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The Rams Defense Makes Los Angeles Truly Scary

While the offense often gets the attention, don’t sleep on Wade Phillips’s unit

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you jumped off the Rams bandwagon after their ugly 24-7 loss to the Vikings last week, now might be a good time to hop back onto it. L.A. snapped the Saints’ eight-game win streak Sunday with a 26-20 victory, a more-dominant-than-the-score-implies win that pushed the now-8-3 Rams back into the conversation as one of the NFC’s best teams.

Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff’s impressive 354-yard, two-touchdown performance against a good Saints defense should keep plenty of the focus and praise centered on the team’s resurgent offense—and that unit’s place in the limelight remains warranted. First-year head coach and wunderkind playcaller Sean McVay has transformed the worst offense in the league into one of the best and turned Goff from an apparent bust into a legit pro passer. But the Rams are not f--king going 7-9 again this year because of more than just their offense. L.A.’s quietly fielded one of the most balanced squads in the NFL, and under the direction of veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—a hire that might be McVay’s most impressive coup altogether—the Rams’ talent-packed, playmaking defense has overcome a slow start to make a big jump forward of its own.

Phillips’s defense came into this week’s matchup with the streaking Saints ranked fifth in defensive DVOA, surrendering just 18.6 points per game (seventh) on the year. That group had made up for its middling run defense by being outstanding against the pass, allowing a 76.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (fourth) while racking up 28 sacks (tied for 10th) and 12 interceptions (tied for fifth-most) against just 12 touchdown passes surrendered (tied for sixth-fewest). But until Sunday, it was easy enough to write off much of that success as the result of a fortuitous schedule: L.A. had posted dominant yet caveat-heavy performances against subpar quarterbacks like Scott Tolzien, Tom Savage, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, and Blake Bortles before faltering last week against Case Keenum and the Vikings. The Rams needed an impressive performance against a top-tier passer to prove that those numbers were no fluke, and they got it Sunday, when they sacked Brees three times (a Saints’ season high) while holding the New Orleans offense to just three of 13 on third down.

Running back Alvin Kamara was just about the only bright spot for the Saints offense, as the rookie sensation forced nine missed tackles and racked up 188 combined rushing and receiving yards and two touchdowns on just 11 touches. He got so few looks because, after falling behind early, New Orleans leaned on its passing attack—and the Rams clamped down. Brees’s final stat line (22 of 32 for 246 yards, with one touchdown and a 101.8 passer rating) might look respectable on paper, but Los Angeles stymied the future Hall of Famer for most of the game. Heading into the fourth quarter, Brees had passed for just 96 yards, and prior to New Orleans’ final offensive series—a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive late in the game that cut L.A.’s 26-13 lead to single digits and made the ending a little more interesting—he went a pedestrian 16-of-26 for 171 yards. The Rams’ relentless pass-rush unit consistently forced Brees off his spot and pressured him into ill-advised throws, while the team’s secondary blanketed receivers and broke up passes downfield. The box score could’ve been a whole lot uglier for the veteran signal-caller, too, had the Rams not dropped three catchable interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter alone.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has yet to receive the desired and well-deserved contract extension that precipitated his preseason holdout, but the three-time Pro Bowler remains the foundation upon which L.A.’s defense rests. Donald notched one sack, a pair of tackles for a loss, and a quarterback hit in the win; and while the fact he plays in the trenches hides it, he’s one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Donald is currently Pro Football Focus’s top-graded interior player, with 6.0 sacks and three forced fumbles on the year, and while that sack total doesn’t jump out, he’s racked up an incredible 62 total pressures so far, which outpaces all other defensive players—a feat virtually unheard of for an interior defensive lineman not named J.J. Watt. He’s simply unblockable.

But Donald can’t do it all alone, and the Rams have gotten plenty of production from his linemates, too. Phillips has utilized a heavy rotation of linemen up front: Robert Quinn (who grabbed one sack Sunday to push his season total to 3.5), Matt Longacre (4.0 sacks), Michael Brockers (3.0 sacks), and free agent pickup Connor Barwin (4.0 sacks) make opposing quarterbacks’ lives a living hell. Coming into this week, the Rams had gotten pressure on 33.1 percent of all opponent dropbacks, per Football Outsiders, eighth-best in the league and a rate that’s bound to go up after the win over the Saints.

L.A.’s gotten quality play at every level. Top cornerback Trumaine Johnson has yet to give up a touchdown and has notched two picks on 66 coverage targets, per Pro Football Focus, surrendering a passer rating of just 74.2 to opposing quarterbacks (22nd). Veteran linebacker Mark Barron is a difference-maker over the middle of the field, where he’s racked up 77 tackles, a sack, three interceptions, and four pass breakups, and Alec Ogletree’s knack for big plays recently earned him a four-year, $42 million extension with the team, a vote of confidence in his ability as the defensive signal-caller in Phillips’s new scheme.

You don’t hear all that much about the Rams’ overhaul this year from a 4-3 to Phillips’s nominal 3-4 because Phillips and his staff have done an outstanding job of integrating a cadre of new players into the scheme while finding new spots for existing players to thrive. The team’s gotten solid play out of its new-look safety tandem of Lamarcus Joyner (who previously played slot corner) and John Johnson (a rookie third-round pick). At corner, free-agent pickup Kayvon Webster (previously of the Broncos) has played well, with 33 tackles and six pass breakups on the year, and though he missed Sunday’s game, slot defender Nickell Robey-Coleman (formerly with the Bills, and a player I pegged as one of the top bargains in free agency over the summer) has been reliable, with two picks and zero touchdowns allowed on 35 targets in coverage, where he’s held opposing quarterbacks to a 57.7 passer rating (ninth-best). Phillips came to L.A. with a reputation for crafting his scheme around his players’ strengths, and because of his keen eye for talent and adaptability as a play-caller, the Rams (who fielded a solid defensive unit last season) have not only picked up his defense with little trouble, they’ve actually gotten better.

McVay’s offense (featuring Goff, Todd Gurley, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Sammy Watkins) is likely to continue to headline the Rams’ surprising metamorphosis into an NFC power, but L.A. wouldn’t be sitting atop the NFC West right now if it weren’t for the team’s underappreciated improvement on defense, too. Over the last seven games, the Rams have given up just 14.4 points on average—and L.A.’s going to need plenty more of that type of stingy defensive play down the stretch, a brutal late-season slate that features the Cardinals, Eagles, Seahawks, and Titans. In an era of flawed, unbalanced, and one-dimensional contenders, the Rams stand out: With an explosive offense that can score from anywhere on the field, a top-tier special teams group featuring one of the league’s best punters and a kicker that somehow lives up to the nickname “Legatron,” plus a stout, deep defensive unit, they’re one of a select few teams right now that have ways to beat you in all three phases.