The Los Angeles Rams defense is one of the best in the NFL. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given it touts a pair of All-Pros in defensive tackle Aaron Donald (a two-time Defensive Player of the Year) and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. However, success wasn’t guaranteed—this offseason, the keys to the unit were handed to Brandon Staley, a young, relatively unknown former linebackers coach taking over for well-liked, veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Turns out the 38-year-old Staley is more than qualified—the Rams defense finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings and dominated the Russell Wilson–led Seahawks in the team’s 30-20 wild-card win. Heading into the Rams’ divisional-round matchup with the 1-seed Packers, the Rams are once again on the cusp of a deep playoff run—but this time, it’s not thanks to an unstoppable offense, but an immovable defense.
Staley deserves credit for maximizing a defensive unit boasting immense stars while also elevating the abilities of lesser-known players who’ve developed into commodities. In a year when many fans and analysts expected the Rams to take a step back, Los Angeles’s defense actually surged forward, finishing better in DVOA than any of Phillips’s units during his three-year tenure. And, if you recall, Phillips’s defenses boasted a laundry list of notable names and productive players, including Donald, Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Cory Littleton, Lamarcus Joyner, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Alec Ogletree, Clay Matthews, Sam Shields, Dante Fowler Jr., John Johnson III, and, for nine games, Ramsey. Of those names, only Donald, Brockers, Johnson, and Ramsey are still on the Rams roster. Entering this season, Los Angeles ranked 31st in returning defensive snaps (53.8 percent). In short, this was a complete overhaul in both philosophy and personnel. In a season when continuity was expected to play a massive role following a pandemic-altered offseason with Zoom calls and no preseason games, that’s an unfavorable situation. Somehow, that didn’t bother the Rams.
Some statistical measures suggest Los Angeles had the league’s top defense this season. The Rams allowed the fewest passing yards per game (190.7) and net yards per attempt (5.1). Their rush defense wasn’t far behind, finishing third in both rushing yards allowed per (91.3) and per carry (3.8). Pro Football Focus gave L.A.’s defense a league-best regular-season grade of 85.9. The unit also finished first in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, a metric that puts more weight on recent contests.
Staley has made Los Angeles’s smooth transition—and subsequent ascension to dominance—possible. Ahead of last week’s wild-card round win against the Seahawks, Staley was asked about his unit’s regular-season success. He pointed out that he’s the son of a teacher and a coach, and that background makes him enthusiastic about player development. “I think that it’s just exciting to see a player reach his full potential,” Staley said. “As a coach, that’s what you’re after. You want your players to become what they’re capable of being.” That energy is tangible among his players and other coaches. Ramsey has described Staley as being “a great coach” and “a genius”; Donald has noted that Staley “definitely brings a lot of excitement and a lot of passion with him,” and McVay has lauded his ability to communicate.
Staley’s past stops include serving as the Bears (2017-18) and Broncos outside linebackers coach (2019), and he worked under former Chicago defensive coordinator and current Denver head coach Vic Fangio. Staley worked with Khalil Mack and Von Miller, and was part of the Chicago defensive staff that delivered one of the Rams offense’s worst performances of the McVay era during a 15-6 Bears win in 2018. That game put Staley on McVay’s radar. And when McVay was told by Rams officials in January to find his “own Sean McVay,” the pairing made all the sense in the world.
Staley did not completely upend the Rams’ defensive system, which finished 2019 ninth in DVOA under Phillips. But he has made smart changes. He has utilized a 3-4 base defense similar to Phillips’s alignment, but he employs much lighter boxes, which invites opposing offenses to run the ball. One of the most noticeable changes is how Staley has allowed Donald to “express himself” within the framework of his scheme. Similarly, Staley has often deployed Ramsey as his nickel or “Star” defender, giving Ramsey the freedom to have more impact on the game, especially near the line of scrimmage. Under Staley, the Rams have had a knack for showing opposing quarterbacks one coverage before rotating into a different look right after. That’s made life more difficult for passers, who already have to account for Donald, who is one of the league’s most double- and triple-teamed defensive linemen, but has racked up a league-high 98 total pressures, according to PFF. Additionally, Staley has used Ramsey to occasionally lock down opposing teams’ no. 1 receivers. In the Rams’ wild-card win against the Seahawks, Ramsey held Seattle’s DK Metcalf to three catches for 33 yards on seven targets, per Next Gen Stats. That was a frustrating experience for the wideout.
