Countdown to Camp is a series breaking down the Rams roster by position group heading into training camp. The fourth installment examines the defensive line.
When observing the successful 2021 season authored by the Rams, it's easy to see the role their defensive line had in it.
Led by defensive lineman Aaron Donald's 12.5 sacks – including a monster December in which he tallied six of them – the group helped L.A.'s defense notch 50 for the third-straight season. The only other team to accomplish the same during that span was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They took that performance to another level in the playoffs with 12 total sacks, including a Super Bowl record-tying seven in the Rams' victory over the Bengals at SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13.
Each of those seasons have been helmed by defensive line coach (and, beginning in 2021, run game coordinator) Eric Henderson, who enters the upcoming season as the reigning John Teerlinck Defensive Line Coach of the Year, as voted by his peers at this year's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
With Donald returning after signing a new contract in early June, the defensive line will once again be a strength for Los Angeles in 2022. The challenge, though, will be adapting once again. If 2021 is anything like 2020, teams are going to examine the performance of the Rams' defensive line over the last two years very closely.
"You're always looking to get better, but more importantly, our guys are going to understand things I'm going to be harping on going into this offseason, (which) is that you're going to be a target," Henderson told theRams.com in early March. "When you have the success that you've had, whether it be winning a Super Bowl, whether it be having the success in the run game, whether it be being able to affect opposing teams' quarterbacks and get after quarterbacks in terms of being ranked amongst the league (leaders) in sacks and rush defense, guys are going to study you, and they're going to study you for the last two years, because when you think about the 2020 season, number one overall defense, and being ranked again in the top-five in rush defense and sacks, team want to see what you're doing.
"We're always going to have a target on us in terms of what we're doing up front, and so that's the challenge that I accept every year as a coach, because you want to find ways to sporadically get better, and you want to find ways to continually improve the technique and the technique of the younger guys that haven't yet touched the field or haven't played as much. Just continue to develop the depth of our young guys and improve on our technique and our ability to be dominant in the run game, as well as affect the quarterbacks."
The Rams saw starter Sebastian Joseph-Day, a key run-stopper who also was emerging as an important piece to the pass rush, depart in free agency. That means a big 2022 season is likely ahead for Greg Gaines, who excelled in place of Joseph-Day last season while Joseph-Day recovered from a pec injury.
A'Shawn Robinson, whose playoff performance was also vital to Los Angeles' success, is also back and will be another key component in those phases as well.
Beyond those three, it will be a fascinating summer and fall to see who emerges behind them.