When the St. Louis Rams hired Gregg Williams as their new defensive coordinator in January, offensive coaches around the NFL immediately took notice. This appears to be the perfect marriage of coach and personnel, the type of development that could make the Rams a dark-horse contender in the NFC West -- and beyond.
A coaching disciple of Buddy Ryan, Williams adopted his former boss' ultra-aggressive approach. Williams developed his reputation as an innovative schemer during his first stint as a defensive coordinator, with the Tennessee Oilers/Titans from 1997 to 2000. He went on to enjoy defensive success at a number of other stops, including New Orleans, where he helped the Saints win their first and only Super Bowl title. The feisty play-caller employed a blitz-heavy game plan in the Big Easy to create chaos at the point of attack, leading to a host of turnovers and negative plays. (Williams' Super Bowl-winning unit finished second in the NFL in takeaways and excelled in the red zone.)
From a schematic standpoint, Williams will use every front in the book. At his core, though, he's a 4-3 over/under guy. He implements a defensive audible system that adapts to offensive formations, allowing his guys to be in the best possible call on every down. Although the complex nature of the scheme puts a ton of pressure on the linebackers and safeties to make adjustments, it is a system that produces outstanding results when mastered. On passing downs, Williams certainly isn't afraid to mix in a variety of blitzes from exotic looks -- including some Okie fronts (3-4 or nickel 3-3 packages) -- as well as the standard 4-2-5 nickel front. He will order up Cover 0 all-out blitzes in any area of the field, which makes him the ultimate gambler as a play-caller. I've talked to many of his former players over the past few years, and they've raved about his aggressiveness and attack mentality.
Looking at the principles of his scheme and the talented pieces in St. Louis, here are three things to watch for this fall:
1) Williams' blitz-heavy plan will make the NFL's best D-line even better.
When I played defensive back with the Kansas City Chiefs under Gunther Cunningham in the late 1990s, the ultra-aggressive defensive guru taught me that blitzes aren't necessarily diagrammed to get the designated rusher to the quarterback; many of them are crafted to help talented defensive linemen get one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. Cunningham repeatedly told me that dominant defensive linemen win the overwhelming majority of their snaps against single blocks. A team that consistently ratchets up the pressure will consequently rack up the big hits and turnovers.
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In St. Louis, the Rams have the ideal personnel along the line to benefit from Williams' blitz-heavy nature. The team returns every starter from last season's front four: highly disruptive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long as well as imposing defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford. And last month, St. Louis selected freakish defensive tackle Aaron Donald with the No. 13 pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. William Hayes and Eugene Sims will continue to make contributions as rotational players, while rookie Michael Sam could chip in as a pass-rush specialist. Long story short, the Rams will be able to attack opponents from every angle with waves of big, athletic bodies. Thus, a unit that accounted for 46 of the team's 53 sacks (the NFL's third-highest total in 2013) should make an even bigger impact this season with more one-on-one chances at the line of scrimmage.
Studying the Rams' personnel, the three defensive linemen to watch in Williams' scheme will be Quinn, Long and Brockers. As high-motor players with exceptional length, athleticism and first-step quickness, these three have the ability to create chaos on straight four-man rushes or exotic pressures. This should give Williams the flexibility to attack opposing quarterbacks with pressure or coverage on any down, which will make his pre-snap disguise package even more difficult to decipher at the line. Let's take a closer look at these three studs:
Quinn blossomed into a truly dynamic player in 2013, accumulating 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles. The first-team All-Pro selection overwhelmed opponents with his first-step quickness, using a traditional speed rush to tally the majority of his sacks. Although he occasionally flashes a spin move or an inside maneuver to work free, the overall repertoire is limited. No matter: He's so darn explosive on his upfield rush that offensive tackles have a tough time slowing him down. Expect Williams to keep it simple for his prized pupil. Closer Mariano Rivera finished off a lot of Yankee wins by utilizing a single pitch -- Quinn's speed rush is akin to Mo's cutter.
It's easy to miscast Long as a "try hard guy" based on his fanatical effort, but scouts know the seventh-year pro is a polished pass-rusher. Long uses every trick in the book to win hand-to-hand combat battles. He also exhibits enough speed, quickness and athleticism to consistently get home. Long is more than capable of winning against tackles in one-on-one situations, which he's bound to see in 2014 as more attention heads in Quinn's direction following his breakout campaign. Williams might look to exploit Long's abilities by using more D-line stunts or by flip-flopping his defensive ends in exotic fronts. By adding a little creativity to the mix, Williams can isolate his top rushers on the opponent's inferior blockers, leading to constant penetration.
The best defenses in the NFL typically feature a disruptive force on the interior. The Rams have a burgeoning star there, with the 23-year-old Brockers showing signs of developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 326-pounder possesses the size, strength and athleticism to overpower blockers at the point of attack, making him a force against the run. Additionally, Brockers has shown good hand skills and power as a crafty pass rusher on the inside. With Brockers capable of lining up at the 1- and 3-technique spots, Williams can play right and left with his defensive tackles, or flip Brockers and Langford/Donald based on the strength of the formation.
2) The linebackers will wreak havoc from the second level.
