It’s no secret that the Dallas Cowboys offense hasn’t been playing great so far this season, but the hope is they grew a little bit during the bye week. If the offense comes out and sees a big improvement this week, it’ll do a lot of work towards restoring people’s faith in this team. Standing in the way, though, is Aaron Donald and the Rams.
Donald has long been recognized as one of the most dominant players in the entire sport, and for much of that time the defense around him was also among the best in the league. However, that’s not been the case this year.
Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is in his third season running the defense for the Rams, but this season has presented his biggest challenge yet. The former head coach of the Buccaneers inherited a talented defense in 2021 that he kept in the upper echelon of the league. Injuries last year, including to Donald, led to a middle-of-the-pack finish. This year, though, has seen a complete and total rebuild on Morris’ side of the ball.
Just two starters from last season returned to Los Angeles: Donald, and linebacker Ernest Jones. Donald missed the final six games of the year in 2022, while last year was Jones’ first year as a full-time starter. That’s not necessarily a lot of experience for Morris to rely on, as he’s had to usher in a ton of new players to this year’s defense.
Schematically, Morris has stuck to the philosophical bones of the defense he inherited from his predecessor, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. That means a lot of two-deep safety looks and light boxes upfront. While Staley came from the Vic Fangio system, though, Morris hails from a similar background: the Tampa 2.
Morris broke into the NFL coaching ranks as a quality control coach under Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli back in the days when the Buccaneers were setting the league on fire with the Tampa 2 defense. Morris gradually rose through the ranks, becoming the head coach in Tampa Bay but only lasting three seasons.
After a brief stint in Washington, Morris went to Atlanta as part of Dan Quinn’s inaugural staff with the Falcons. Quinn had actually coached Morris back in the day at Hofstra University. Morris initially joined as the assistant head coach and defensive backs coach, but later switched to coaching receivers. He was later moved to defensive coordinator in 2020 and, soon after, the interim head coach once Quinn was fired.
Morris has remained an ardent supporter of the Tampa 2 scheme, and he introduced more two-deep safety looks into the Falcons defense in his lone season running the defense there. That’s allowed him to keep the bones of this Rams defense the same, although he mixes up the specific coverages a bit more. Staley relied heavily on quarters coverage, and Morris mixed in more Cover 2 looks while rotating to Cover 1 and Cover 3 after the snap.
In watching Morris’ Rams defenses the last few years, it’s also apparent that he still has a close relationship with Quinn, as Morris has introduced some exotic fronts that look eerily similar to what Quinn has used in Dallas. He deploys a lot of funky looks that have players lined up in unusual spots for them, simulating pressures before dropping players back to their usual spots at the snap. The Rams are using stunts along the defensive line at the sixth-highest rate this year (Dallas leads the league) and blitzing at the eighth-lowest rate.
Just as Quinn has done with Micah Parsons, Morris bases most of his calls off of Donald, who continues to play at a high level. His 35 pressures lead all interior defensive linemen and are tied for fourth among all defenders. Third-round rookie EDGE Byron Young has also flashed, with 28 pressures and four sacks on the year. But aside from those two, it’s been difficult for Morris to get a consistent pass rush: the Rams rank 23rd in pressure rate and 29th in sacks.
That’s made things difficult for this secondary. Cornerbacks Derion Kendrick and Cobie Durant, both in their second seasons in the league, have consistently been beaten through the air. Veteran corner Ahkello Witherspoon has been reliable, yielding a 45.7% completion rate and owning two of the team’s three interceptions on the year. He’s been targeted at least six times in each of the last three weeks and responded well; perhaps the Cowboys will opt to throw at the other two more in this one.
All in all, this defense is seriously lacking in talent and experience. That the Rams are 20th in defensive DVOA and EPA/play allowed is a testament to the good work Morris is doing, but it also means this defense just isn’t that good. Their coverage scheme is very similar to what the Chargers run, which should bode well considering Dak Prescott broke 300 total yards against that defense. Upfront, the Rams look a lot like Dallas, which also should make it easy for the Cowboys offense to prepare for these looks in practice.
As with the Chargers before the bye, the Rams defense presents an opportunity for this Texas Coast offense to get into a rhythm. That worked, for the most part, in the passing game but the run game remained problematic. With this matchup coming in AT&T Stadium, though, the expectation should be much higher for this offense. They may need it, too, with Sean McVay calling plays on the other side of things.