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How Raheem Morris Has Kept the Rams Defense on Track

Los Angeles is on its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. But despite that constant turnover—and some key injuries in 2021—the Rams have maintained their elite performance.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A little more than two years ago, Sean McVay didn’t know Brandon Staley or Kevin O’Connell. But in the past year, Staley helmed one of the league’s best defenses as the Rams’ defensive coordinator and then was hired away by the Chargers to become their new head coach. Now, O’Connell, L.A.’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, appears destined for the Vikings coaching gig (Minnesota cannot officially hire him until after the Super Bowl). This type of coaching turnover is the norm for the Rams. Before McVay was named the Rams head coach in 2017, he knew Zac Taylor only as a former Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Sunday, he’ll coach against Taylor and the Bengals in the Super Bowl.

“I almost think it’s a little ridiculous when you talk about the tree,” McVay said last week, “because these guys are coworkers where we positively pour into one another. I just happen to be in the role that I’m in.”

McVay may not like the notion that he has a coaching tree (it’s worth mentioning that Packers coach Matt LaFleur, his former offensive coordinator, would also qualify as a McVay disciple), but it’s safe to say that he has a keen eye for coaching talent. Even as McVay’s offensive assistants cycle through Los Angeles, his Rams offenses have continued to rank among the league’s best because he’s pulling the strings. What’s arguably even more impressive is that despite his defensive coordinator spot seeing a revolving door of coaches, that unit has maintained steady performances. Three different coordinators have led the Rams defense in each of the past three seasons. And despite that constant turnover, Los Angeles’s defense has finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings every year.

Wade Phillips spent three seasons as McVay’s first defensive coordinator. Then Staley assumed the position for a year before leaving for the Rams’ SoFi Stadium roommates. Now former Bucs head coach Raheem Morris has stepped in to follow two of the most innovative defensive schemers in recent years. Morris proved this season that he can lead a defense as successfully as his predecessors.

Rams Defense Under McVay

Defensive Coordinator (Year) Defensive DVOA Rank Pass Defense DVOA Rank Run Defense DVOA Rank Defensive EPA/play Rank Turnover Rate Rank Opposing Offensive Score Rate Rank
Defensive Coordinator (Year) Defensive DVOA Rank Pass Defense DVOA Rank Run Defense DVOA Rank Defensive EPA/play Rank Turnover Rate Rank Opposing Offensive Score Rate Rank
Phillips (2017) 7th 4th 23rd 7th (-0.07) 6th (14%) 8th (30.6%)
Phillips (2018) 16th 11th 24th 12th (-0.01) 2nd (16.9%) 22nd (38.2%)
Phillips (2019) 9th 8th 17th 9th (-0.04) 13th (12.4%) Tied for 8th (33.5%)
Staley (2020) 4th 4th 3rd 1st (-0.16) Tied for 17th (12%) 1st (27.9%)
Morris (2021) 5th 6th 5th 9th (-0.03) 9th (13.3%) 13th (35.9%)
Stats via Football Outsiders, RBDSM.com, Pro-Football-Reference

It’s tempting to oversimplify Morris’s job considering the Rams’ star-laden roster. Most coordinators would dream of fielding a unit featuring a trio of all-time greats in Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Von Miller. But simply working with a sport’s premier players doesn’t guarantee success. Additionally, Morris has faced plenty of speed bumps in successfully orchestrating the Rams defense this season.

Let’s start with the scheme. This offseason, McVay pushed to hire Morris, whom he knew from their days in Washington as members of Mike Shanahan’s staff (Morris was a defensive backs coach from 2012 to 2014; McVay served as tight ends coach from 2011 through 2013 before ascending to offensive coordinator in 2014). After Staley succeeded in 2020 by deploying a system heavily influenced by former Broncos coach Vic Fangio, McVay wanted to maintain a similar defensive scheme. But that was different from the scheme Morris ran when he was the Falcons defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2020.

