NFL Film Breakdown: How Rams DC Brandon Staley Has the LA Defense Playing at a Championship Level

The LA Rams have a new defensive coordinator in Brandon Staley and have been shutting down the run game while maintaining a two-high look, adapting to their opponents, and pairing excellent play from defensive front and their secondary. They’ll use Jalen Ramsay to lock down receivers in man which opens up their safeties for run fits and more aggressive play and have mastered using Eagle and hybrid fronts to bring pressure and simultaneously have the 5th best run defense in the league. Staley worked with the outside linebackers under Vic Fangio his whole NFL career up until his defensive coordinator job with the Rams and a lot of the Fangio tenets have appeared with the Rams but Staley has done an incredible job of adapting his personnel and front to react in-game to what offenses are doing as evidenced by allowing just three or fewer points in the second half in eight out of the nine games the Rams have played in so far.

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Rams’ Samson Ebukam #50 and Aaron Donald #99 sack Giants quarterback Daniel Jones] #8 during their NFL game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA., Sunday, October 4, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Where Staley has really begun to blaze his own path with the Rams is how he has used the Eagle front to great effect this season. There’s a lot of subtle naming differences when looking at fronts so to keep things simple, I’ll refer to any front with three players aligned in a nose or nose shade and tackles lined up as a 4 or 4i technique as an Eagle front. What that means is that the nose tackle is either directly over the center or shaded to one shoulder of the center and that the tackles are lined up directly over the offensive tackles or on their inside shoulders. The Rams will also then bring their outside linebackers down into wide 9 techniques which places them outside of the tight end and allows the Rams defensive front to flow into and out of different front alignments like more generic 3-4 and 4-3 looks. With the interior linemen in 4 or 4i techniques, this makes blocking and climbing incredibly difficult for offensive linemen. It almost mandates double teams across the board and if a guard leaves on a power or hard stretch, it’s very easy for that 4i technique to attach at the hip and follow down the line of scrimmage. That’s what the Eagle is really designed to do. Create free runners at the linebacker position and help defensive linemen penetrate.

We’ll start with how the Eagle front works in the run game. You can see how each defender fits in their run gaps with the nose tackle two-gapping and reading which direction the play is going and run support coming from the safeties. The tackles are responsible for the B gap and the Nose has the play-side A gap which forces him to two-gap as he’s feeling the movement of the center and attacking that direction. The linebacker then has the weak A gap but can flow over the top with split zone looks, fullbacks, or any other movement to help with cutback contain. The outside linebackers have the C or D gap with the strong side outside linebacker typically being the rush end and the weak side outside linebacker dropping into coverage. If that weak outside linebacker does have to run in coverage, the safety now replaces him as the C gap player. Bonus Clip for Patreon

Here, the Bears are running stretch split zone to the outside with a crunch block from the H-back. Since the line is stretching hard to the left, that allows the 4i defensive tackle to go to work. That slight alignment to the inside of the offensive tackle makes it hard for the offensive line to reach him. With the guard vacating to try and help double the nose before climbing to the linebacker, that leaves the tackle all alone to try and cut off Michael Brockers. With Aaron Donald winning his B gap and the nose tackle demanding a double team, that keeps the linebackers completely clean and forces the running back to work to the backside.
That’s where #90, Michael Brockers has beaten his man to the inside B gap because of his alignment and is waiting there for Montgomery to cut back into him. It’s great team defense. The running back has nowhere to go and has to stay play-side because Brockers beat his man, Donald is able to shed his block, and #59 Micah Kiser is also there to help fill.

If you have good tackles and a nose that can demand blocks like the Rams do, you really don’t even need exceptional athletes at the linebacker position. If they play decisively and can read the flow of the offense, they’ll be just fine since they won’t often have to shed blocks when the Rams use their Eagle front.

