Breaking down Rams DC Chris Shula's scheme: Coverages

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When defensive coordinator Raheem Morris left to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, the Los Angeles Rams turned to an in-house replacement for their new defensive coordinator, promoting linebackers coach and pass rush coordinator Chris Shula. Shula was the first internal promotion McVay has ever made for any coordinator position. 

Shula, the grandson of legend Don Shula, has been with the Rams every year of Sean McVay's tenure. Shula was a teammate of McVay at Miami of Ohio and began with the team as an assistant linebackers coach before becoming the outside linebackers coach in 2019. He moved to become the outright linebackers coach in 2021. Briefly, he moved to coach the defensive backs in 2022 before moving back to linebackers in 2023 while also taking on pass rush coordinator duties. 

Shula's time with the Rams was spent working under Wade Phillips, Brandon Staley, and Raheem Morris, coaching several positions under some of the NFL's best coaches. He has taken bits and pieces from each to build out his philosophy and is looking to apply those lessons to success as the defense's signal-caller.

What will the Rams' defense look like under Chris Shula? What can Rams fans expect to see from their defense? How will he be different from their previous defensive coordinators, and what would a blend of Phillips, Staley, and Morris look like? 

This series will be divided into two parts. This article is the second part and focuses on the coverages Shula will deploy. Part one focused on the fronts Shula will utilize.

What coverages will the Rams' defense run?

In the previous article, I spoke at length about my belief that the Rams will lean back into the roots they established under Brandon Staley. For their fronts, that's a lot of their version of the 5-man fronts and the gap-and-a-half technique by their defensive linemen. What about their coverage?

Here are the Rams' primary coverages in 2020, 2021, and 2023. The numbers are courtesy of PFF.

Rams' coverage distribution by year
YearCover 1Cover 33 Seam QuartersCover 6
202010.30%24.90%10.10% 24.50%18.60%
202112.20%37.80%6%% 15.50%15.30%
202312.60%27.30%12.10% 18.30%16.70%

(Cover 6 is charted as quarters to the pass strength, cloud to the weakness)

I'm not expecting many of these to change. The Rams will stick with the same foundation of coverages they've run over the previous few seasons. However, there is reason to believe that the numbers will shift closer to what they were in 2020. 

Shula has emphasized the desire for his defense to amplify the strengths of his personnel. Looking at who the Rams have, particularly their free-agent acquisitions, this stance can tell us about their aims. 

Tre'Davious White may still not be fully healthy after the injury, which could impact his overall ability in man coverage. Meanwhile, Darious Williams is a primarily zone corner. This was why the Jacksonville Jaguars cut Williams. Under their new defensive coordinator, the Jaguars shifted to a man-heavy scheme. 

While man coverage hasn't been a calling card for the Rams, their usage has ticked up over the years, especially in short-yardage situations. I'd expect that number to slide back some this year closer to their 2020 usage and for the team to get more zone-heavy to adjust to their personnel.

The Rams' increase in "3 seam" is also particularly interesting, and I think bodes well for this current group. 3 seam is a pattern-matching cover 3, which this group of savvy veteran corners can pull off well and plays to their strengths. In zone match coverages, defenders take zone drops but drop in relation to the routes the offense is running. They’ll drop, look for routes in their areas, adjust their drops, and get their eyes back on the quarterback. 

Raheem Morris played to his comfort level with a primarily Cover 3-based defense, and that being the Rams' main coverage won't change at all. It probably won't quite hit that 2021 mark, but it hovering around 25-30% should be the expectation. 

The team was trending towards more quarters and Cover 6, and I expect the biggest change to fully happen there. There's no reason this team with this personnel can't pull off a higher count of quarters and Cover 6, and I'd argue it would be where they are at their best.  

Another particularly adept area Shula likely continues from his predecessors is the Rams' continued post-snap movement. According to PFF, the Rams were first in the NFL in post-snap rotation last season. Morris ran plenty of Cover 3 but kept it unpredictable by consistently shifting post-snap. 

The Rams rarely played static coverages, using no disguise on a hair over 60% of their total plays. The NFL average was roughly 74%. It's no surprise that the only team close to the Rams in these numbers was Carolina under former Rams coach Ejiro Evero, whose defense runs on much of the same principles. This rotation and disguise is a pretty handy change-up, and I do believe that these will only continue. As I stated in part 1, Shula wants to keep the Rams' defense unpredictable. 

What does this mean for the Rams' personnel?

I'm pretty intrigued by the possibilities of the Rams' secondary, provided everyone stays healthy. The selection of Kamren Kinchens opens up plenty of creative matchup possibilities with this team's personnel. 

While I doubt we will see any player occupying the "STAR" role that Jalen Ramsey popularized, it is interesting to note that the Rams have stocked their secondary with players with positional versatility and only deepened that pool in free agency. Darious Williams, Cobie Durant, Quentin Lake, Tre Tomlinson and Kam Curl all have alignment versatility.  

On any given play, the Rams' defensive back room could be in entirely different alignments. 

For example, the Rams could have Kinchens and Lake deep with Curl playing in the slot. The team could also have Kinchens and Curl playing split-field with Lake in the slot. Curl could play the dimebacker spot, with Kinchens and Lake deep and Cobie Durant playing in the slot. Kinchens could slide into the box, let Lake rotate deep post-snap, and have Curl in the slot. These possibilities create endless potential, and the Rams have often spoken about their desire to be multiple in coverage

As stated above, Shula has mentioned being a player-focused coach and emphasizing the need to play to his player's strengths. While the Rams' coverage calls don't need a lot of tweaking, I would expect him to opt into calling more zone than Raheem Morris, particularly quarters and Cover 6, while continuing or increasing their usage of disguises and post-snap rotations.

This, along with the fronts I outlined in part 1, gives the Rams' defense plenty of intrigue heading into Shula's first year as the defensive coordinator. Given the team's pipeline of turning coordinators into head coaches, these changes could help Shula's name skyrocket into coaching circles soon enough. 

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AJ Schulte previously was an analyst for Pro Football Network in 2019 before rejoining in September of 2023. Prior to his time at PFN, AJ gained experience covering the Denver Broncos with SB Nation’s Mile High Report and as part of the editorial staff with The 33rd Team.