“There are different ways that we will still kind of keep foundational principles [same as] last year,” McVay said in August. “But Raheem has got his imprint on this and then you always evolve. We’re not naive to the fact that everybody is studying what we did defensively because of the success that our guys had last year.” Morris ended up molding his ideas to fit his players. Morris demonstrated a level of humility and willful evolution that many stubborn coaches don’t during their careers. He significantly upped his usage of two-high shells and light boxes from his time in Atlanta.

Raheem Morris’s Coverage Usage: 2020 Atlanta vs. 2021 L.A.

Team (Year) One-High Shell Usage Two-High Shell Usage Man Coverage Usage Zone Coverage Usage
Team (Year) One-High Shell Usage Two-High Shell Usage Man Coverage Usage Zone Coverage Usage
Falcons (2020) 65% (3rd) 30% (27th) 36% (13th) 50% (23rd)
Rams (2021) 24% (30th) 71% (3rd) 14% (32nd) 68% (2nd)
Stats via Sports Info Solutions

Ramsey spoke glowingly of Morris last week ahead of the Super Bowl. The All-Pro said his experience with Morris “has been great.”

“Just this one year, he’s taught me more about the game,” Ramsey said. “How to look at the game and how offenses can scheme different things up and how, honestly, different games can be played on defense. [He taught me] a lot more than I’d ever learned in previous years combined. It’s just been great for me evolving into even more of a leader in the secondary on the team as well. He’s been great for my development. Great support, great leader.”

Morris maintained top-10 production from the Rams unit despite several personnel adjustments throughout the season. He made up for the loss of star safety John Johnson III, who joined the Browns before the season, by replacing him with second-year defender Jordan Fuller. Roughly midway through the season, the Rams traded starting interior linebacker Kenny Young to the Broncos. That move pressed third-round rookie linebacker Ernest Jones into starting duty. And because of injury, third-year linebacker Troy Reeder earned the most significant playing time in his career. Fuller then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the Rams’ regular-season finale, leading Morris to contact former All-Pro safety Eric Weddle and pull him out of a two-year retirement. Weddle played 100 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps in the NFC championship against the 49ers—a contest that resulted in McVay’s first victory against his rival and friend Kyle Shanahan since 2018. It marked just the second time McVay’s Rams had held Shanahan’s 49ers under 20 points.

Donald says that he believes L.A.’s defensive performance throughout the season is because of Morris. “I think it shows just from how he helped us through this year and the success we had this year,” Donald said. “He’s definitely a player’s-type coach, easy to get along with. I think he’s a real good coach, man.”

Miller, who arrived midseason, animatedly described how appreciative he was for an opportunity to play under Morris. The onetime Super Bowl MVP knew how much his former Broncos teammate Aqib Talib revered Morris in Tampa Bay. Morris’s easygoing vibes meshed with Miller’s from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles.

“He uses humor to really get his points across,” Miller says. “Nothing is really too serious for him. Even when we was losing, he was the same old Raheem; even when we winning, he’s the same guy. You can always appreciate that in your coach, man.”

Considering the job Morris did with the Rams defense and that he now has “assistant to Sean McVay” on his résumé, Morris received some attention as a head-coaching candidate in this hiring cycle. But an opportunity never came to fruition; he was reportedly one of the finalists for the Minnesota Vikings’ vacancy, which will go to O’Connell, his colleague. When Morris served as Atlanta’s interim coach in 2020, he led an 0-5 Falcons team to its only four wins of the campaign. Before that, Morris spent three years as the Bucs head coach from 2009 to 2011, compiling a 17-31 record. He was 32 when he was hired and 35 when he was let go. Now 45, his résumé looks better than it ever has. But “it’s not really about you thinking you’re ready,” Morris said, “because it’s going to be on-the-job training no matter what you do or when you do it. And that’s always going to be the case.”

Morris proved that he was ready to handle adversity, pressure, and high expectations this season. The Rams know they have yet another gem within their coaching ranks who could probably move on in the future. He’s been indispensable this year, though. And the Rams, for all their star power on the field, wouldn’t likely be here without him.

“He definitely could have success as a head coach,” Donald said of Morris. “I’m just happy he’s with us right now.”