LA Rams thriving on defense despite personnel upheaval

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Rams are heading into the second half of the season missing more than half of the starters from last year’s Super Bowl defense, including their entire secondary.

Change has arrived quickly for the defending NFC champions, but they appear to be adjusting well.

Just eight games after coordinator Wade Phillips’ unit held New England to the fewest points ever scored by a Super Bowl winner, the Rams (5-3) have undergone big personnel changes on Phillips’ side of the ball. And while the Rams’ once-prolific offense has frequently struggled despite returning every key skill-position player from last season, the defense has been largely solid despite its upheaval.

Three members of last year’s starting secondary are gone, with both of their veteran starting cornerbacks getting traded in October, and the fourth Super Bowl starter — safety John Johnson — is on injured reserve. They’ve also adjusted to losing new linebacker Clay Matthews, who was off to a great start before breaking his jaw and adding elite cornerback Jalen Ramsey in a trade that compelled Phillips to make philosophical adjustments to his schemes.

Through it all, the Rams have held their past three opponents to 40 combined points while playing in three different cities and enduring a 10-day, trans-Atlantic road trip heading into their bye week.

While San Francisco and Seattle have jumped ahead of them in the competitive NFC West, the Rams feel they’re in position to rally back.

“Some games, we’ve played really well,” Phillips said. “We haven’t been as consistent as we want, but we have played good run defense throughout the year. I think our run front is strong, probably stronger than last year. That helps us in that if we can force them into the passing game, we’ve got to play good pass defense.”

Los Angeles is relying on its defense more than ever this season with the inconsistency of coach Sean McVay’s offense. Even with four new starters in the secondary, even with Aaron Donald facing the most double-team blocks in the league, the Rams have got the job done recently.

Heading into Week 9, the Rams rank 11th in the league with 338.2 yards per game allowed. Los Angeles’ run defense has been largely solid, even with the offseason losses of Ndamukong Suh and Mark Barron, while their pass defense has been boosted by Ramsey’s arrival and a strong pass rush.

Ramsey’s arrival emboldened Phillips to call more man-to-man coverages in the past two games, and longtime backup cornerback Troy Hill appeared to handle his part quite well when thrust into a starting role. Ramsey has arrived on the West Coast in strong form, and he is rested and ready to take on major responsibilities in the second half.

“There’s some good man-to-man players, but then there’s a few great ones,” Phillips said. “Those are the guys that you can say, ‘Hey, he’s got it no matter what and can help somebody else.’ Some guys can play blitz coverage and other guys help somebody else. You basically eliminate one guy for us as far as what’s going on with us now.”

Man-to-man defenses also help the pass rush by theoretically forcing the opposing quarterback to hold the ball longer, and that appeared to work in the past two games: Dante Fowler, who has 33 quarterback hurries in his impressive season, stepped up to make 4½ of the Rams’ whopping 10 sacks against Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Much of the credit also must go to Donald, whose relatively modest stats — by his standards, not by anyone else’s — belie the success he’s having again this year. The back-to-back AP Defensive Player of the Year has five sacks, 11 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits in eight games, but that’s only a fraction of his impact.

“He disrupts so many things, and he helps other people,” Phillips said. “When he gets double teamed, certainly other people are one-on-one, and he’s double teamed a lot, we know that. But he also dictates protections for them, which gives us a chance to rush better in some of those situations. You look at the film, he’s still a dominant force. Whether he gets 20 sacks or not, he’s still a dominant force.”

New safety Eric Weddle has played well and provided invaluable tutoring help to even greener teammates in the secondary. Other contributors are stepping up, too: Linebacker Cory Littleton remains a ferocious all-around defender and the Rams’ leading tackler, while rookie safety Taylor Rapp is getting additional responsibilities each week as he grows in confidence.

More help is on the way: Matthews has the wiring out of his broken jaw, and he will return to action soon. He began his first season with the Rams by making six sacks in five games, along with seven total tackles for loss.

“He’s feeling good,” McVay said of Matthews. “I really just think it’s going to be a matter of how quickly and how comfortable does he feel, as far as, ‘All right, I’m ready to go,’ and play full contact.”