Since the linebackers are kept clean and are able to be free runners, the Rams often don’t put extra men in the box and maintain a two-high safety look. To combat some of the issue of having lighter boxes, they align their safeties close to the line of scrimmage at 10-12 yards. This allows them to be quicker contributors in the run game and protect gaps on the backside. These safeties are essentially just deep linebackers. Here, with the Dolphins set up with their strength to the left, Micah Kiser is shaded over the tackle to help seal the C gap inside the tight end, with the outside linebacker #54 Leonard Floyd there to seal the D gap outside. So that means Taylor Rapp, the safety #24 is now responsible for that weak side A gap. With the motion though, you can see the gaps shift over for the Rams defense. The slot corner over the receiver bumps down to take the C gap from Micah Kiser, Kiser bumps to take the weak A gap that was held by Taylor Rapp, and Rapp bumps over with the motion. On the snap, the H-back now also crunches across the formation which yet again shifts the gaps. There’s now no longer a D gap, so Leonard Floyd is responsible for the C gap which allows #22 to bump over and take the weak A now and Kiser takes the C gap outside where the crunch is headed to. That’s a lot of adjustment but the three down linemen still have their same assignments and even if the linebackers and secondary get out of position, the front again forces double teams and keeps the linebackers clean. Notice that none of the linemen are initially able to move up to the second level because they are forced by alignment to be solo on blocks or double team Aaron Donald. The Rams are one of the most sound defenses when it comes to playing with gap integrity. Each man does their job and they have the horses upfront to hold blocks and allow their linebackers to fill and fly around.

The run fits and gap assignments upfront make the whole defense go and while the Rams don’t blitz often, they will use their Eagle front in interesting ways to confuse offenses by walking up linebackers in the same alignments as they usually have their down linemen in. You still have someone aligned in a 0 over the center and two guys lined up in a 4i while you now have Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald with their hand in the dirt to rush the tackles. This can cause protection issues and force solo blocks on some of their best pass rushers. Offenses don’t know who will drop out by alignment and the Rams are stressing every gap. This forces the Bears into sliding to the left to take care of three potential rushers to that side. This however leaves a two on two to Donald’s side with an additional corner blitz. They’ve isolated their best pass rusher one-on-one and overloaded one side with a corner blitz all because of the front. The best thing is that they’ve manufactured this pressure while only rushing four guys so the structure of their coverage isn’t compromised.

They’ll give teams multiple blitz and pressure looks from that same stand up Eagle look with their linebackers. In the second quarter against the Seahawks, the Rams gave them that look and brought Kiser on the blitz while also running a stunt with him and the defensive tackle to try and bait them into opening a lane. Brandon Staley just wants to find any way possible to get his guys into one-on-one situations because he knows over the course of the game, they’re going to win more of those than they’ll lose.

Now that they established that look, late in the 4th quarter the Rams showed the exact same thing. This time, Kiser doesn’t come on the blitz but the center pauses and waits for the rush from Kiser before realizing he isn’t coming and going to help the guard late. That small pause and hesitation of not knowing if Kiser will come gives the rest of the defensive line chances to win their one-on-one matchups and that’s exactly what Michael Brockers does. With no inside help, he works the guard upfield before swimming underneath him to the inside and getting a direct line on Russell Wilson for the sack.

The Rams love this look with additional pressure and if the offense does run it, they still have everyone in their base gaps and assignments. Even though it may look like the Rams are bringing a lot of pressure, they’ll often rush just four but you have no idea where its coming from. Even if they aren’t getting home all the time, they almost always create significant pressure out of these stand-up Eagle looks.

What helps even more with pressures, the run game, and coverage is that they’ll often run Ramsey on lock calls which means he is man-on-man with the receiver. This then allows the safeties to fit their run gaps faster and support the linebackers more quickly because they don’t have to worry about getting over the top to help Ramsey.

You can see an example of this here with Ramsey locked to the top of the screen and the safety Taylor Rapp, doesn’t have to worry about helping him or getting over the top of his receiver. Instead, he can now help bracket and rob routes and crossers in the middle of the field which the 49ers love to run. Ramsey’s ability as a pure man corner frees up the secondary everywhere else and allows them to play aggressive and fast and gain players in other areas of the field.

Having a corner in Jalen Ramsey who can hold a top tier receiver like DK Metcalf to 2 catches for 28 yards and not a single target until the last minute of the 3rd quarter can do incredible things for your defense. It just condenses the field for the offense with more players in less space. Nobody has to get under his route or over the top and keeps defenders closer to the formation.

