The L.A. Rams, and their defensive difference

To win titles in the NFL – anywhere from division titles to Super Bowls – a team must do so with a great team defensive effort.

Of course, scoring points in the way of touchdowns and field goals, and racking up the yards on the ground and through the air are great and advisable, too, but stopping the other guys from doing that can set a team apart from the others.

The Los Angeles Rams – who, in case you missed it, when Week 14 opened on Friday morning, Australian time, beat the New England Patriots 24-3 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles – have a defensive unit under coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Brandon Staley that may be peaking at the right time.

Never mind the fact that the Patriots have been a very inconsistent team this season. Beating Bill Belichick’s team with a defensive statement – holding New England to 220 yards of total offence, 3.8 yards per play, and the lone Nick Folk field goal while sacking Patriots quarterbacks Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham a total of six times – one week after the Patriots hung 45 points on the Los Angeles Chargers would have impressed the defensive master coach himself.

“The score last night was what it was – but look, they’re a good team and we fell behind. That’s a hard team to play from behind against,” Belichick told the local media upon returning to Boston the day after, in paying tribute to the Rams’ defence.

“I mean, they’re a good football team. They’ve got a good pass rush and do a good job on early downs of controlling the ball. They were better than we were last night. That was obvious,” Belichick added.

Defensive lineman Aaron Donald (1.5 sacks against the Patriots, taking him to a league-leading 12.5 for the season), defensive backs Darius Williams (leading the team with a career-high four interceptions) and Jalen Ramsey (28 solo tackles and one interception), and safety John Johnson (58 total tackles) all share accolades among the Rams’ defence, but Staley should deserve credit for making these players part of a cohesive unit.

And Staley, 38, who joined McVay’s staff earlier this year from the Denver Broncos, where he helped tutor former NFL defensive player of the year Von Miller, has earned the respect and admiration of his players in Los Angeles.

And mostly in intangible ways which don’t show up in mere statistics or the X’s and O’s of football coaching and tactics.

“The energy he brings, it's just new. It’s kind of like a [Sean] McVay of the defence almost, with the way he talks, how smart he is and things like that,” says cornerback Troy Hill.

“Thinking outside the box, I feel like that’s what I needed,” Hill added, referring to his own development as a player. “He’s younger in a sense that he can relate to the players a lot.”

Staley, meanwhile, falls back on the perspective of having been a quarterback during his college career at the University of Dayton, where having seen the game develop from one side of the ball has given him a mindset of what’s required defensively.

“What being a quarterback has done is really opened up my lens, and from a defensive perspective, try and get the player to understand what he’s looking at and how they’re operating,” Staley said when the Rams hired him.

Statistically, while ranking fourth against the run for yardage, the Rams rank in the NFL defensively against the pass:

  • 3rd in lowest pass completion percentage

  • 2nd in yards against

  • 1st in touchdowns against

Staley has ensured that opposition teams cannot beat the Rams by throwing downfield – and the fact that former All-Pro cornerback Ramsey has only defended three passes this season, while playing in all 12 games in 2020 to date, in cementing his reputation as a “shutdown corner”, in addition to Donald dominating games on the defensive line much like the Rams’ old “Fearsome Foursome” and their other all-time greats used to do, stand as testaments to what may set themselves up for a deep playoff run.

And with both Arizona and Seattle winning to keep pace in the NFC West divisional race in Week 14 – the Cardinals beating the New York Giants 26-7 on the road while the Seahawks defeated the still-winless New York Jets 40-3 – the Rams continue to lead the division on tiebreakers.

However, in comparison to the Cardinals and Seahawks, while all three teams should make the NFC playoffs, the Rams’ defence is likely to set them apart enough to win the division.

“I think that’s been consistent with what our defence has done all year. They’ve been such a strong point for our team,” McVay said after the win over the Patriots.

“You look at getting the turnover when they’re in the strike zone area right in that fringe, you get a fourth down stop when they’re going into score, a couple of them, and really those end up equating to turnovers for us because they’re not coming away with points and they’re putting the offense back on the field.

“So, these guys have done a great job. They’re playing as good as anybody and now let’s see if we can wrap up the regular season like that,” added McVay.

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