Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s offense minus Sammy Watkins has been able to put together two very good games. Those games were against two defenses that were very diverse and far from pushovers. However, the week 5 matchup against the Rams will easily be their toughest test. The Rams defense is 9th in points allowed, at just 19 points per game. They do give up a fair amount of yardage, averaging 379.5 yards per game, but their front seven is one of the fastest, most dynamic fronts in the league.
The most decorated and talented defensive player on that front is defensive tackle Aaron Donald. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Donald is the #1 rated interior defensive player, having earned a 95.3 rating on a 100-point scale. He may be the most well-rounded defensive player in the NFL; he is stout against the run, having registered 11 tackles and 10 stops, good for 4th among all DTs in the NFL. Further, Donald has the third-highest run stop percentage of all defensive tackles in the NFL (14.5%).
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He is the type of player that can thrive in any front. The Rams are primarily a four-man front, but defensive coordinator Greg Williams mixes in some odd fronts, as well. These usually come out on 2nd or 3rd down, and/or when they want to blitz DBs. The Rams’ defensive line is extremely versatile. In fact, they don’t miss a step against the run when Donald lines up as a 3-4 defense end, rather than his usual 4-3 DT spot.
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Though they are strong against the run, where Aaron Donald and that defensive front truly make their money is rushing the passer. They have only compiled seven sacks through four games, but Donald is tied for the team lead with two. Here is one that came against the Arizona Cardinals.
Donald is aligned just inside the tackle in a 4i alignment. The Rams blitz and it gets Donald one on one with the guard. On the snap, the lineman slides inside to protect the inside gap, but Donald rushes wide while simultaneously using his left hand to gain the edge. The tackle gets his left hand inside of Donald, but the DT brings his right arm under and disengages from the lineman’s control. Once disengaged, he pulls with his left hand then rips through with his right arm. He has consistently displayed pass rush moves and counters to everything that offensive linemen have brought to the table.
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Where I think the Bills could have trouble with Donald is when Greg Williams calls stunts. For example, take this TEX stunt. The Bills have had trouble with stunting defensive linemen all year. The offensive linemen have had trouble passing the under player of the stunt to the adjacent blocker, then picking up the looper. These sorts of stunts could create havoc, considering the players that the Rams boast on their defensive front.
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Donald, a former Pittsburgh Panther, draws so much attention, but yet he is still so effective that three-man rushes still generate pressure on opposing QBs. This allows the Rams’ staff to draw up creative ways to keep mobile QBs in the pocket and contained. In this case, if Wilson steps up to avoid Donald, then Eugene Sims has the easy sack.
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Aaron Donald’s abilities do open up opportunities for others . Defensive end Robert Quinn is one of those benefactors. He is dealing with a shoulder injury and his status for Sunday is unknown. But if he plays, there is no doubt he is a game changer.
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The Rams defense is very similar to that of the Arizona Cardinals. They use their safeties and defensive backs at or near the line of scrimmage. Much like Tony Jefferson of the Cardinals, safeties T.J. McDonald and Maurice Alexander are asked to blitz a considerable amount. In fact, they rank #1 and #2 in the NFL is pass rush percentage, respectively, with McDonald at 15.3% and Alexander at 13.5% of passing plays. McDonald has played in 189 pass snaps and blitzed 29 times, compiling 1 QB sack and 2 QB hurries. T.J. is the son of current Bills defensive backs coach Tim McDonald, and he is a force.
Maurice Alexander has registered 1 sack and 3 QB hurries on 192 passing snaps, and he has blitzed on 29 of those pass snaps.
Both of these safeties are big guys that can run, pass rush and cover.
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Combined, they have been targeted 18 times, allowing only 9 receptions for 94 yards. McDonald has one interception, to boot. With this in mind, it is clear that the LA Rams’ safeties are no slouches in coverage.
Greg Williams likes using his safeties to bring pressure, but he also uses another defensive back to blitz.Lamarcus Joyner is a scrappy nickel cornerback that Williams loves. He is only 5’8″, 184 pounds, but the guy has a knack for the ball. Joyner has rushed the QB the second most often of any corner (8 times), which ties him with Arizona’s Tyvon Branch. Of those rushes, he’s tallied 2 total pressures, which slots him as the 5th most productive pass rusher (18.8%) from the corner position. This is nothing new in a Greg Williams defense check out his 2015 tendencies and rankings.
Joyner leads all corners in run stop percentage (9.1%), far outstripping the second best (New England’s Logan Ryan; 6.3%). Additionally, Joyner has 7 tackles and 6 stops against the run so far in 2016, which leads all corners in the NFL.
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However, teams love to use his aggressive/run first nature against him, and that is something that offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn did well against Arizona in week 3. When LA’s Joyner was in man-coverage against San Francisco in week 1, he struggled against play-action.
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Lamarcus Joyner has been targeted 30 times, good for the second-most on the Rams defense. Of those 30 targets, he has allowed 21 receptions for 176 yards. The two WRs that Joyner had the most trouble with were smaller, shiftier receivers. In week one, the Florida State alum was targeted 9 times, allowing 7 receptions for 57 yards. Seven of those targets, including five receptions and 45 yards were to Jeremy Kerley. In week 4, Joyner was targeted 12 times, allowing 9 receptions for 76 yards. Eight targets, six receptions and 57 of those yards were given up to Tampa Bay’s WR Adam Humphries.
I think the Bills could see a good amount of production from the slot WR position, especially on play-action. The only team that has tallied a win against the Rams was the 49ers. In that game, San Francisco ran play-action on 35% of their pass plays (2nd highest in week 1). That was the most of any of LA’s opponents, and the 49ers went on to win the game by a score of 28-0. The play-action game causes the pass rush to hesitate, allows lineman to get into position to block and causes the Rams’ fast flow, aggressive defenders to second-guess themselves. On this play, the run fake holds Joyner and leaves a man wide open for an easy 6 yards.
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What the Niners also did was get the ball out of Gabbert’s hands quickly. Gabbert averaged 2.03 seconds from snap to attempt, which was the second-fastest in the league for week 1. This will undoubtedly be the plan of attack for Anthony Lynn and Tyrod Taylor. One way to accomplish this plan is by running WR screens. Since assuming play-calling duties, Lynn has run a few more of those than Greg Roman did. Hopefully the Bills give a few of them a shot, because the Buccaneers saw success with them.
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Much like week 4 against the Cardinals, Anthony Lynn will have to be creative in his play design and timing of calls. The Rams defense has some spectacular athletes at every level of the defense. Because of this athleticism, they are one of the few defenses that can afford to use several safeties and defensive backs as part of their base defense. The Bills will have to use the aggressive nature of those defenders and of Gregg Williams in their favor. The defense may be fast, but they can be reckless at times, too. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree is a very good player, but his 6 missed tackles are the 6th-most in the NFL for his position. Outside linebacker Mark Barron’s 5 missed tackles are the 2nd-most for his position. Cornerbacks Troy Hill (4 missed tackles) and Lamarcus Joyner (3 missed tackles) have the 2nd and 4th-most for their position, respectively. So, it will be up to Anthony Lynn to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers quickly, and for the players to do what they get paid to do: make plays.