The Rams rank second in yards per game and are allowing just 18.7 points a game. They’re shutting down teams on the ground and through the air and Brandon Staley has used the pieces that the Rams have to perfection. He has found ways to get his guys in a position to succeed while being aggressive and balancing that with maintaining integrity to prevent big plays behind it with his two-high safety looks. Talent has met scheme in LA and it’s the Rams defense that has them thinking that they just might recapture that 2018 magic and make it back to the Super Bowl. 

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Camryn Bynum: West Coast Finest

Not often do you see four-year starters anymore in college, but Cal’s Camryn Bynum is one of them. Due to the COVID postponement of the PAC 12 season, Bynum announced he would opt-out and prepare for the draft. However, due to the return of the fall season, Bynum reversed course and decided that he wants to make one last run at a Pac 12 crown. While the season has been a bumpy start for the Golden Bears, we know who Bynum is as a player. He may not be the flashiest name in the 2021 defensive back class, but he’s as steady as you can get and has a ton of game experience. While some may want guys with the athleticism, give me a guy like Bynum who knows the position inside and out.

Positives

Sticky in coverage

Bynum does a great job of staying right in the hip pocket of receivers. Part of the reason he is so good at staying so close in coverage is that he’s an aggressive corner, which enables him to stay on top of his opponent. He has good size (6-0, 200 pounds) which allows him to go toe-to-toe with bigger receivers. While he didn’t play much in the slot, I think he would be just fine there.

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Sound tackler

I personally hold corners who are good tacklers in high regard. Many consider the position to be “soft” and not involved in the run game. However, if you have someone who can defend the outside run well and will stick their nose into some contact, that’s a huge boost to your defense. Bynum reads screens very well, rarely letting a receiver block him.

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High IQ/ Experience

Bynum has started 38 career games for the Golden Bears. At a position where often players need a lot of coaching up, Bynum is a relatively mature prospect. He’s a guy who has played a lot of snaps and his in-game IQ is incredible. What he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes NFL teams will find peace in knowing who they have in a prospect rather than projecting as to what they can possibly be

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Negatives

Will get beat deep

Since he plays aggressively in anticipation of shutting down the short and intermediate routes, he can get beat deep. Especially on double moves, he will be two or three steps behind the receiver and either has to make a miraculous effort or allows a big play to happen. His lack of long speed hurts him on this and if this is a problem that has not been fixed in three years as a college starter, I’m afraid it won’t be fixed in the NFL.

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Average athlete

Cornerbacks are typically one of the more athletic players on the field. Guarding another, usually excellent, athlete with them knowing the route and you having to guess or anticipate where they will go is one of the toughest things to do in any sport. Doing all of that as an average athlete is very tough. Of course, there have been success stories with average athletes like Richard Sherman, but Sherman has about three inches on Bynum. This isn’t a death sentence, but it pushes him down the board.

Conclusion

Even if he decided not to play this season, we know the player Bynum is. He’s solid in coverage and tough as nails as a tackler but lacks the desired athleticism you want in a cornerback. I think he’s a late second-round pick, but a guy that you can play right away. Many rookie corners don’t see much playing time as the quickness of NFL receivers takes a bit to get used to. Bynum is a smart player and plays the position well, so has a higher floor than the normal guy.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How the Chicago Bears Defense Confuses QBs into Making Mistakes and Taking Sacks

The Bears defense is alive and well. Akiem Hicks is back and disrupting plays with 13 QB hits and 5 tackles for loss, Khalil Mack has 5.5 sacks on the season, Eddie Jackson is one of the best safeties in the league, and Kyle Fuller is allowing just a 51.5% completion percent. To have a truly elite defense, you need to have a secondary and front that work together. The Bears like to move their secondary players around at the snap to force quarterbacks to diagnose things on the fly and adjust in real time. It can cause them to make poor decisions or hold the ball for a half second longer to allow the Bears pass rush to get home. It sounds simple but being static can often be a death sentence for defenses. If you don’t give teams something to think about at the snap, you’re conceding that it’s going to be your guys versus theirs. Moving your pieces around gives the advantage back to the defenses and is part of the reason why Chicago has allowed just 58.7% of passes to be completed this season.

