The New York Giants are limping back into the Meadowlands toting a 1-4 record and a hospital ward worth of injuries.
This is hardly the time to face one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but that’s where they are as they host the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6.
In an ugly sense of deja vu, the Rams pose some similar problems for the Giants’ offense as the Dallas Cowboys did last week. Like the Cowboys, the Rams have an average-at-best defense that is made dangerous by their offense. The additions of Matt Stafford, DeSean Jackson, and Sony Michel to Sean McVay’s offense has given them the ability to take over the game at any time. McVay has always been a genius when it comes to crafting elegant offensive schemes and manipulating defenses with his game scripts and play sequencing. But swapping out Jared Goff for Stafford has allowed McVay to fully open up his playbook and attack all areas of the field at any time. Likewise, adding the speed of Jackson allows more room for Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods to work underneath.
And much like the Cowboys, that potent offense puts a ton of pressure on the opposing offense to play fast and score often, which can take them out of their game-plan and play into the hands of the Rams’ defense.
So what can the Giants look forward to when they have the ball, and are there any areas they can attack?
A disappointing start to the season
The Rams are currently sitting at 4-1 with victories over the reigning Super Bowl champions and a fierce division rival. There are a lot of teams who would be thrilled to have that kind of “disappointment” on their resume.
But that also isn’t what I’m talking about. Despite the Rams’ success on offense and their wins, their defense has been a definite disappointment — particularly in comparison to the 2020 season.
Last year, the Rams had the best defense in the NFL. They allowed the fewest total yards, yards per play, fewest passing yards and yards per attempt, the third fewest rushing yards and yards per carry, and the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL.
So far in 2021, the Rams rank 25th in passing yards, 27th in total yards, and 15th in net yards per attempt (though they are tied for fifth fewest passing touchdowns allowed).
In that context, yeah, the start to 2021 has certainly been frustrating and disappointing for Rams’ fans.
A big part of the puzzle is likely the departure of Brandon Staley to become the Los Angeles Chargers’ head coach. Staley was hailed as the “Sean McVay” of the defensive side of the ball as a brilliant, young football mind.
Staley was replaced by Raheem Morris and while Morris is a long-time defensive coach (dating back to being a defensive backs coach for Cornell in 1999), he has less than two years of experience as a defensive coordinator. Morris spent one year as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator in 2006, and was the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator in 2020 before being named their interim head coach on October 12th.
Morris vowed to keep Staley’s scheme intact, and it seems he has at least kept the rough structure.
The first graphic shows the Rams’ coverage usage from the 2020 season, while the second shows their coverages so far this year:
While Morris is using a higher rate of Cover 3 than the Rams did a year ago, Cover 3, Cover 4, and Cover 6 being the Rams’ primary alignments in the secondary remains consistent.
Likewise, Morris makes a similar usage of nickel packages with 2, 4, and 3-down linemen.
Likewise, the Rams are blitzing, and pressuring, quarterbacks at a similar rate as they were a year ago.
So if the general structure of the scheme is similar to what it was a year ago, why the big drop in defensive production?
Part of it is that Morris isn’t Staley. They’re different men who will have different responses to in-game situations. Just because they’re calling out of similar playbooks doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come up with the same answers.
But also, defensive performance is often a barometer of the teams you have faced. If a defense gets a run of bad offenses, they will obviously be more highly ranked. And over the last three weeks, the Rams have faced Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, and Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. They went 2-1 in that stretch, but that’s a tough stretch of quarterbacks to look good against.
The Giants absolutely should not underestimate the Rams’ defense based on their ranking in Week 6, and should take their numbers with a whole shaker of salt.
Beware Aaron Donald
There’s good news and terrible news for the Giants’ offensive line.
The good news is that for the first time since ESPN started tracking pass rush win rate, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald isn’t the best pass rushing interior lineman in the NFL. He is, in fact, third among iDL in pass rush win rate after Week 5, trailing J.J. Watt (25 percent win rate) and Javone Hargrave who has an absurd 27 percent win rate.
The terrible news? Donald’s 22 percent win rate is only just off the league-leading 24 percent win rate he posted the last two years. He’s still really good at making offensive linemen’s lives miserable.
The Rams have also been making good use of Donald’s uncommon frame and athleticism. Not only do they use him as the dominant defensive tackle he is, but they’ve been using him as a 4i and 5 technique in their 3-man fronts. Donald has even lined up as a true defensive end, which has to be nightmare for just about every OT in the NFL.
