Before week 7 in the NFL, two teams with high early-season expectations had struggled for three straight games.
The Los Angeles Rams had lost three straight games, and Baltimore got blown out by the erratic Browns, barely beat Pittsburgh, and won against hapless Cincinnati.
During the week, the Rams sent cornerback Marcus Peters to Baltimore and brought in Jalen Ramsey from Jacksonville. Could this change in defensive backs change the fortunes of these two teams?
I’m not going to write this as a hot take, simply because each player made significant contributions on defense, helping their new teams win games.
Instead, I want to examine each team’s defensive schemes to see how each player’s skill sets might affect the entire unit.
The Rams’ problem in losing three straight games was their defense.
Don’t be fooled by the loss to San Francisco — the decision to trade for Ramsey was made the week before.
In losing to Tampa Bay and Seattle, the Rams defense made each opposing quarterback look like God.
Jameis Winston had a QBR of 84.6.
For context, in Tom Brady’s record-setting 2007 season (when the Patriots went 16–0), he had an 87.0 QBR for the season.
The next best season was Aaron Rogers in 2011 at 83.8.
The third best season of the last 12 years for an All-Pro quarterback was Patrick Mahomes in 2018 at 80.3.
No other Hal of Fame quarterback has had a QBR over 80 in that period. Not Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, or Ben Roethlisberger.
In the Rams’ next game at Seattle, Russell Wilson had a QBR of 92.1, and a rating of 151.8 (the maximum is 158.3). Something had gone very wrong.
No matter what people want to say about Jared Goff’s limitations and Todd Gurley’s injuries, the Rams scored 69 points and gained 995 yards in two games.
Without the complete collapse of the defense, the Rams would have won both games handily, and still be at the top of the NFC.
We would look at the 49ers loss as an anomaly, where two plays changed a tight defensive struggle into an embarrassment for the Rams.
How did Wade Phillips go from a Super Bowl-winning defensive genius to the guy directing 11 clowns who pop out of that tiny car at the circus?
The answer is in Phillips’ defensive scheme, a 3–4 formation that relies on good man-to-man coverage by his cornerbacks.
This formation allows a quick response to the run game and gives Phillips the flexibility to choose any one of his four linebackers to rush the quarterback. (Usually one of the outside linebackers is an edge rusher, with Dante Fowler and the now-injured Clay Matthews filling this role).
This formation requires the defensive backs to play tight coverage on short passes, so the rush can sack the quarterback or force a bad throw.
With an aging and injured Aqib Talib, and the erratic Marcus Peters playing cornerback, the Rams defense could not play at their usual level.
Peters is one of those cornerbacks who looks to make the big interception, so he’s always guessing receiver routes. As a result, he gets beat all the time on deep passes.
Recognizing their limitations, Phillips asked his defensive backs to play 10 yards upfield and not allow any deep plays.
This soft coverage allowed Winston and Wilson to make easy completions for multiple first downs, resulting in time-consuming drives.
As the defense stayed on the field and wore down (especially when forced to chase Russell Wilson all over the backfield), they eventually broke down.
The result was a Rams defense that gave up 893 yards and 85 points.
Ramsey for Peters: addition multiplied by addition by subtraction
In today’s game against Atlanta, the Rams faced Matt Ryan (#1 in passing ypg in 2019, with 15 TDs and 7 Ints) and Julio Jones (a top-5 receiver for many years).
Talib was on injured reserve, so a young cornerback and Ramsey filled these spaces on the defense.
With Ramsey playing press coverage, Ryan didn’t have as many easy short completions for first downs. Jones beat Ramsey for one 39 yard catch, but apart from he did very little in the game.
Before Ryan left the game with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, he was sacked 5 times, while the Falcons had 3 points and 149 yards.
Where are the Rams headed at this point of the season?
With games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Chicago (with Mitch Trubisky), the Rams defense should dominate these weak offenses.
