EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Much is expected of the St. Louis Rams' defense in 2014.
The Rams have spent the past three offseasons bolstering the talent on that side of the ball, regularly spending premium picks to keep building. Coach Jeff Fisher is defensive minded and he has an experienced coaching staff capable of leading the group.
In the offseason, Fisher finally got the man he wants to lead it all when he brought in Gregg Williams to be defensive coordinator after a series of stops and starts.
Now, Williams' greatest task is figuring out how best to use the talent that's in place so he can take a group that has been solid, if unspectacular, and make it the foundation upon which winning is built.
At the top of the to-do list is paramount for any coach worth his salt when he works with new players: Figuring out what their skills are so they can be best utilized.
And though the Rams offer great defensive promise in 2014, that process is still a work in progress.
“Improving, but it’s not there yet," Williams said. "One of the things, in the spring, I let the assistant coaches set all the depth charts. Obviously they set them the way I like them to set. I let them. I didn’t have any discussion with them."
In the time since the players and coaches departed for summer hiatus, Williams had plenty of conversations with himself. While most of the coaching offices were empty as the rest of the staff took a much-needed vacation, Williams remained in St. Louis. Aside from a quick stop at his annual charity golf tournament, Williams stayed in the laboratory cooking up schemes and options for his charges.
"I was here every day," Williams said. "I was here Saturday, Sunday, Fourth of July, going back through and getting ahead of a lot of things. Watching films and studying people that I don’t have time to study once the season starts. But the big thing, I went back and re-watched every single practice, every single drill. I’m a lot more familiar with these guys, but until the pads came on, that was the next step. And until we play a preseason game, that’ll be the next step. It’s ever changing. It’s moving on, but I’m getting a lot more familiar with them.”
That familiarity is the key to how fast the defense will coalesce. The best coaches find ways to tailor their schemes to the players rather than attempting to shoehorn players who might not fit into a hard and fast scheme. So while many expect Williams to play nothing but press coverage with a physical approach from the corners, he may ultimately decide that's not how they're best deployed.
That isn't to say he's leaning that way, just that making broad assumptions about what the defense will look like at this point is getting ahead of ourselves a bit. The Rams are still about only halfway through camp's version of defensive installation so there's plenty of room and time for tweaking.
At this point, the one thing we do know for sure is that Williams wants to be aggressive. That means a greater emphasis on takeaways and continued attempts to get after the quarterback. And with a defensive line he calls the best he's coached, Williams has more creative freedom to concoct schemes he's never used before.
“I tell the players all the time, and I’ll tell you guys: There’s not going to be any magic dust," Williams said. "There’s not going to be any LeBron James magic dust. That’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is these players are going to play aggressively. They’re playing for somebody and with somebody that’s on the same page as them. Nobody’s going to hold them back. We’re going to go and we’re going to play aggressive.
"If you want to make sure that you always have a fail-safe excuse about making a mistake, make it aggressively. That’s been the fun part of seeing them all of the sudden be so robotic. They’re a talented group of players, but I want them to play instinctively. I want the coaches to coach instinctively. Jeff’s allowing that to happen, and I’m happy that he’s allowing that to happen because that’s the way I’ve always been.”