Breaking down Rams DC Chris Shula's scheme: Defensive front

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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 different will he be 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. The first article will examine what to expect from the Rams' defensive fronts, while Part 2 will focus on the coverages. 

What will Chris Shula's defense look like?

We already know from previous interviews that a lot of the defense from last season won't change dramatically. Much like how Raheem Morris carried plenty of Staley's scheme from 2020 into the team's Super Bowl-winning 2021 season, Shula won't be fundamentally altering the defense in a way that will make it feel like a complete paradigm shift. 

In previous interviews, Shula stated that the team will remain an odd front team with similar structures to 2023. Any changes from that would be to fit the players on the roster.

There's plenty of football jargon to go with the fronts and how to identify them. The simplest way to describe an odd front is one where the center is covered by a down defensive lineman, whereas an even front does not. Some have pointed to even fronts with an even number of down linemen and odd fronts with an odd number, hence the labels. 

The Rams run a variation of an odd front that stems from the tite front. Their "base" defensive structure is a 3-3-5, and typically, you will see the three down defensive linemen with two outside linebackers/"EDGE"s outside. This becomes their 5-1 front that they base out of. Brandon Staley introduced this to the Rams in 2020 and every season since, over 30% of their defensive plays have come out of this formation. 

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However, as Raheem Morris's control over the defense grew year after year, the Rams leaned more on a traditional 3-4 structure. In 2020 and 2021, the Rams were 18th and 15th in 3-4-4 alignments. In 2022 and 2023, that number grew to 8th and 7th, respectively. 

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With Shula at the helm, I expect the Rams to lean back more into their "tite" front looks than they did under Morris. The Rams hired Giff Smith to be their new defensive line coach, who was with Staley with the Chargers running these fronts. Their new linebackers coach, Greg Williams, coached on the same fronts in Green Bay under former Rams' LB coach Joe Barry as well. 

Don't forget that Shula first suggested Staley to McVay, much like Staley suggested Shula to Tom Arth at John Carroll years prior. I'd expect their front to look much more like what they ran under Staley. 

How the Rams' defensive front works

I've touched on their front in previous articles, but let's look at how it works. 

Let's look back at this picture of the 5-1 front. 

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The three defensive linemen here are two defensive ends (#99 Aaron Donald and #92 Jonah Williams) between the tackle and guards, with the nose tackle (#91 Kobie Turner) lined up over the center. The two ends are playing a 4i technique, though they can bounce between 4 and 4i's based on personnel. The nose is directly over the center, playing a 0, but he also plays a 1 technique, where he is shaded over one of the center's shoulders. 

There are two broad responsibilities for defensive linemen: one-gapping and two-gapping. One-gapping is often referred to as an attacking scheme. As the name suggests, the defensive lineman is responsible for a single gap. The main goal is to disrupt the offensive play by filling every gap simultaneously. 

Two-gapping is more reactionary and is based more on the “flow” of a play. Defensive linemen engage blockers while reading the play. These two-gapping linemen then react to their gap responsibilities based on where the play is going (i.e., stretch right, play the gap on your right, left the opposite). 

Under Staley, the Rams had defensive linemen use a "gap-and-a-half" technique, combining one- and two-gap techniques. These two 4i-techs have to control the B-gaps while squeezing the A-gaps to help the nose tackle, who has either A-gap. Thus, the so-called gap-and-a-half is a hybrid scheme, as they attack their gap and assist with a gap next to him. 

This allows linemen to penetrate their assigned gap, read the play, and step into their secondary gap. Linemen, in effect, overlap their assignments so fewer players can cover the same number of gaps. This can create a sort of pile in the middle that can cause runners to bounce their runs outside, where the wide-9s and linebacker can help fill and end the play.

The two outside linebackers align in "wide-9" alignments. The Staley system uses a 5-1 alignment and the wide-9 to build natural walls on the edge of the box to help shore up the run. This is a big reason they coveted Jared Verse in the first round of the 2024 draft. Verse's length and power make him a natural fit to hold up on the outside in these alignments.  

