to find success in more than just their running game.
Of course, the top priority in both facets of the offensive gameplan must be slowing down Donald, but the Cowboys will need some trickery to be competitive against this defensive backfield. However, against a porous run defense like this, it’ll still be the same rough outline: feed Zeke.