The Rams have a solid defense although they have an underwhelming group of inside linebackers. With Cory Littleton as the only true three-down option, what does this mean for the defense?
The Rams scored only three points in Super Bowl LIII. Had the offense been able to get anything going the Rams could have come up with the win. The defense played well in the Super Bowl giving up only one touchdown and 13 points to a stout New England Patriots offense. Cory Littleton played out of his mind last year but his running mate Mark Barron underwhelmed more than usual. Barron left in free agency to the Steelers and the Rams did not do much to fill his shoes. The Rams linebackers can change the defensive scheme completely for this team. Outside of Littleton the starting spot is pretty open, check out the candidates.
Inside Linebackers Other than Cory Littleton
Clay Matthews is a natural outside linebacker and in his prime had elite athleticism. He has 83.5 career sacks to his credit. Matthews is entering his year 33 season and seems to have lost a step or two. After spending his entire career with the Packers, they decided to let him walk in free agency. The Rams signed Matthews to a 2-year $9,250,000 contract that could reach $12,750,000 with incentives.
The idea seems to be that Matthews will be the other starting inside linebacker next to Cory Littleton as of right now. Matthews does have some experience playing middle linebacker as he played the position in 2014 and 2015. During those two seasons he totaled 137 tackles (101 solo), 36 tackles for a loss, 17.5 sacks, 12 passes defended, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Not bad numbers for a pure pass rusher. Here are some highlights from Matthews’ 2015 season at middle linebacker where he received a Pro Bowl invite:
— Eye In The Sky (@The_Green_Gold) May 4, 2019
Matthews performed well in the middle showing solid instincts in run defense and was used great in blitzing situations. Matthews will likely be used in the same regard with the Rams.
Dakota Allen was a 7th round draft pick (#251 overall) in the 2019 draft. Allen was very good in all aspects of the game during his time at Texas Tech. He put up totals of 249 tackles (134 solo), 17.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, seven passes defended, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown. Allen was released from the Texas Tech program in 2016 due to an arrest for home burglary and stealing guns. The charges were ultimately dropped and he played East Mississippi Community College in the interim earning all region honors.
Allen came back to the program and was voted a team captain his last two seasons showing he has the ability to be a leader. Allen is well conditioned and does not fatigue easy and is a downhill presence in the run game as you see here where he soaks up two blockers:
Great job by Texas Tech LB 40 – Dakota Allen splitting this double team from the pulling LG and LT. He disrupts this whole play and it slows down Hill. Great play by Allen – legit puts his body on the line for this one pic.twitter.com/KyrIkvg8Lo
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) December 21, 2018
Allen is still young and has some technique issues to iron out. Over pursuing instead of using his instincts is something he needs to work on and may take a year or two to make his way to the starting lineup.
Micah Kiser has a bit of a shot here having been on the team for a season already. Kiser was lining up next to Littleton in the middle during the first day of OTA’s taking first team reps. Kiser was a polarizing prospect out of Virginia having celebrated a great collegiate career. During three years as a starter Kiser totaled 393 tackles (180 solo), 33.5 tackles for a loss, 19 sacks, 12 passes defended, one interception, eight forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
Kiser does a great job at blitzing and his timing is great. Watch here as you see him wait, then explode through the gap to help pick up the sack:
Kiser can provide blitzing from the middle while Littleton is the coverage linebacker.
What Happens in Passing Situations
Outside of Cory Littleton there is not another three down linebacker on the team, Kiser is the closest. What the Rams do have are some very versatile and very good safeties. Eric Weddle and John Johnson III provide one of the best starting safety duos in the NFL. Both serve well in coverage and both can play in the box as well. The Rams also added Taylor Rapp in the second round and 61st overall in the 2019 draft. He is yet another versatile safety to add to the bunch. Last season the Rams used three safety sets more often down the stretch and will look to move forward with this scheme.
If Clay Matthews starts in the middle then he can easily slide to his natural spot on the outside during passing situations moving Samson Ebukam to the bench. If Kiser wins the job he is also a two-down linebacker and would probably see the bench during passing downs. This, in turn, would move either Weddle or Johnson III in to the box and bringing in Rapp to fill the safety slot. The Rams did not add a safety in the second round just to have him sit behind Johnson III and Weddle. He should be used in passing situations allowing the defense versatility.
The Rams underwhelming linebacker corps should not be much of an issue for the Rams this season. Many were wondering who would be added after the departure of Mark Barron. Most thought the Rams would either spend an early to mid round pick in the draft or sign a solid linebacker via free agency.
What they did is add an aging linebacker who can play outside and provide pass rush depth while also using his excellent instincts in the middle when needed. They also added a rookie, not early but in the seventh round to provide depth to the corps and hold good special teams value. Micah Kiser looks to have a leg up on the competition as a candidate for internal promotion.
The biggest addition to the linebacker corps… a safety. Weddle and Johnson III as well as Rapp should see a significant snap load this season. Rapp should predominantly play safety while both Weddle and Johnson III take reps in the box. This also will allow the defense to mask scheme a little based on where these guys end up lining up pre-snap. The best linebacker other than Littleton on this team is actually a safety.
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