Assuming McVay continues his more conservative play-calling, so Goff doesn’t give up strip-sacks and stupid interceptions, the Rams will win these games.
After that, they host Baltimore, with the run-pass threat of Lamar Jackson. He is far more dangerous than Russell Wilson, and I have doubts the Rams will win this game.
However, with two games against Arizona, and a home game against the overrated Seahawks, the Rams floor looks to be ten wins.
It looks like the Ramsey trade will save the Rams’ season.
Baltimore may have won their division today, and Marcus Peters played a big part in that win.
Today, Peters got to play the rover position he prefers and got a pick-six.
Baltimore plays a traditional 4–3 defensive formation that features two enormous defensive tackles who smother the run (#4 in rushing defense in the NFL).
Aside from their disastrous game against Cleveland, Baltimore is a top 10 scoring defense, allowing 16.6 points per game.
Their defensive coordinator loves to vary his rush with multiple blitzes, so the team plays a mixture of zone and man-to-man.
Against a running quarterback like Russell Wilson, Baltimore usually had a spy to watch for scrambles and played a zone defense on part of the field.
The few plays I saw which showed the full field, it seemed like they played zone on the side of the field where Peters lined up.
While he didn’t make all the right reads, the defense had a safety behind him which prevented any mistakes from turning into long touchdowns.
It also allowed him to make the play of the game.
In the second quarter, with Seattle up 10–6 and driving at the Baltimore 34, Peters left his deep zone responsibility near the sidelines and cut in front of the short outside route when Wilson threw.
He intercepted the pass at full stride and returned it for a 67-yard touchdown.
Baltimore takes chances with their passing defense. Over the years, they have needed more help to offset their weak offense.
With five defensive TDs in six years, Peters is exactly the kind of playmaker that Baltimore wants. (For context, Hall of Famer Ed Reed had seven defensive TDs in 12 years. )
By the way, against the Ravens, Russell Wilson had a QBR of only 65.3.
This looks like a match made in heaven.
The Ravens play in the sickly AFC North, so they have a clear path to nine wins while no other team in their division currently has more than two total wins.
Cleveland has to play at New England, at Denver and hosts Buffalo.
They could easily come out of that stretch with a record of 2–7, and then be forced to win 7 straight games.
Even though five of those remaining seven games are against weak teams, it’s doubtful that they will catch the Ravens.
Baltimore will be able to rest players at the end of the season and host a playoff game.
Based on the way each team used their new defensive back, this looks like one of those rare instances where it’s a win-win for both teams.
After watching Marcus Peters play for the last three seasons with the Rams, I hoped the team would get rid of him.
I thought he was one of those players who excels in his first couple of years and then opposing coaches figure out his tendencies and play him like a fish on a wire.
Instead, he made a vital play for his new team and has the security blanket of an All-Pro safety to back him up.
Jalen Ramsey’s immature reaction to his coach turned him into a big liability for his old team but opened up a huge opportunity for the Rams (if they can control him).
He’s looking to sign a big contract next year, so he should be on his best behavior.
Ramsey may be more open to coaching, as he would have to respect Wade Phillips’ Super Bowl resume and Aaron Donald, the best defensive player in football.
While it’s impossible to know how well these moves will work over the next four years, it’s clear that each player has brought a skill set their new teams desperately needed.
Baltimore has the most balanced team in the AFC outside of the Patriots. They have a Super Bowl-winning coach and an unstoppable offensive force in Lamar Jackson who drives defenses crazy with his scrambling and running ability.
If Peters can help patch up the holes in the Ravens’ secondary, they are my dark horse pick to win the AFC.
The Rams face tougher competition in the NFC and will need to fight to make the playoffs, trailing Seattle and Minnesota by one game for a Wild Card spot.
But they have one of the weakest remaining schedules and should make up ground in the next few weeks.
While questions remain about Goff and Gurley, an elite Rams defense would make them a tough out for any team in the conference.