Did Rams Find Their Defensive Sean McVay?

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The best defense in the NFL last year belonged to the New England Patriots. They had the Defensive Player of the Year in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and paced the league in takeaways, yards allowed per passing attempt, and points allowed per game. They were coordinated by Bill Belichick; they boasted Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins and Lawrence Guy and the McCourty brothers. So it makes sense.

It also makes sense that the Patriots would lead the league in points allowed in the second half, coming out of the halftime locker room making the adjustments necessary to keep the opposing offense stymied. Of their 14.4 points/game given up, only 6.1 were surrendered in the second half. 

That number is kinda nuts; the Los Angeles Rams’ 2020 number is even better. 

After their three points allowed to the Seattle Seahawks in their statement 23-16 win, the Rams are now allowing an absurd 3.33 second-half points per game. They’ve only allowed two second-half touchdowns, both of which came at the hand of Josh Allen in their last-second loss to the Bills in late September.

The disparity in the Rams’ splits is stunning. They’re the second-best defense in points allowed with 19 allowed per game, which indeed puts their 15 points allowed in the first half as a below-average defense. As such, we should expect that these numbers will regress toward one another, even if the Rams remain one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

But we can draw a few conclusions from these numbers, even if they smell a little fishy. The first is that the Rams’ running game is high quality, and it allows them to sit on the football when they have a lead. Even in the third quarter against the Seahawks’ explosive passing game, Jared Goff and Sean McVay were regularly taking the play clock down within five seconds. The Rams are eighth in the league in overall time of possession, and even on a game script that encourages running the football, they skew more run-heavy than the average team.

Anecdotally, this effective running game lowers the opponent’s scoring opportunities—and the Rams do see fewer plays than most teams on defense—but they are still seeing a league-average number of drives on defense in the second half. Plenty of drives but not many plays and not many points? This isn’t just the effect of a solid running game. This defense is good.

The Rams have allowed scores on only 13% of the drives they’ve faced in the second half, which is twice as good as the third-best team in the league. This cannot entirely be explained away as an error of numbers. This is a testament to Brandon Staley, the first-year defensive coordinator tasked with stepping into the gargantuan shoes left behind by Wade Phillips. Lauded as a defensive McVay, Staley has done a ton of interesting schematic things through the first half of the season. Using Jalen Ramsey as a half-field eraser, he moves safeties and changes corner alignments and techniques to flood the front side of his defense with zone defenders. He’ll sprinkle in a three-down front reminiscent of Iowa State’s Jon Heacock defense that lines Aaron Donald up as a 5-technique and invites the run with deceptive box counts, then flip into a four-man rush that has seen immediate contributions from Terrell Lewis and Leonard Floyd. There is little about the Rams defense that can be understood pre-snap, which flummoxes poor quarterbacks and forces strong offenses to play slower and take what they can get.

But however his defense is being attacked, it is clear that Staley is comfortable making changes on the fly to address those weaknesses. Perhaps this is a greater testament to the amorphous nature of his defense than the roaming safeties and shifting linebackers highlighted on a given film clip: it changes in the locker room. It takes a shrewd understanding of the live interplay against top NFL offenses to make such impactful adjustments in a short halftime period—that’s what Staley is doing.

The Rams defense is strong overall, and that they just stonewalled a high-flying Seattle offense is a testament to that. Even as this jaw-dropping number fades across the regression of a full season, the immediate returns on the Rams’ aggressive move from veteran defensive coordinator Phillips to young upstart Staley are extremely promising. The vision of this unit with better talent at linebacker, CB2, and even DT next to Donald is tantalizing. The Rams may have another wunderkind on their coaching staff, and holding him next to McVay for as long as possible will not only brighten his future as a coach in the league, but put the Rams right back in serious playoff contention.