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Von Miller Can Turn the Rams Defense Into a Nightmare

Los Angeles’s offense was already loaded. Now its defense is, too.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Rams general manager Les Snead is sending multiple picks to acquire a star defensive talent at the NFL trade deadline.

It’s a headline from a few years ago, when Snead sent multiple first-round picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire disgruntled star cornerback Jalen Ramsey—but it’s also a headline from yesterday, as Snead sent second- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft for Broncos edge rusher Von Miller. Of course, when Snead snagged Ramsey, he was getting a 25-year-old corner in his athletic prime—the best player at his position. In Von, he’s getting a 32-year-old pass rusher who once was the best player at his position and isn’t any longer.

But it’s easy to say that Von isn’t as good as he once was—and it’s certainly true! But “not as good as he once was” can still be really, really good when that player is Von Miller. Von isn’t a shadow of what he once was. He’s a doggone good player who, even off of a 2020 Achilles injury, looks like a double-digit sack producer. That’s what the Rams paid for, and that’s what they will get.

Von was the poster boy for bendy outside rushers for most of his prime, and he still has that incredible bend along the outside. Few players in the league can flatten their rush track and explode to the quarterback the way Miller can, as we can see on these rushes against Las Vegas OT Brandon Parker.

This is a clear passing situation, which allows Miller to tee off from a wide outside alignment and win the race to the corner. With no tight end in place to chip Miller, that race is an easy win—but it’s Miller’s ability to turn all of his forward momentum on a tight corner and into the quarterback that has long made him such a dangerous pass rusher.

But everyone knows the book on Von, and accordingly, he gets plenty of tight end chips and tackles flying to the outside trying to beat him in the race to the corner. Von has been such a good rusher for so long because he has counters and changeups that build off of the threat of that explosive outside rush. The older he gets, the more he relies on those counters, using block recognition and varied technique to win.

The speed-to-power rush is the primary move here. Miller has always had a tremendous power rush to pair with his explosiveness and bend, and when tackles are sitting back on their heels worried about his speed, he can easily knock them back into the quarterback. He did it multiple times against Jacksonville and its quality right tackle, Jawaan Taylor. With Taylor taking deep sets and fearing the outside rush, Miller regularly deposited him into Trevor Lawrence’s lap.

If a tackle oversets even farther in fear of the outside rush, then Miller doesn’t even need to rush with power—he can just use his wicked change-of-direction skills to knife inside the tackle and shoot for the quarterback early in the down. When quarterbacks quickly hitch up in the pocket to protect themselves from Miller’s presence on the outside rush, they often play right into Miller’s hands, as he’s waiting for them on the inside attack.

This is why Miller has retained his high rates of pressure and disruptions, even if he has passed his physical peak. Miller’s 22 total pressures against true pass sets is tied for seventh-most among league edge rushers, per Pro Football Focus; his win rate is at 29.9 percent, which is the 11th-best mark in the league. Don’t get it twisted—he’s still got wicked physical traits. But it’s his athleticism, along with the technical prowess, that have made him such a dynamic pass rusher for so long. As such, we can say with confidence that he’s the best edge rusher to ever play next to Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald. That’s a frightening thought.

It’s frightening because of what Donald has done for pass rushers throughout his career. After L.A. traded star outside rusher Robert Quinn in 2018, the Rams have largely gone in the bargain bin at the position. They acquired Dante Fowler Jr. via trade, and he churned out 11.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2019, and in the 19 games he’s played in Atlanta since, he has five total sacks and six total tackles for loss. Clay Matthews also joined the Rams in 2019 and at age 33, delivered eight sacks in 13 games, his most effective season since 2014.

In 2020, the Rams cycled in Leonard Floyd, an ex-first-round pick who struggled to meet expectations in a Vic Fangio–coached defense in Chicago. The Rams’ new defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, was Floyd’s positional coach under Fangio in Chicago for two seasons. Staley was able to finally unlock Floyd in Los Angeles with a little help from Donald: Floyd hit double-digit sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (11) in 2020, both for the first time in his career, and the Rams doled out a four-year, $64 million extension accordingly.

The Von trade isn’t a reflection on Floyd’s performance in 2021. Floyd has 6.5 sacks in eight games, and is well on his way to posting career numbers yet again. Rather, Von is a force multiplier for both Floyd and Donald—players to whom the Rams already have multiyear financial commitments. Von will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and therefore may play just this one season with the Rams, but he will benefit greatly from the Donald boost just as so many players have before him.

There are only a few obstacles to reaching unprecedented levels of defensive line insanity for Los Angeles. The first is figuring out where exactly to play Von and Floyd on base downs. Von has taken 292 of his 323 snaps this season (90 percent) off the left side of the defense (against the offense’s right tackle). Floyd has taken 375 of his 407 snaps on the same side of the line (92 percent). Something’s gotta give there.

Given Von’s proven success and veteran status, as opposed to Floyd’s recent resurgence, I’d imagine the Rams kick Von over to the opposite side. Von missed all of 2020, but in the three seasons prior, he played at least 110 snaps on the right side of the defense. Switching sides can be a tough ask and may require a few weeks of onboarding, but Von should be more than up for the job. Von on the right will take second-year man Terrell Lewis and third-year man Ogbonnia Okoronkwo off of the field, and while Lewis is a flashy player, the Rams should feel fine with that exchange. Neither holds a candle to Von as a pass rusher, and he has them beat as a run defender as well.

