St. Louis Rams: New Orleans Saints



ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams and Gregg Williams have agreed to a deal to make Williams the team's defensive coordinator.

It's a move two years in the making after Williams originally accepted the same role in 2012 but never did the job after serving a suspension for his role in the bounty scandal with the New Orleans Saints.

Williams served as a defensive consultant for the Tennessee Titans in 2013 but technically hasn't been a defensive coordinator for a game since his time in New Orleans.

There will be no sweeping changes in terms of the general defensive philosophy but Williams will certainly add his own flavor. To get a handle on how we got here and what Williams brings to the table, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett discussed the move.

Wagoner: Mike, it's been a long, strange trip to get to this point where Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams can finally reunite. You were there during the ups and downs of Williams' time in New Orleans. First, what are some of the things he can bring to the table from solely a coaching perspective?

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsGregg Williams, a senior defensive assistant with the Titans this past season, will preach an aggressive style of play as Rams defensive coordinator.
Triplett: Williams made a huge impact on the Saints -- especially in his first year in 2009. For one thing, he was a creative and versatile coordinator who was great at tailoring his defense around players' individual strengths. One example that stands out most was the way he made safety Roman Harper into a two-time Pro Bowler by using him as a frequent blitzer and pseudo-linebacker. Williams would also mix and match between a 4-3 and 3-4. His most famous example was the Super Bowl win over Indianapolis and Peyton Manning when he had different plans for the first half, the third quarter and the fourth quarter.

What stood out even more was the way Williams lit a fire under his players as a passionate leader and motivator. And he noticeably instilled confidence in them. He brought a lot of the same qualities in his first season that we talked about this past year with Rob Ryan. Obviously you can't ignore the bounty scandal, though, when describing those traits because Williams took it to such extremes.

Do you think it was hard for Fisher to make this move with the bounty scandal still so fresh in Williams' past?

Wagoner: In all honesty, I was under the impression that this ship had sailed. Fisher was hesitant to even talk about Williams during the week leading up to the Titans game this season and he fired Williams' son, Blake. But apparently their friendship survived all of those things or they were at least able to reconcile enough to give it another go. When Williams first got suspended, Fisher seemed to be a bit taken aback by it. I wondered if Williams didn't provide all of the information. It put the Rams in something of a difficult spot that first season. The timing of all this seems a bit strange because Williams shook loose from Tennessee a while ago. I wonder how much time has been spent working out the details. At the end of the day, this was clearly what Fisher wanted all along so perhaps now the Rams can finally have some stability at defensive coordinator.

You mentioned the bounty scandal. One thing that raises a red flag with this hire is the lack of discipline the Rams had in 2013. They drew a lot of silly penalties. That's always been a part of Fisher teams and it doesn't seem Williams' style will do much to harness that. What were your impressions of his ability to walk the line between instilling discipline in his players while not taking away their edge?

Triplett: I don't ever remember penalties being a big problem with the Saints. In fact, many people pointed out during the bounty debate that the Saints had one of the league's least-penalized defenses during Williams' tenure. But I still think that's probably a fair concern since I wouldn't exactly characterize Williams as "disciplined." He wants to create big plays, and he blitzed a ton while he was in New Orleans. And sometimes that gambling nature led to breakdowns and big plays for the offense. It worked wonders in 2009, when the Saints led the NFL in combined turnovers in the regular season and postseason. But they had playoff blowups at Seattle and San Francisco the next two years.

The same goes for big hits, obviously. Williams saw the value in what he always called "remember me" shots, and sometimes that led to unnecessary roughness penalties. But it was never a case of the Saints playing "dirty" on defense or taking cheap shots to hurt guys. The philosophy was to be aggressive as possible within the rules (though the reward program was where they went too far).

You'll see that philosophy on display right away during summer practices. The defensive guys will annoy the offense by constantly swatting at the ball and trying to pry it loose and diving on every ball that hits the turf. And you'll hear Williams shouting often. The energy level will be unmistakable.

Wagoner: It should be a good thing for the Rams to have some stability at the position, finally. One more thing while I've still got you. One area that drove Rams fans nuts this year was a commitment to a lot of "off" coverage with corners playing soft zones. It would seem Williams doesn't abide by that approach. Can you shed some light on his approach to coverage schemes and how it might alter the type of players for the secondary the Rams will be looking for this offseason?

Triplett: You're right. His corners played a ton of man-to-man coverage in New Orleans -- often times pressing -- while doing a lot of blitzing. But I'm not sure that's always his approach. It's just how he decided to do things in New Orleans since he trusted the defensive backs' ability to cover more than the front four's ability to generate pressure without blitzing.

When he was here, he had corners like Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter and safeties like Darren Sharper and Malcolm Jenkins, who all played very well during those years. Greer and Porter weren't very big or physical, so he doesn't necessarily require a big, physical corner. But he'd obviously like to find guys he can trust in man coverage.

Wagoner: There's no doubting the move makes sense for the Rams. Given the caliber of defenses the Rams face in the NFC West division, Williams' hire should help nudge them toward the elite status necessary to close the gap on Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona.

Live blog: Saints at Rams

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New Orleans Saints' visit to the St. Louis Rams. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
AM ET
Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

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