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Rams defense is looking for a 3-4 punch under new coordinator Brandon Staley

New Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley works with players at the Rams training facility in Thousand Oaks
Brandon Staley was hired during the offseason to replace Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It was Zoom call, the first virtual meeting during the Rams’ offseason program, and veteran defensive lineman Michael Brockers felt the energy coming through his computer screen.

New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was addressing his players.

“I wanted to put my helmet on, on the Zoom call,” Brockers said, “because he had me so fired up.”

Five months later, the Rams are preparing for their Sept. 13 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, the first opportunity to execute Staley’s 3-4 hybrid scheme in a game situation.

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After the Rams missed the playoffs last season, coach Sean McVay did not retain defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a 73-year-old coach with more than four decades of NFL coaching experience. McVay hired Staley, 37, whose NFL resume included three seasons as the outside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos.

Staley learned at the elbow of Vic Fangio, the Broncos coach who served as the Bears defensive coordinator when the Rams did not score a touchdown in a 2018 defeat at Chicago.

An in-depth look at the Rams, Chargers and the rest of the NFL ahead of the 2020 season.

Staley wants every element of the Rams’ defense to work together.

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“I don’t think that you can have a bunch of independent contractors, a bunch of independent silos within your defense,” Staley said in a phone interview. “I think that for them to truly become a team defense, they have to know in general terms what’s going on around them.

“That’s something that was real important to me.”

Rams players have embraced Staley.

“He has an aggressive mind-set where the defense shouldn’t be reacting,” safety John Johnson said. “We should be like the hammer. We should dominate games.

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“So, I will say he’s aggressive in that nature.”

The defense went through a major overhaul after the Rams finished 9-7 last season. They ranked 13th in total defense, 12th in pass defense, 19th in rushing defense and 17th in scoring defense.

In March, the Rams released outside linebacker Clay Matthews and dropped out of free-agent bidding to retain edge rusher Dante Fowler and linebacker Cory Littleton.

They also declined to exercise an option on slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

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Perennial All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald, who signed a then-record $135-million extension in 2018, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is expected to receive a record-setting extension before the opener, are now the cornerstones.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, left, tries to get around a block by center Austin Corbett during practice
Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, left, tries to get around the block from center Austin Corbett, right, during an NFL football camp practice Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(Marciao Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

“There’s things that I love about the defense, there’s things that, you know, I’m not too big of a fan of,” Donald said, “but I’ve just got to adjust to it and try to play up to the best of my abilities so I can still put my little twist in there — so I can still help this defense be successful.

“So far, so good, but like I always say, I think we’ve got a whole bunch of room for improvement. We’ve just got to keep learning, keep getting coached up, and keep getting better.”

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Donald welcomed the return of Brockers, who appeared on his way out of Los Angeles after he agreed to a free-agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens. That deal fell through because of concerns about a 2019 ankle injury, and the Rams re-signed the eight-year veteran. Now Brockers is set to again start alongside Donald and third-year pro Sebastian Joseph-Day.

A’Shawn Robinson, signed by the Rams when it appeared Brockers was headed to the Ravens, will open the season on the active/non-football injury list because of an unspecified condition that came to light during training camp.

To replace Fowler, the Rams signed Leonard Floyd. The ninth pick in the 2016 draft played for Staley with the Bears, and the Bears declined to exercise their fifth-year option on a player whose performance fell short of projections. The Rams gave Fowler a one-year, $10-million prove-it contract. Fourth-year pro Samson Ebukam is on track to start opposite Floyd.

Littleton left the Rams to sign a three-year, $35-million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Rams are banking they will get by with a young and mostly untested inside linebacker corps that was thinned when Travin Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp.

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Micah Kiser, Kenny Young and Troy Reeder are being counted on to provide solid play.

“The guys that came before us just did a great job just kind of mentoring us,” Kiser said, mentioning Littleton, Mark Barron and Bryce Hager. “Just guys that I could really kind of sponge off of and take a lot of knowledge from.

“I think we’re just grateful for the opportunity and we’re all ready to step in. We’re pulling for each other and I think we’re going to have a great season.”

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Ramsey was acquired in a trade-deadline deal last season that cost the Rams two first-round draft picks. He is scheduled to
earn $13.7 million this season but might be in line for a contract that would make him the first $20-million-a-year cornerback in NFL
history.

Staley is expected to deploy Ramsey in a variety of ways, with cornerbacks Troy Hill and Darious Williams also on the field. Johnson and Taylor Rapp are regarded as the top safeties, though Rapp was sidelined for much of training camp because of a knee injury. That created opportunities for rookies Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller.

With no preseason games to
assess the scheme, players are eager to put all of the pieces together for the opener against the Cowboys.

Brockers intimated that the difference between this year’s defense and those of the last few seasons would be subtle but effective.

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“It’s the same but it’s not, man,” he said. “You’ll see Sept. 13 what we’ll come out with.”


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