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A little Vinny on the Rams Safety situation and possibilities...

July 14, 2019 08:28AM
The Rams’ versatile and talented safety corps could raise their defense’s game

Vincent Bonsignore

[theathletic.com] ... nses-game/

On a defense that returns eight of 11 starters, the easy assumption is that the Rams are merely hoping to be as good in 2019 as they were in 2018. The unit turned a corner during the last month of last season, trimming its points per game from 25.6 points allowed over the first 11 games to 20.2 over the final five. Factor in the outstanding defensive performance against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, and keeping the status quo is an acceptable objective.

By no means were the Rams a dominant defense. After all, they surrendered 24 points per game, 20th best in the NFL. But thanks to their explosive offense, that was plenty good enough.

That said, there is cautious optimism some of the changes the Rams made could result in subtle improvements that yield significant rewards.

If, say, new nose tackle Greg Gaines or Sebastian Joseph-Day and new inside linebacker Micah Kiser are better fits in the run game than the players they’re replacing, the Rams defense, which ranked 23rd against the run (122.3 yards per game on 5.07 yards per carry) could make notable strides.

The “fit” theme can also be applied to safety, where the Rams signed veteran free agent Eric Weddle to replace Lamarcus Joyner and drafted Taylor Rapp to add depth and versatility. Their presence, combined with emerging star John Johnson at free safety and valuable reserve Marqui Christian, has the potential to elevate the Rams in both pass coverage and run defense.

On paper, the safety corps offers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips an abundance of options as intelligent pieces he can deploy all over the field. For a defense that plays in base formation 30 percent of the time, that versatility is invaluable. And given how the Rams’ third and fourth safeties combined for 406 snaps last year — or roughly 40 percent of the team’s overall defensive snaps — Phillips figures to keep relying on his reserves to carry out assignments.

Here is a closer look at the Rams’ safeties.

John Johnson

In so many ways, the drafting of Johnson in 2017 was a perfect marriage between player, skill set and defensive scheme. Not only did the former Boston College star play in a 3-4 defense with the Eagles, but he also excelled at both safety positions, cornerback, linebacker and even as a down lineman.

That flexibility certainly caught the eye of the Rams, and by Johnson’s second season last year, Phillips was lining him up all over the field depending on the package. He tapped into Johnson’s intellect and versatility as a pass defender and run stopper, allowing Phillips to be more creative at other positions. Knowing Johnson could handle cornerback duties, Phillips was able to get another safety on the field.

Johnson finished last year with 118 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups, leaving him at the doorstep of Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. He rose from a good NFL strong safety to a nearly great one with room to grow as he enters his third year. Now paired with Weddle — a free safety who’s also smart and versatile and adept in pass coverage and run defense — count on Johnson’s flexibility expanding even more and Phillips devising ways to accentuate his multi-faceted skill set.

Eric Weddle

Now in his 13th season, Weddle showed very little signs of decline last year with the Ravens while being an impact player both in the pass and run games. According to Pro Football Focus, Weddle surrendered just 111 yards in pass coverage and was particularly effective when lined up against wide receivers, allowing just a 57.0 passer rating in those matchups. Of his 68 total tackles, 54 were solo, and according to PFF, he missed on only five of 78 tackle attempts.

Weddle’s intellect fits perfectly on a Rams defense loaded with savvy defenders, and his communication at the back end of the defense will benefit the entire unit and guard against breakdowns. His ability to line up as a potential pass rusher, only to drop back in pass coverage while waving teammates into position, creates nightmare situations for quarterbacks trying to read potential holes in pass coverage. Weddle’s presence will also allow Phillips the confidence and freedom to use Johnson in even more ways than he did last season.

Weddle is also durable, having played all 16 regular-season games in nine of his 12 years and never playing less than 13 in any of them.

Taylor Rapp

The Rams drafted Rapp in the second round out of Washington, and while they envision him as the long-range heir apparent to Weddle, he is expected to see the field as a significant rotation piece as a rookie.

Rapp fits right in with the Rams’ versatile and physically tough safeties. Much like Johnson did at Boston College, Rapp played all over the field as a three-year starter at Washington. And while his best skill attribute is diagnosing run plays as a box safety and then packing a punch as he strikes a ball carrier, he proved dependable as a pass defender and was particularly good when lined up against tight ends.

Expect Rapp to carve out an immediate role in the Rams’ three-safety sets as a physical presence and enforcer who is able to defend tight ends and provide toughness and intelligence as a run defender.

Marqui Christian

Christian broke through in 2018 as a solid rotational player for the Rams while registering a career-high 33 tackles in 348 total defensive snaps. The question now is how much will Christian’s playing time be affected by the addition of Rapp (provided the rookie picks things up in the classroom and sees the field, as the Rams expect).

Christian is a fierce competitor, having overcome injuries and his 2016 fifth-round draft status to carve out a role on a Super Bowl defense. So don’t expect him to simply step aside now that Rapp is on board.

However, the Rams didn’t invest a second-round pick on Rapp with the expectation of having him just sit around biding his time. He’s too good to keep on the sideline, and that could mean Christian has to surrender some playing time.

Still, as a fourth safety and an excellent special teams player, Christian provides good value on a deep roster. And if someone is lost to an injury, there is a comfort level he can deliver when called upon.
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  A little Vinny on the Rams Safety situation and possibilities...

Rams43252July 14, 2019 08:28AM