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    How the Rams’ ‘no-name defense’ found its identity
    • October 7, 2023

    In the spartan road locker room of Lumen Field, Derion Kendrick had a bitter look on his face, half a shrug elevating his shoulders. His Rams had just beaten the Seahawks behind a surprising performance by the defense, holding the home team to a total of 12 yards in the second half.

    But the cornerback had one more target to shut down, not a receiver but a conversation that had been going on for months.

    “We’re a bunch of no names, like everybody else is saying,” Kendrick said. “We’re gonna show them what we got.”

    It was a common critique of the Rams throughout the summer: They had future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald, then 10 semi-anonymous cohorts. As the same evaluation was repeated enough, the Rams began to refer to themselves as the “no-name defense”. It wasn’t so much a rallying cry as a motivational devil on the shoulder, repeating the slight as required during the dog days of training camp.

    A slight that, if the Rams are being honest, they could understand, to an extent.

    “It’s not like a personal thing. They legitimately do not know who we are,” safety Jordan Fuller said. “But we use it as great fuel, thank you. You make coming into work and locking back into it a lot easier. So we just embrace it.”

    Through a quarter of the season, the Rams have started to make names for themselves. They’ve cut down on yards allowed per game, going from 341.1 a year ago to 295.8. They continue to allow about three touchdowns per game, all after losing the “names” of Bobby Wagner, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd and Troy Hill.

    “I thought the whole goal of the offseason was to find out how to get over the edge to win games and I think we’ve discovered something,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but we want to keep playing like we’re playing because I think it’s really been positive.”

    The drawing board

    Toward the beginning of the offseason, Morris began having conversations with head coach Sean McVay and the front office. The salary-cap realities of the Rams’ dogged pursuit of a Super Bowl were coming to fruition. Hard decisions were going to have to be made, and the nature of certain contract situations meant the defense was going to be hit. Hard.

    “That was the deal, some of which was by necessity, not because it was necessarily what we felt like was best,” McVay said. “And I think if you guys know Raheem, he is always up for a challenge.”

    Every offseason, Morris reevaluates his roster, how his scheme worked the year before and what needs adjusting in order to win games the coming year, just like any coach.

    But entering 2023, he realized he needed to evaluate how he re-installed his scheme. Gone were all the vets, and instead Morris was staring down the prospect of a defense that would start as many as nine players still on rookie contracts.

    “You slow it down, you pare it down from a teaching progression,” Morris explained. “Almost have summer school classes, so to speak, for the guys to prepare them for training camp. … It was teaching guys not just football, but teaching guys how to prepare. Teaching guys where they should go, how they study. Teaching guys where to look for the stuff to study. Teaching them what they should be studying and what’s the progression of studying.”

    You hear Morris enter a room before you see him. He chatters at a rapid pace to match his train of thought, and bounces from thought to thought when particularly enthused about a subject.

    But he knows he can’t do that when talking with this particular defense. He has to slow down, and has made sure his assistant coaches don’t take it for granted that the players understand something without it being said out loud.

    “Ra, he’s special in the way he’s able to see the game. He doesn’t coach any of us the same,” Fuller said. “If he does need to tell you to get better at something, you won’t come away from the conversation feeling attacked at all. Half the time, he might make a joke out of it. But, you got the point.”

    Morris worked as assistant head coach to Dan Quinn with the Falcons for six seasons. While in Atlanta, Morris learned from Quinn to look for what players are doing well, and praise it, repeatedly. If you focus only on making corrections, the logic goes, you’ll lose sight of what the team is good at.

    The Rams coaching staff isn’t afraid to ask, either. Throughout training camp, they asked third-round outside linebacker Byron Young where he liked lining up. If the rookie thought he could win his matchup in one situation or another.

    “They ask me questions like that, they do that on purpose to let me know that they believe in me enough to ask me,” Young said. “That’s just telling me right there that they believe in me and trust me and I can feel more confident about myself.”

    By training camp, fellow rookie defensive tackle Kobie Turner felt comfortable enough to tell the future Hall of Famer Donald where he was supposed to line up on certain calls.

    “That was a thing that I was nervous about because he’s a legend and he’s a dude that I’ve looked up to for so long,” Turner said. “The big thing was like, ‘OK, I need to go put in the work and let him be able to trust me enough to where I know the playbook and I know all of our communication and how to get us into what we need to be in.’”

    Building a foundation

    External concerns about the Rams’ defense reached a fevered pitch following an 0-3 preseason. The Rams were being gashed on the ground, particularly on outside runs, and the air game looked just as suspect.

    But there had been a different story in practices, when the Rams’ full starting 11 was playing. The defensive front was disruptive, and Young and Turner were rounding into the type of immediate contributors the scouting department had identified. The secondary was hanging tough against the likes of Davante Adams and Russell Wilson.

    And they were getting daily tests against their own healthy quarterback Matthew Stafford after he missed so much time in the 2022 preseason with a myriad of injuries.

    “There were some days in training camp where we couldn’t cover Matthew Stafford. And then there were other days where I felt really confident that we had a good day,” Morris said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, did they have a bad day? Was it a good day by us?’”

    The Rams got their first confirmation that the growth was real in Week 1, holding the high-flying Seahawks to 112 aerial yards. Linebacker Ernest Jones was active in the backfield. Donald, Turner, Young and converted outside backer Michael Hoecht disrupted the quarterback repeatedly. Free-agent signing Ahkello Witherspoon was leading a swaggering young secondary.

    The formula has carried over to the subsequent three games as the Rams have gone 2-2 with the feeling they could have a better record.

    “It’s been fun for me, man, it really has been. Having guys out there flying around, definitely the DBs, they go up there talking a lot of trash,” Donald said. “You got to kind of say, ‘Lock in, man, let’s go.’ I’m just going out there and enjoying the moment.”

    It’s only a quarter of the way through the season, and bigger tests lay ahead, starting with the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

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    But the previously anonymous group is starting to build an identity.

    “I think they heard all the noise,” Morris said. “I think it’s more about what they’re doing for themselves and for their coaches. Because their coaches really poured into them this offseason and right now they’re just giving back to Aubrey Pleasant, to Chris Beake, to Eric Henderson and all of those guys. I think now being the no-name defense is kind of fun for them. They’re kind of embracing it.”

    Eagles at Rams

    When: 1:05 p.m. Sunday

    Where: SoFi Stadium

    TV/radio: FOX/710 AM

    ​ Orange County Register