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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Conor Orr

How Rams’ Defense Benefits From Practicing Against Team’s Offense

Early in the Rams’ second preseason game, against the Raiders, wide receiver Ben Skowronek motioned from the right side of the formation to the left. At the moment he was behind the quarterback, the ball was snapped and Skowronek faked the reception of a jet sweep toss. The ball was handed off to running back Ronnie Rivers, who started running left, then cut back to the right side from which Skowronek originally came. He gained nine yards.

In terms of the weapons in the Rams’ arsenal, this was the equivalent of a peashooter. The stuff the offense was willing to give away when the games don’t matter. It does, however, underscore a point: The Rams are really good at picking defenders to mess with on every play and making their lives miserable. Raiders linebacker Robert Spillane shuffled two paces to the left to mirror Skowronek, then another pace left when it appeared Rivers was coming his way. Then, a tidal wave of Rams blockers crashed from the right side, walled off an out-of-position Raiders defense, and left the team’s central run defender unable to stop a chunk of yardage from being gained.

Spillane, like all of the Rams’ targets, had an unsolvable dilemma. To shuffle or not to shuffle? If he hadn’t moved, chances are the Rams could have just pounded the vacant space he chose not to occupy. When he did shuffle, they pounded the vacant space he left behind.

Jones is a third-year player on a very young defense.

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

When asking around about the Rams’ new-look offense this season, the refrain has largely been just wait. If we thought Sean McVay and his cadre of coaches were schematic bullies before, the reshaped staff in 2023 could be elevated to The Plastics in Mean Girls status in terms of rudeness.

That begged a second question: When McVay is rolling, what’s it like to be the target in practice on a day-to-day basis? The one McVay messes with?

“It’s harder against the Rams than any team I’ve ever played against,” Ernest Jones, the team’s starting middle linebacker, told me one day after training camp practice in August.

This year, he says, “It looks different. We always do what makes the Rams successful. But the swagger is back. The energy of the offense is back to what we’re used to.”

Here, in a nutshell, we have the case for a Rams rebound that few are discussing. McVay and his rebuilt offensive staff of Mike LaFleur, Jake Peetz, Nick Caley, Ron Gould, Zac Robinson, Eric Yarber and Ryan Wendell, are reimagining what makes them successful. McVay sounds as though he’s rejuvenated. The defense, perpetually along for the ride and challenged to compete every day, is being exposed to plays that may change the math for a defender by displaying two or three different formations in a 10-second window before the ball is snapped. Or a play in which there is good reason to believe that one of three people could have the ball in a split second after the ball leaves a center’s hands.

Jones, a third-round pick in the 2021 draft, is one of the central characters who embody that kind of holistic growth. And, as the Rams pivot from a team built to win now with established stars at every position, to a team that is built to win over the long haul, what if this kind of daily ritual shortens the gap between their Super Bowl victory in February ’22 and their next one?

“Yeah, I mean, we lost guys but now it’s giving everyone an opportunity to shine,” Jones says. “Those guys who played behind Jalen [Ramsey, who was traded to the Dolphins], or even me playing behind Bobby [Wagner, who returned to the Seahawks], we’re getting a chance to truly show our stuff. We’re young. We’re just able to fly around.”

Chris Shula, the team’s pass-rush coordinator and inside linebackers coach, has seen Jones grow through practice attrition. He said that McVay, like a lot of upper-tier offensive coaches, will consult his defensive staff about ways in which he can exploit their own rules to make them uncomfortable. I asked Shula whether McVay still takes pleasure in seeing his defensive players pinballing around, eyes scattered, during practice.

“He definitely does,” Shula says. “He’ll say, Ohhh, that’s a tough one. Or, Ohh, got you on that one. He definitely gets a little satisfaction out of that.”

Shula says that “the stuff we get as a defense on Day 1 is not stuff you’d normally see [elsewhere] … it’s tough. You have to have your eyes in the right spot, on a primary key, but you also have to see everything and anticipate. When you get used to it, it becomes second nature to us. There’s rarely a time when our offense snaps the ball and no one is motioning. It’s weird when we see teams who don’t motion as much. But it gets us ready for teams like the 49ers who do it all the time.”

Jones is no longer bogged down with the process of understanding his own role. Shula saw this spring what is an uncommon emotion attached to McVay’s most commonly tortured defenders: “calmness.”

It helps that Jones has a unique appetite for pushing the limits of his own comfort. He remembered just before Valentine’s Day staying up until 2 a.m. watching golf. He had never golfed before in his life and decided to purchase clubs and hit a course shortly afterward. By the time offseason training activities rolled around, he was cohosting a golf tournament with tight end Tyler Higbee. Deadlocked at 10 under par, his team won a scramble-style tournament when the team’s vice president of sports medicine and performance, Reggie Scott, drilled a 30-foot putt on the final hole. (“Shout-out to Reggie,” Jones says, “but not too much of a shout-out. After we came into the locker room after the tournament, he kind of acted like he won the whole thing by himself. So, not too much of a shout-out. We did all the work up until that point.”)

Hearing Jones describe his first few outings was not unlike hearing him describe what it was like to face McVay during his first few seasons. It’s frustrating, but ultimately a labor of love. There is nothing quite like the moment when it aligns mentally (Jones, by the way, is hiring a golf swing coach and has broken 90 on numerous occasions).

Jones is now the one passing down that sense of Zen amid the chaos that is the Rams’ offense (and probably, soon, on the golf course). A few weeks into camp, linebacker Byron Young, a third-round rookie, sidled up to Jones after a difficult practice.

“[Byron] said, ‘Man, when does it all slow down?’” Jones says. “I said, ‘Brah, to be honest with you, it probably won’t slow down at all. Take it for what it is and keep working. Come out and, whatever mistake you made the day before, correct that one and make a new mistake. I mean, it’s tough. It’s still tough for me. I just got comfortable myself.’”

Jones is happy that, soon, it will be everyone else's problem.

“I feel some type of way for the teams who don’t play us every year,” he says. “A week of practicing for us isn’t going to do it justice. I definitely feel bad for the guys who don’t get to see it every day.” 

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