A significant portion of the Rams’ success can be attributed to Donald’s and Ramsey’s capabilities, but they’re not the only ones who’ve played well this season. Several defensive players have had a career year under Staley’s tutelage. Free-agent signing Leonard Floyd, a former no. 9 pick, has notched a career-best 10.5 sacks; rookie sixth-round safety Jordan Fuller started 12 games this season and has made plays; defensive lineman Morgan Fox registered a career-high six sacks this year and played a crucial role filling in for Donald in the wild-card win against Seattle; sixth-year defensive back Troy Hill has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks; and third-year cornerback Darious Williams has developed into a starting option on the outside.
“We have a really deep group of defensive players, who I’m extremely grateful for,” Staley said. “We’ve accomplished a lot in the regular season. It’s because of them and all of our coaches that good things happen. Hopefully the NFL has discovered our players in a big way, because they’ve expressed themselves to the NFL.”
The Rams defense led the league in expected points added by a wide margin this season, accounting for 89.5 expected points. L.A. didn’t rank high in turnover percentage, generating 22, on 12 percent of opposing offensive drives (17th). But the Rams have been hot, particularly since Week 11, and have notched five defensive scores since then (the most in that span). Williams—another defender experiencing a career-best season under Staley—logged the most recent score when he picked off Russell Wilson last week and returned it 42 yards to give L.A. its first touchdown of the game.
“It’s big,” Williams said after the game, when asked about the Rams defense being able to score points. “But it tells you the talent that we got in our locker room. Everybody can make plays—every single body. From our front seven, our back seven. Everybody can make plays. I think that’s huge, especially when you’ve got an offense that—um, I mean, our offense is good, don’t get me wrong. Our offense be balling. But when you’ve got a defense that can score, that just gives them more confidence.”
The play was a byproduct of instinct, studying, and trust. Johnson noted that when Donald went down, no one panicked. “It’s impossible to replicate what he does,” Johnson said, “but next man up.” The level at which L.A.’s defense has played, despite not getting a normal amount of time to jell, speaks to the coaching of Staley. Last week, the first-year coordinator was asked about where he’s seen his defense display the most growth since Week 1, and he mentioned how the Rams defense has operated at a higher level as a result of understanding “those deeper chapters of football that you have to reach in order to defend all of these great players and great offenses.” Considering that the NFL experienced an offensive boom this year, that’s an impressive evolution.
“There really is a gear that you gotta be able to get to in terms of operating,” Staley said. “When you see a formation, when you’re in a personnel grouping, when there’s an unscouted look that maybe you didn’t see in the preparation, how quickly do you respond to it? And then how quickly do you make adjustments within the game? … I think we’ve been able to do that better and better each week.”
The question facing the Rams is whether or not their defensive effort will be enough to earn them a return to the NFC championship game. Standing in their way are the Packers, who boast MVP front-runner Aaron Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams, the most dangerous QB-WR combo in the NFL this season. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur spent 2017 as McVay’s offensive coordinator and the two are still close, so there’s plenty of familiarity between the head coaches. The Packers offense finished no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, and this will be the biggest test yet for the Rams defense.
Regardless of whether Jared Goff or John Wolford starts at quarterback on Saturday, the Rams will need their defense to slow down Green Bay to have a chance. Donald, who didn’t finish last week’s game against the Seahawks because of a rib injury, is listed as questionable and is expected to play, which is a huge development for L.A. There’s a chance that Ramsey is deployed to try to lock down Adams, who put together one of the more impressive receiving seasons in recent memory despite missing two games. On Tuesday, Adams described Ramsey as being “super elite.”
“Honestly, I don’t see a whole lot of talking,” Adams told reporters Tuesday of his potential matchups with Ramsey. “It’ll probably get a little chippy every now and then, but I’ve got respect for him, and based on our conversations, I’m sure he’s got respect for me.”
Before the season started, there was concern about whether Sean McVay and his team were just a one-hit wonder that fizzled out after losing Super Bowl LIII and missing the playoffs altogether last year. But L.A. is two games away from earning its second appearance in three seasons. It’s reached this point on the back of its defense.
“I think we’re very proud of the way that we’ve competed,” Staley said. “Your goal, no matter what level of ball you’re in, is just to become the best version of yourself. Wherever that takes you, I think you can live with.”