The next riddle to figure out is what exactly to do on passing downs, and that’s where this trade gets really exciting. Staley was with the Bears when they used Floyd as a “spinner”: a player athletic enough to stand up as a linebacker and play in the second level or push up onto the line of scrimmage as a potential blitzer. Blitz-heavy teams love to use spinners—Melvin Ingram III and T.J. Watt in Pittsburgh are great examples—to screw with protection rules and counts from opposing offensive lines. Protections are built assuming that your most dangerous pass rushers are the two guys coming off the edges, so moving your best rushers around takes advantage of that assumption. Here’s a great clip of Floyd from Brandon Thorn’s article on the Fangio defense from The Athletic a few seasons ago. Floyd is lined up as a stand-up rusher over the guard on the same side of the ball as Khalil Mack. Mack and Floyd run a twist, and Floyd gets a free shot at the quarterback.

With Floyd and Donald in hand last season, Staley and the Rams could get mighty funky with their fronts. They’d isolate Donald as a defensive end and put all their other rushers on the other side of the ball; then, they’d do the same thing, but with Floyd as the isolated rusher. They’d ask Floyd to use his explosiveness to crash inside on stunts, freeing up Donald to loop around the outside and take his free shot at the quarterback. On this Leonard Floyd sack from Steven Ruiz’s article on the 2020 Rams under Staley, running back David Montgomery is unavailable to offer chip help to the right tackle, as he (and the rest of the Bears line) are worried about a looping Donald. Floyd wins his rep, and with Donald securing the quarterback’s escape route, gets an easy sack.

On these clear passing downs, blitz packages have been money for the 2021 Rams. When sending five-plus rushers this season, the Rams have 13 total sacks, 58 pressures, and five forced fumbles—only the Bucs and the Cardinals, two teams blitzing at much higher rates than the Rams, are producing at similar volume. They’ve gotten a sack on 17.8 percent of those rushes (best in the league), and a pressure on 69 percent (third best). On those blitz packages, we often see the Rams twist their line in front of the blitzers, with the intent of manipulating protection rules into predictable checks. Those checks create one-on-ones that the Rams can predict and exploit.

Take this third-and-10 rep against the Texans. The Rams line Floyd (no. 54) up way outside the right tackle, and then put five potential rushers on the line of scrimmage over the ball and to the opposite side of the field. The Texans understandably slide their protection away from Floyd and toward Donald and the heavy numbers of the Rams, which gives Floyd the one-on-one for the sack.

That one-on-one was expected; almost guaranteed. The Texans are keeping the back in to pass protect, and the tight end is helping chip the opposite edge rusher. But with safety Taylor Rapp (no. 24) blitzing to occupy the running back, Floyd has an unobstructed outside edge to attack. He executes one of his favorite rushes—the cross-chop to get around right tackle Charlie Heck—and bears down on quarterback Davis Mills. Mills has little room to step up, given the interior twist the Rams ran with Donald (99) and Greg Gaines (91) to muddy the pocket. The opposite edge rusher is even taking a wide, patient path to contain Mills should he try to escape to that side. The alignment and activity offered Floyd the one-on-one, and he won it.

Von is a force multiplier in these contexts. He’s a devastating individual rusher, so the presence of Donald should help him see more one-on-ones, which he will win even more often than Floyd. But Von is such a dangerous rusher that chip help from tight ends and running backs releasing in routes will likely go to him, which should provide easier wins for Floyd on the other side. On passing downs, the Rams can now twist and stunt not just with Donald and Floyd, but with Donald and Von from standard fronts; in funky fronts, they can place Floyd as a stand-up interior rush with Von on the same side of the formation, while leaving Donald isolated on the opposite side. Von, like Floyd, is a devastating crasher on stunts because of his velocity and physicality—and when he knifes into those interior gaps, he has the bend to flatten his rush and still get to the quarterback.

There’s no schematic solution to all this. It’s essentially impossible to provide chip help to both sides for the entire game while also devoting multiple men to Donald on the interior. Eventually, someone on the offensive line has to survive a one-on-one fight, and against Donald and Miller, that’s a losing proposition for most offensive linemen. You either have the offensive line to block up the Rams’ front, or you don’t, and even if you do, the Rams can send all of these bodies flying in every direction, along with a blitzer or two, and test your communication and recognition as well. This is a nightmare, and it lasts for all four quarters.

The Rams’ defense is evolving into a new beast under defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. All season they’ve been riddling out what works and what doesn’t as they’re still recovering from the offseason departure of Staley and many of his key role players. Now, their late-season upswing will be kick-started by the acquisition of yet another star talent, yet another weapon to add to their already terrifying arsenal. With Von in hand, they are a defense of headaches that cannot be beaten on the chessboard or exposed for its weakness; their stars are simply too many and too bright to be ignored or snuffed out. The offense is loaded, and the defense is too. The Rams are ready for their Super Bowl run.