EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Working with their fourth coordinator in as many years, the St. Louis Rams' defense spent the 2014 offseason trying to play catch up. While there was plenty of talk about coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme being rooted in similar philosophies as Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the differences in how it was run were a bit undersold.
The result was a defense that struggled mightily out of the gate, went on a dominant run but was ultimately too inconsistent to carry the Rams to an improved record. With Williams returning, the emphasis has been on starting fast, a task that should be made easier by the fact that continuity abounds at every position.
Instead of spending an offseason getting to know one another, Williams and his coaching staff were able to zero in on what their players do well and what they don't. There was no guesswork this time since Williams actually spent an entire season coaching his players.
So Williams and Co. spent a chunk of the offseason putting together video cut-ups for each player. The individualized videos included strengths and weaknesses for each player and conversations about how to improve on the weaknesses and expand on the strengths.
Williams believes that time spent together should lessen the chances of a slow start and jumpstart a defense that to this point has looked capable of great things though it hasn't really achieved them.
“There’s also more of a buy-in when a coach talks to you individually," Williams said. "It’s one thing for a coach to talk to all the defense. It’s one thing for a coach to talk to just to his position area. But the coaches went the extra mile, each one of the assistants that work for me, and went to an individual report on an individual player because not all players are the same."
Williams used the example of defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald to illustrate his point. While they're both playing the same position, that's true in name only. Donald is an up-the-field penetrator with the primary function of causing disruption. Brockers has more of a dirty work job detail which requires him to take on multiple blocker so others, including Donald, can make the play.
Factoring that into account, Williams points out that it's not just about playing different roles but coaching those players in a way that helps them in their jobs rather than coaching all defensive tackles the same way.
"They play the same position, but their technique, the way they play is different," Williams said. "So how do we go about impacting growth and development on each individual guy? I thought our coaches did a really good job of that. But more importantly, it was fun for me to see the players buy into that."
The self-scouting process didn't stop with cut-ups from the 2014 season, either. Williams and his staff put together individualized reports on each player detailing his progress through the course of the offseason program. That updated report included notes on areas of growth and areas that still need work so players could streamline their focus when they return for training camp at the end of the month.
As part of his work, Williams has also been able to spend more time devising schemes that best utilize all of his players, including backups who might not project to play much on game day. While much is made of the players getting to know the new coach, the coach also took some time to get to know his players and how to use them. There was only so much Williams could learn from film before last season.
Now, Williams has a much better read on such matters and has been able to dig deeper into his bag of tricks. According to Williams, he has 42 packages available that involve different combinations and schemes but they don't always get used for fear of creating confusion. During the spring, the Rams worked with about 18 of them as Williams wanted to focus on simplifying things as another method of starting faster.
All told, the Rams should be far better equipped to get off to a fast start defensively than they've been in recent years.
"It’s light years on where we were last year because they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them," Williams said. "Just from a terminology, are we speaking the same language? Do we understand what we really want? It took a little bit of time for all of us to get acclimated last year. Now we’re hoping we can start off faster this year because there’s a knowledge, a base of information that we all know is the same.
"The other thing is, and I’ve said this before to you guys, ‘When will it ever be more important to them than to us?’ The good teams that I’ve ever been on and some of the greatest defenses I’ve ever been a part of, it was much more important to them than it was to me. These guys have kind of taken ownership in that, so it’s been fun."