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The Bears are predominantly a one high safety team and play a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They’ll often show two high safeties though because they want to force quarterbacks to process and figure out what’s going on post-snap. At the snap of the ball or leading up to the snap, they’ll rotate their safeties to change their pre-snap look. Often, this leads them to running Cover 1 Robber. Cover 1 just means that there is one high safety and man coverage everywhere else on the field. Robber is describing the action of the other safety because he is going to drop down at the snap and “rob” the middle of the field. This Robber player is free to jump any routes that flash in front of him. Cover 1 Robber can be used to prevent slants, quick hitting hooks underneath, or crossing routes. Here, the Giants are running a common play which is a chains concept where the receivers get to the first down marker and turn around for the ball. The Bears are running their Cover 1 Robber to the trips side so that they can help Roquan Smith in coverage. Smith knows that there’s a robber behind him so he can now bracket to the inside of the tight end. The corner to the top of the screen also knows he can play with outside leverage and funnel inside because the Robber will be there to pick up any crossers. The Robber frees up other players to play with more conservative leverage and funnel things inside to both the free safety over the top and the robber over the middle. Daniel Jones here is reading that Roquan smith is way inside on his tight end, so he’s determining pre-snap that’s the route that he wants. The tight end is going to turn around right at the sticks and with two safeties over the top and with leverage on the linebacker, it should be an easy completion. What Jones doesn’t see though, is Eddie Jackson dropping down to rob the route. Jackson knows the routes are coming based on down and distance and keys off of Jones’ eyes. He breaks on the route and causes the ball to pop up into the air.

You can see in this play how Cover 1 Robber looks when coming down on a crossing route. The Bears show two high before the late rotate back to centerfield by Tashaun Gipson and the Robber, Eddie Jackson, sits right in the middle of the field waiting for a an in-breaking route to rob. The Lions are running a dig route across the middle of the field and Eddie Jackson is sitting in the deep hole ready to break on it. Stafford doesn’t see it, and Jackson is able to break on it and pop the ball into the air again for an interception.

Really this robber look is just designed to cause hesitation on routes in the middle of the field, set the safety up with angles to make a play on the ball, or force the offense to make throws outside where the Bears are getting great play out of their corners Kyle Fuller and their rookie Jaylon Johnson.

For example, here the Falcons use pre-snap motion to try and diagnose what the Bears are doing. When the receiver shifts over and the corner comes with him, that’s a man coverage indicator. You pair that with two high safeties, and you expect to see 2 Man Under which gives the defense two deep players in each half of the field and man coverage underneath. So, if you’re Matt Ryan, what’s a route that you love here? The Falcons are running two crossers behind each other across the field. Based on leverage and having a shallow drag route to the top of the screen, he’s going to want to hit the first crosser because that receiver has inside leverage on the slot defender. The shallow by the tight end at the top will pull the defender to that side, and he sees the boundary side safety getting depth on the snap. What he doesn’t expect is for Eddie Jackson to again be in that Robber look coming down from the four-receiver side. Jackson comes down right in front of that crosser which is where Ryan is looking first. Ryan sees that the crosser is bracketed but by that time is feeling pressure. He has to come off the read, and throws short for an incompletion.  

Similar to Cover 1 Robber, the Bears also use jump calls against teams that like to run a lot of crossers like the Rams in Week 7. The Rams run a ton of tight formations and drag their receivers across on deep over routes in their play-action game. The Bears’ method of combatting that was to use Jump calls. A Jump call is very similar to using a Robber, but it takes a little more communication and understanding from the defense. With a Jump call, the safety is coming down on the crossing route and the corner that was initially over that route replaces them in the middle of the field instead of chasing them across. The Bears use this coverage on the single receiver side of the formation so that that corner isn’t going to be immediately threatened in their half of the field when they vacate it. For the purposes of this play, the slice behind the formation by the receiver in the slot turns this into a single receiver side to the bottom of the screen after the snap of the ball. This Jump call allows the Bears to keep the integrity of their defense and bypass traffic in the middle of the field while picking up crossers from the safety position with an angle to make the tackle or a play on the ball.