But while Donald is the Rams’ best player and one of the very best defenders in the NFL, he isn’t the only threat in LA’s defensive front.
Last year the Rams added EDGEs Leonard Floyd and Terrell Lewis in free agency and the draft (respectively). Floyd responded with a career season, notching 11.5 sacks and earning a 4-year extension. He seems to have picked up where he left off last year, with 3.0 sacks, 5 QB hits, and a total of 13 hurries (to go with 4 tackles for a loss) through 5 games.
Lewis flashed the ability to be disruptive when he was on the field, but injuries limited him to just eight games. This year he’s already matched his sack total from a year ago and seems to be improving as the year goes on. Lewis has a sack and a tackle for a loss in each of the last two games to go with a QB hit and a forced fumble.
The duo of Floyd and Lewis give the Rams length and explosiveness off the edge to go with Aaron Donald’s disruption from... Wherever he lines up. They’re joined in the front seven by A’Shawn Robinson and Sebastian Joseph-Day on the defensive line. Robinson remains one of the stoutest defensive tackles in the NFL, and at 6-foot-4, 330, the former Alabama lineman is very tough to move off of the line of scrimmage.
Joseph-Day has earned praise as one of the Rams’ under-the-radar stars through the first five games of the season. In addition to being an effective nose tackle, Joseph-Day has a pair of sacks to his name as well.
Between the two, the Rams have generally done a good job of controlling opponents’ run games. While Kyler Murray has proven to be a handful for any defense, they did a good enough job against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that Tom Brady was the Buc’s leading rusher.
If there’s good news for the Giants, it’s that the interior linebacker position is an issue for the Rams’ defense. Troy Reeder and Kenny Young are fine players within their limitations, but their limited range and athleticism provide opportunities in the modern NFL.
The Giants would be well-served to try and attack Reeder and Young with Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram, and Devontae Booker in the passing game. Not only is that a potential opportunity for yardage, but the types of routes that isolate linebackers are usually quick enough to blunt opposing pass rushes.
Shakeup in the secondary
One of the biggest changes in the Rams’ defense from a year ago came in the secondary.
The Rams lost safety John Johnson III to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Johnson was an effective free safety for the Rams, and his absence has put stress on the rest of the unit to compensate.
In particular, Taylor Rapp has been asked to play less of his natural safety/linebacker hybrid role and more free safety. And while Rapp is a good player in the tackle box, free safety is an awkward fit for his skillset. That not only makes the middle of the Rams’ defense a weaker for missing Rapp, but the deep part of the field might be more susceptible to attack (such as if Jabrill Peppers or Landon Collins were forced to patrol the deep middle).
The other major change has been in how the Rams have used star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
When Giants fans likely think of Ramsey, they likely think of a “typical” shutdown corner who lines up on the outside and takes either the X or Flanker out of the game with his coverage. And was Ramsey’s game for a long time. But last year Joe Staley started to experiment and moved Ramsey into the slot a bit. Per NFL NextGenStats, Ramsey played 17 percent of his snaps from a slot alignment in 2020. At that point it was the highest rate of his career by about double — but it also makes sense in the context of NFL offenses increasingly moving their best receivers into the slot to take advantage of the match-ups and free releases.
This year Ramsey has played the majority of his snaps in the slot, fully 56 percent per NextGenStats.
That doesn’t make Ramsey any less of an impact player. He is still one of the be very best cornerbacks in the NFL, but it might change the calculus for a team expecting to have one of their outside receivers taken away. The presence of Ramsey in the slot could pose a problem for the Giants, who like to use the slot alignment as one of the focuses of their offense. Many of their plays which scheme separation or are go-to plays on crucial downs are designed to go to the slot receiver.
With Ramsey in the slot, the Rams used David Long Jr. and Darius Williams as their outside corners. Williams suffered a sprained ankle in their 26-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks and was placed on the injured reserve. This opens the door for rookie corner Robert Rochell to start. Rochell is, of course, a rookie from small-school Central Arkansas, and like all rookies should expect to get picked on by the Giants. That being said, Rochell brings an intriguing skillset to the field. He is an exceptional athlete, combining a 4.41 40-yard dash, 43-inch vertical leap, and 6.68 second 3-cone drill at 6-foot, 193 pounds. He also showed great ball skills in college, with 9 interceptions and 28 passes defensed his final two years at Central Arkansas.
Targeting Rochell could lead to opportunities for the Giants, but his traits suggest that being careless when doing so would be a mistake.