As mentioned, Williams has made quite a living incorporating blitz-heavy schemes, but he has rarely possessed all of the pieces to truly maximize an ultra-aggressive approach. In St. Louis, however, Williams inherits a pair of linebackers with the speed, athleticism and instincts to excel in an attacking scheme that allows 'backers to run-and-chase all over the field. Thus, I would expect Williams to call more five-, six- and seven-man pressures than his predecessor, Tim Walton, to take advantage of the Rams' wealth of talent at linebacker. St. Louis has the makings of a dynamic duo. Allow me to further explain ...
The sixth-year pro is the Rams' unquestioned defensive leader. He sets the tone for the unit with his relentless style, yet he is never out of control on the field. Laurinaitis always appears to be in the right spot at the right time, which is a testament to his football IQ and diligent preparation. Given the importance of those factors in Williams' defense, I expect to see Laurinaitis shine. After reviewing the tape from the 2013 campaign, I believe Williams will incorporate Laurinaitis into the pass rush on a number of blitzes and "green dogs" (linebacker will spy the running back but rush the quarterback if the running back stays in pass protection).
The following series of screengrabs is taken from the Rams' Week 16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. St. Louis is aligned in a blitz-heavy front, with Laurinaitis preparing to charge in from the right side:
With Jo-Lonn Dunbar (highlighted in yellow) attracting attention through the C-gap, Laurinaitis walks into an easy sack:
With Williams picking up the edge rusher, Laurinaitis blows through the C-gap to sack Cam Newton for a big loss:
The Rams landed one of the best young linebackers in football when they selected Ogletree with the 30th pick of the 2013 draft. The hyper-explosive playmaker recorded 117 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception as a rookie. Additionally, he finished the year with six forced fumbles and a number of splash plays that showcased his knack for disruption. Given Williams' affinity for turnovers, Ogletree is a perfect specimen for the scheme.
Imagining how Williams will deploy Ogletree, I envision the second-year pro thriving as an active, move-around linebacker in base and sub-packages. Ogletree's athleticism should make him an effective blitzer and cover man, giving Williams more options on exotic pressures.
In the following screengrab, also taken from the Rams' win over the Bucs, Laurinaitis and Ogletree are aligned on the right and assigned to blitz through the B- and C-gaps, respectively:
Laurinaitis dives in hard through the B-gap, with Ogletree checking the tight end before attacking the C-gap:
Ogletree's ability to also cover tight ends in space will make him a key part of the puzzle in Williams' scheme. Ogletree possesses the speed and quickness to run with tight ends down the seam, yet shows the quickness and instincts to undercut intermediate routes between the numbers. As a result, quarterbacks are unable to attack the underbelly of the defense with quick-rhythm throws, as evidenced in the video to the right.
The Rams' ferocious front line will limit deep-ball opportunities by applying constant pressure in the pocket. Add in a sticky cover linebacker like Ogletree and it's clear opposing quarterbacks are looking at some seriously limited options.
3) T.J. McDonald will become a monster in the middle of the field.
The common denominator on Williams' best defenses over the years has been the presence of a dominant safety between the hashes. The innovative defensive architect frequently utilizes one of his safeties as the designated playmaker in the middle of the field. Williams will deploy this player near the line of scrimmage to use him as an additional defender against the run or as an extra rusher on exotic blitzes. Additionally, Williams will position the guy as a "trapper" or "robber" in coverage to create turnover opportunities. While most defensive coordinators feature similar tactics, Williams' ability to cleverly craft a scheme that puts the chosen safety in prime position has helped a number of players earn Pro Bowl distinctions, including Blaine Bishop (Oilers/Titans), Sean Taylor (Redskins), Roman Harper and Darren Sharper (both with the Saints).
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That's why I'm excited to see what Williams does with T.J. McDonald in St. Louis. Despite missing six games in the middle of the season with a broken leg, McDonald flashed big-time talent last season as a rookie starter, finishing with 53 tackles, one sack and an interception in 10 starts. This is a gritty, hard-nosed defender with outstanding instincts and a nasty demeanor. Most importantly, McDonald's a versatile defender capable of floating between the hashes as a center fielder or attacking near the line of scrimmage as a hybrid linebacker.
Williams likely will position McDonald at strong safety, which is the same spot where Bishop and Harper thrived under the coach. I expect to see him on slot receivers and tight ends in man coverage -- as evidenced by this video clip -- while covering curl/flat and hook areas in zone. Williams is likely to take advantage of McDonald's underrated athleticism while also allowing him to play as the enforcer between the hashes. As a ball hawk/headhunter combo, McDonald will discourage quarterbacks from attacking down the middle and greatly reduce the amount of big plays surrendered through the air.
In the passing game, Williams also can use McDonald as a rusher off the edge to enhance the Rams' formidable pass rush. This tactic, which Williams frequently incorporated with Harper in New Orleans, meshes well with McDonald's skills. Checking in at 6-2 and 217 pounds, McDonald is a big-bodied safety with the physicality, toughness and rush skills to overwhelm blockers in one-on-one situations. Additionally, he displays outstanding pre-snap anticipation and timing coming off the edge.
In the video to the right, McDonald is aligned in the slot in what appears to be man coverage. He is bluffing to keep the Buccaneers' offensive line from counting him as part of the rush. At the snap, however, McDonald blitzes from the slot as part of an overload zone pressure. The Bucs are outnumbered at the point of attack, resulting in an easy sack.
With McDonald capable of impacting the game as a pass defender or rusher, Williams can dig deep into his playbook to torment opponents with a variety of exotic blitzes designed to put his designated playmaker in a position to create chaos all over the field.