So, the Bears run a lot of the Cover 1 Robber, typically with the Robber coming from the trips side and they’ll also use those Jump calls. They’ll also invert that and show a one-high safety look and then bail out of it into Cover 2 Trap, also called Palms. Palms is popular against spread formations and two receiver sets which is what we have here against the Panthers. It’s essentially Cover 2 with match coverage principles tied into it. The corners on the outside are keying the #2 receivers on the inside. If they have an outbreaking route, they’re going to carry the #1 until they see it and then drop to jump the out route by #2. If that’s the case, the safety over the top would then pick up #1 as they go vertical. The linebackers then help to bracket any in breaking crossers like a dig or slant.

That’s what the Bears are running here. The problem that Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers have is that Chicago is showing single high which either means Cover 1 or Cover 3. In either case, Teddy likes the matchups and leverage of his routes to the top of the screen. The #1 goes vertical, the #2 runs a wheel right behind it, and the running back runs an arrow out into the flats. In the Bears Palms coverage, the corner is going to pass off that vertical to the safety coming over the top and jump the outbreaking route from the #2. He then carries that wheel up the sideline since he is now in man coverage on that route. The slot defender is bracketing but has no in breakers, so he runs with the running back to the flats. Everything is covered. Normally, though, in a Cover 3 or in man, that initial vertical would pull the corner deep. The #2 running the wheel route would be carried by the slot defender who would normally have the flats in cover 3 and now there would be no flat defender to pick up that running back since that defender carried the wheel. In Cover 1, you’d be one-on-one with your running back on a linebacker in man. All matchups you’d probably like. So, Teddy looks that way off the snap but then sees the Bears are rotating into that Cover 2 look with two high safeties and the safety getting over the top of the vertical from #1. He knows that that side of the field is going to be covered and tries to get back over to the bottom of the screen.  By then, though, the corner has broken on the slant from Robby Anderson, Teddy has to move out of the pocket, and the Bears close in for a sack. It’s the perfect marriage of coverage and pressure and is what makes these rotates and post-snap movements so effective for defenses. One second of pause from the QB and all the sudden your pass rush can get home for a big play to put the Panthers on their own one yard line.

Here’s another example of Cover 2 at the bottom of the screen with the Bears again giving a late rotate into the two high safety look. The corner is again keying the #2 receiver for an out-breaking route and leaving any crosser or vertical route for the safety or the linebacker. The corner takes the quick out and the linebacker now brackets and gets inside of the post from the #1. Bridgewater knows the Bears like to have their robber to the trips side and the Bears had run a single high look with man coverage earlier in this game against the Panthers’ empty formations so that’s exactly what Bridgewater is looking for here.

The Bears instead rotate the middle field safety over and drop Eddie Jackson into the deep seem to the trips side. Normally, offenses will have reads versus defenses when they’re showing middle of the field open with two high safeties versus middle of the field closed versus one high safety. In this case, DJ Moore has an option route of running a dig versus 1 high or a post versus a 2-high look. You want to attack the weakness of the defense. Because of the strong rush and the late rotate, Teddy still thinks it’s a 1 high look and either man or Cover 3 so he’s expecting a dig from DJ Moore. Meanwhile, Moore is seeing the rotate by the safety and breaks for a post to exploit that vacated middle of the field – which really is wide open if Teddy throws the ball down the field. There’s absolutely nobody there. But because he doesn’t see the rotate and the rush is getting home, he throws the dig right into the linebacker who has bracketed the in-breaking route. It’s an interception that ultimately seals the game and prevents the Panthers from continuing their potential game tying drive.

The Bears are sitting at 5-2 and are right in the mix of the NFC playoff picture. Their defense is getting to the quarterback, locking down receivers, and confusing quarterbacks into holding the ball and making mistakes. With the marriage of an elite secondary and a defensive line that can cause pressure, the Bears have all the pieces to the puzzle on defense. The offense might have its ups and downs but as the old saying goes and as Bears fans are hoping is true – defense win championships.

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