Playing gap-and-a-half allows for a "light box" (six rather than seven players). If the offense chooses to pass instead of run, they have an extra defender in coverage while not sacrificing gap integrity against the run. 

Typically, this front requires stronger linemen who can hold up at the point of attack. In their 2021 Super Bowl season, the Rams had Aaron Donald, of course, but also featured Greg Gaines, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and A'Shawn Robinson controlling rushing lanes. Their work freed up both Von Miller and Aaron Donald to move around the formation. 

This year, the Rams do not boast that same kind of size. Kobie Turner will take one of the 4i spots (though he did not play in the Rams' base formations all that often last year). Bobby Brown III and Tyler Davis will rotate at the nose tackle spot throughout the year, but the other 4i spot is open, as it's not a role I would envision Braden Fiske being able to thrive in. Perhaps Michael Hoecht could move back to the defensive line to take that role, or last year's Mr. Irrelevant Desjuan Johnson could take a step forward and occupy it. 

The Rams do bounce around their fronts. Over the years, they have mastered the ability to bounce and shift this 5-1 front to various looks with even, odd, and under front spacings depending on personnel and any pre-snap adjustments. However, this has been their base front for the last several years, and I'm not expecting that to change; I only expect it to increase. 

When the Rams go into sub-packages, they bounce into an even, one-gap look with four defenders. This is pretty straightforward, using two edge rushers out wide, a three-technique, and a one-technique. 

Rams even front

The Rams aren't afraid to try different looks and fronts to keep opponents guessing, which I expect will continue under Shula. However, it might not be to the same degree that Staley and Morris did, due to missing the key cog to all of this: Aaron Donald.

Without Donald, how can the Rams keep this unpredictability and deploy various fronts? 

How will Shula spin it?

This information only tells us about Staley's fronts and that the Rams will likely lean back into those. How will Shula put his own spin on these fronts? In prior press conferences, Shula mentioned that he wanted to be unpredictable and keep defenses guessing.

How can he do so while leaning back into the Staley route? That's where Wade Phillips comes in. When Phillips ran the Rams defense, they weren't afraid to send the rush and blitz, something Staley and Morris dialed way back. 

The Rams have had to get creative in generating a pass rush over the years. It came naturally when they had Donald and Von Miller during their Super Bowl run, but they have had to generate it consistently in the years since. While adding Jared Verse will help, they might lean into more blitzes and different simulated pressures.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams finished 16th in blitz percentage last year and 17th in Staley's 2020. Interestingly enough, the Rams finished 7th in the Super Bowl-winning 2021 season, even with the addition of Von Miller halfway through the season. Last season, the Rams finished first in rushes with 4 or fewer rushers, an odd choice with the personnel they had. However, they have finished at or near the top in line stunts, finishing 6th in the NFL last season. This is how they have created much of their pressure and something I'd expect Shula to keep in his arsenal. 

If Shula wants to keep the defense unpredictable, turning up the heat might be the way to do it. They can take advantage of Verse and Turner having the ability to play multiple roles and deploy them in unique fashions.

One way to accomplish this is by using fire zone blitzes to generate rushers unpredictably. This is generally accomplished by dropping defenders out in coverage and replacing them with other rushers. Generally, fire zones often send five rushers but the Rams and other teams use a "bonus" fire zone that only sends four. I won't dive too deep into breaking these down, but it's fairly popular among Fangio-branch defenses (Staley) and is something the Rams hammer repeatedly to generate pressure. 

You can see here Hoecht fakes the rush and then drops into the flat, being replaced on the other side by Ernest Jones. Both Turner and Jones win their blocks and get just enough pressure on Derek Carr to force a bad throw that gets picked off (the Rams would then score off of that interception just a few plays later).

To summarize, expect the Rams to lean back more into their Staley roots with expanded use of their tite/penny fronts with gap-and-a-half technique in their base formation. While much of their technique's front will be based on Staley's roots, I expect Shula to lean into Wade Phillips's more aggressive looks while keeping much of the pass-rush creativity he picked up under Raheem Morris. 

The next part of this series will focus on the different coverages and secondary looks the Rams will pursue under Shula. 


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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.