Last season saw the debut of Kellen Moore as the Cowboys’ new offensive coordinator, and while it wasn’t perfect, the results were far better than anyone expected from a first-time play-caller. The offense finished top of the league in yards, sixth in scoring, and second in DVOA. That’s a big reason why Moore was one of only three coaches to remain on Mike McCarthy’s staff this year.
Now, Moore will be starting his second season as an offensive coordinator against the Los Angeles Rams, who will have themselves a new defensive coordinator of their own in Brandon Staley. At just 37-years-old, Staley is calling plays in an NFL game for the first time in his career. He was the defensive coordinator for four years at Division III John Carroll University before making the jump to the NFL. He coached outside linebackers for two years with the Bears under then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio before following Fangio to Denver last year for the same role.
Now, he’s running the defense all on his own. Staley takes over for Wade Phillips, one of the best defensive minds of this generation. Rams head coach Sean McVay has been heavily lauded for landing a coach of Phillips’ caliber to essentially be the head coach of the defense while McVay focused on offense. That’s why it was surprising when L.A. let Phillips go at the end of last season.
The Rams defense wasn’t necessarily bad. They ranked ninth in defensive DVOA despite inconsistent play from week to week that had them middle of the pack in both yards and points allowed, but some have speculated McVay sought a more multiple, varied type of defense. Phillips’ scheme hadn’t really evolved much at all over the years, in part because it’s never needed to, and apparently McVay wanted to change that.
In comes Staley, who many think was hired to be a defensive version of McVay himself. Staley could certainly have done worse for his first coordinator job; he inherits the NFL’s best defensive player in Aaron Donald and the best cornerback in Jalen Ramsey. But he’s also losing five players who had over 500 snaps from last year’s defense, including the Rams’ two leading tacklers and two of the three top pass rushers. All of that comes while installing a new defensive scheme.
As to what that scheme will look like, it’s not entirely clear. Much like Mike Nolan with the Cowboys, Staley has talked about adapting to an offense in order to take away what they do best. But Staley comes from the Fangio school of defense, which is, in layman’s terms, a hybrid 3-4 scheme.
But it’s much more than that. Fangio’s defense tends to use three down linemen and features two outside linebackers that can both rush the passer and drop into coverage. In San Francisco, Fangio alternated between Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks with great success; in Chicago, Fangio had Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd, although Mack ended up being the pass rusher most of the time for obvious reasons.
But Fangio doesn’t blitz much, so he usually only brings the one edge rusher and the three down linemen. In that respect, his defense operates much like a 4-3 under but in a 3-4 personnel grouping. There’s typically a big 1-technique plugging up the middle, a 5-technique setting the edge in run fits, and a 3-technique providing penetration. Both outside linebackers then come up on the line of scrimmage, obscuring the offense’s understanding of which is an edge rusher and which is dropping back.
While it’s not necessarily a given that Staley will operate his defense exactly this way, he does have some really good pieces to fit into this basic scheme. Michael Brockers can operate as both a 1-technique and 5-technique, while Donald thrives in a 3-technique role. The Rams don’t have a Smith or Mack, but Staley is reunited with Floyd, who was signed in free agency, as well as getting to work with Samson Ebukam, who has 9.5 sacks in his first three years in the NFL.
On the coverage side of things, Fangio’s defense made heavy use of two main types of coverages: Cover 1 press man and Cover 2 zone. While Fangio mixes things up plenty on the back end, those are his two preferences. As for Staley, he’ll likely seek to get Ramsey plenty of press man opportunities against the opponent’s best receiver, but he’ll have his work cut out for him in the rest of this secondary.
Troy Hill, the Rams’ backup slot corner the last four years, is becoming the new starting slot man this year; he’s never played on 50% or more of defensive snaps in any year of his career thus far. David Long, a rookie who saw the field sparingly last year, figures to get the start on the opposite side of Ramsey. At safety, the Rams are counting on Taylor Rapp, who had a promising rookie season last year, and John Johnson, who’s returning from a shoulder injury that ended his 2019 season in Week 5.
If Staley really is going to use Fangio’s scheme as at least a foundation for what his own defense will look like, there are definitely some great pieces in place to do so. But this defense also lost so many key contributors from last year that Staley will have to get a few games under his belt before he truly gets a feel for his players and how to best deploy them against NFL offenses.
For Moore and the Cowboys offense, facing them in Week 1 of a season that uncharacteristically lacked a preseason, that’s one of the best things you could ask for.