Raheem Morris is getting most from no-name Rams D – and boosting case for NFL head-coach job

Quick, name three players from the Los Angeles Rams defense besides Aaron Donald.

OK, name two.

Raheem Morris knows. Coordinating a defense that features the ultimate centerpiece in Donald, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year with a knack for blowing up schemes with a single bull rush, is quite the bonus.

Yet what Morris has managed to achieve with a progressive unit that contains so many no-name and relatively cheap supporting cast members is among the key reasons the Rams (5-6) have played their way into the NFC playoff chase.

As Los Angeles prepares to host the Cleveland Browns and emergency quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, its defense ranks 16th in the NFL for yards allowed and points allowed. Middle-of-the-pack stuff. And better.

It’s more impressive, though, when considering the Rams defense – which handled Kyler Murray and Geno Smith the past two weekends – ranks dead-last, 32nd in the league, for salary cap dollars spent on the defense. According to Spotrac, this amounts to $48.4 million – which includes Donald’s team-high $26 million cap figure.

In other words, Morris and Co. have been so resourceful in getting bang for the buck from their young defense. After Donald’s big number, the next-highest cap figure for a Rams defender, safety Jordan Fuller, is $2.8 million.

Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz.
Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz.

Morris gets a lot of credit for making shrewd in-game adjustments, especially lately. Yet he was quick this week to talk up the behind-the-scenes work from his players. Here’s one way it has apparently shown up: The Rams have led the league in pass breakups the past two weeks after ranking last through 11 weeks.

He put names on the faces of players (Derion Kendrick, Ahkello Witherspoon, Quentin Lake, Russ Yeast, Cobie Durant) while making the point about work ethic. Yet there is little doubt that Morris’ fingerprints have pushed the right buttons.

Ask Rams coach Sean McVay. The two first worked together in 2012 while on Mike Shanahan’s staff with Washington, when McVay coached tight ends and Morris landed as defensive backs coach following a three-year stint as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach.

“We always talk about trying to help guys reach and realize their highest potential,” McVay said this week. “I think we’re seeing a lot of growth and development from a lot of people that he has an influence on and it certainly isn’t exclusive to just the defense. Raheem influences this whole building.”

That’s a strong endorsement for Morris’ viability as a candidate in the upcoming hiring cycle. Another one has come from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who coached with Morris as assistants with the Bucs in the early 2000s. Tomlin has said that Morris – who has interviewed for multiple head coaching jobs in recent years – is the best coach in the league without a head-coaching job.

Experience should help his cause. Morris, 47, was 32 when he landed the Bucs job. Since then, he bolstered credentials as such: He worked as an assistant on offense with the Atlanta Falcons, plus had a stint as interim head coach. After reuniting with McVay in 2021, he coordinated a Super Bowl-winning unit.

They broke up the big-name defense that the Rams won the Super Bowl with, as star players such as Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Floyd were too expensive to keep in addition to Donald. Yet Morris has shown that he can still build a reputable unit, even on the cheap.

Now that’s resourceful.

Celebrations on edge

You can’t call it the “No Fun League” anymore. At least when it comes to touchdown celebrations.

NFL players are surely feeling their creative juices – maybe to epic proportions – in name of entertainment. Or pushing the envelope.

Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson celebrated an interception against the Vikings on Monday night by mimicking the faux-mooning episode that Randy Moss executed years ago as payback to fans at Lambeau Field. In Johnson’s case, the celebration didn’t make ESPN’s broadcast, but the word and images are out nonetheless.

Then there was the discipline the NFL levied this week on the cameraman who earlier this season provided the cellphone that Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill used to film his backflip while celebrating a touchdown. In the age of the “Pylon Cam,” it was bound to happen.

The NFL revoked the credentials for Kevin Fitzgibbons, a 20-year-old University of Miami student who has worked with Hill and shot Dolphins games since 2022.

Hill told reporters this week that he tried to get the NFL to reverse his decision and that he’ll cover whatever salary Fitzgibbons will lose out on this season.

But still: Did it have to come to that?

There’s a double standard in play. Dallas Cowboys players hopped in a Salvation Army kettle and emerged eating turkey drumsticks while celebrating touchdowns in the romp against Washington on Thanksgiving.

I mean, they had props! Even with the relaxed rules allowing celebrations, the NFL still bans using props – like the goal posts favored for dunking by Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez – during celebrations. But the Cowboys props were given a pass.

And so much for the message of good sportsmanship as they rubbed it in, using the Commanders as foil. Never mind those rules about taunting. Dak Prescott, the marquee quarterback, apparently was involved in the plot to plant the food in kettle.

Yet the Cowboys weren’t fined by the NFL for such a stunt. And in fact, they received approval from the NFL before the game, with the condition that they would be flagged for “excessive celebration” if it went beyond the 40 seconds allotted on the play-clock for the extra point.

How’s that? The tradition of the Cowboys playing on the holiday trumped NFL policy.

After the NFL fined then-Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott for jumping in the kettle a few years ago, the brushback from fans was apparently so intense that it apparently prompted the league to compromise.

Given the popularity of the Cowboys, the money raised by charity and the broadcast – the Dallas-Washington matchup drew 41.8 million viewers, second-highest ever for a regular-season game – the NFL gave the Cowboys a celebration exemption. But only for Turkey Day.

On Thursday night, when Dallas hosted the Seattle Seahawks for a national broadcast streamed on Amazon Prime, the red kettles were still in the end zone. But the Cowboys didn’t use them as props for the celebration.

Somewhere, former New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn is probably shaking his head. In 2003, Horn was fined $30,000 for using a cellphone as a prop during a TD celebration.

And we can only imagine how Hingle McCringleberry might cross the line.

Quick slants

Add quick healing to the list of reasons why Browns defensive end Myles Garrett is so special. Garrett suffered a left shoulder injury – he heard a “pop” – during last Sunday’s loss at Denver and was unable to lift his arm over his head. That was then. On Friday, Garrett returned to practice and wasn’t even listed on the injury report. He’s set to play against the Rams on Sunday. Talk about a remarkable turn of events. Garrett said that his physical therapist would point to “that Wolverine blood.” … The Falcons rushed for a season-high 228 yards against New Orleans in Week 12, but it wasn’t merely a case of Bijan Robinson plowing through the so-called “rookie wall.” Sure, the first-round running back has logged his highest two-game carry load of the season (38) as Atlanta squares off at the New York Jets on Sunday. Yet what was sneaky effective about Arthur Smith’s offense last weekend was the split of carries between Robinson (16 for 91 yards), Tyler Allgeier (10 for 64) and Cordarrelle Patterson (8 for 43). The eight rushes by Patterson marked his second-most in a game this season. If such a ratio continues for Patterson and Allgeier, it would do much to preserve the freshness of the prized rookie’s legs down the stretch…The Titans, hosting the Colts on Sunday, are 4-1 and home and 0-6 on the road. All tallied, it’s the worst 11-game record (4-7) during Mike Vrabel’s six seasons as Tennessee’s coach. But hey, the conditions are ripe for a big game from Derrick Henry. In six road outings this season, the star runner has rushed for 43.8 yards per game. In five home games? Henry is averaging 95.2 yards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Raheem Morris' NFL coach candidacy boosted by Rams' surprising results