The Rams were 3-0 in 2018 largely by having an offense outscore opponents 102-36. This year they find themselves 3-0 but that number has dropped to 77-49. The offense hasn’t rounded into its usual Sean McVay form and the jury is still out on if those days are over. Fortunately, Wade Phillips is around to keep things afloat while McVay, Jared Goff, and company figure out that side of the ball.
Wade Phillips and his defense are light years ahead of where they were this time last year and given all the turnover they’ve had in the last year, it’s remarkable. Phillips has done a great job at mixing vets with young guys and this is without Aaron Donald making a big impact in the box score.
Just on an eye test level the defense looks more organized and put together than it did at this time last year. The stats back it up. Last year, through three games, they allowed 598 passing yards and 290 rushing yards. This year those numbers have dropped to 578 passing and 279 rushing yards respectively. That might not seem like a lot but the majority of the rushing yards they’ve given up came from Christian McCaffrey in week one.
One of the things that plagued this defense all last year was giving up long runs and so far it looks like they cleaned that up after McCaffrey almost won that game by himself. What’s even more amazing is that they’re doing this with Donald being double and triple-teamed on every possession.
The Kaiju in pads only has three tackles, one sack, and three tackles for a loss thus far. True, he notoriously gets off to a slow start but unlike last year, Wade Phillips has made it so that the other players can make a big impact. None have shown greater upfront than Clay Matthews. Matthews has seen a resurgence since coming to LA.
He leads the team in sacks with four, four tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, and four QB hits. Having him with the young linebackers has been a real boon as this time last year there wasn’t a solid linebacking corps and they had trouble getting stops.
Cory Littleton is the biggest beneficiary of Matthews’ resurgence as he leads the team in solo tackles with 16 and six pass deflections and had that athletic interception of Cam Newton in week one. Littleton often appeared to be trying to do everything last year and now he has someone to take the load off.
If the front seven has taken a big step, the secondary has taken a quantum leap in year three under Wade Phillips. Last year during a week three game against the Chargers they lost Aqib Talib to an ankle injury. Over the course of the season, the secondary, particularly Marcus Peters, suffered. Much has been made of him turning into King’s Landing after Daenerys heard the bells but this season with a healthy Talib, Peters has been allowed to be used in a manner more suited to his abilities. That duo, along with Nickell Robey-Coleman, has done a great job defending receivers and the defense has yet to allow a receiver to score a touchdown.
They are aided by a young safety tandem in John Johnson and Taylor Rapp. Johnson is second on the team in tackles with 12 and he has two picks. Both were athletic plays, one in which he was in the right place at the right time after Drew Brees got decked and the second closed out the game against Cleveland. Johnson is a ball hawk and is seemingly in on every play. Johnson has also had the aid of a veteran in Eric Weddle.
Weddle, like Matthews, has seen a resurgence since joining the Rams. He has 10 solo tackles and swarms receivers on every play. Rapp is right there behind him with six tackles of his own, and while he still makes rookie mistakes and can be baited, he has a short memory and has been great overall in coverage.
Wade Phillips appears to be building a pass defense similar to what he had in Denver (which also featured Talib). That defense was historically great and while it’s unfair to expect this unit to live up to that, its definitely one of the most formidable in the league. Not allowing a receiver to score through three games is remarkable, especially considering they’ve had to deal with two of the best receivers in the league in Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr.
There are still places for improvement. For starters, they’re giving up 13 more first downs than they did a year ago. Dante Fowler also has to get more involved. He had a great first week with two sacks but he’s disappeared since. Phillips also needs to figure out his defensive line rotation. Donald and Michael Brockers are obviously mainstays but outside of that, it’s been difficult.
Morgan Fox has seen some time as well as Sebastian Joseph but no one else has been able to get significant snaps. While the linebacking corps has gotten better they still get caught out of position on certain plays which has contributed to the rise in first downs.
The job Wade Phillips has done since coming to LA has been nothing short of extraordinary. As Bill Barnwell pointed out this week on ESPN, if the offense had done its part in the Super Bowl, the job Phillips did in that game would still be talked about. He also made the case that Phillips deserves a Hall of Fame spot as a coordinator because he’s been great at every stop. He’s the ultimate example of a coach being a better lieutenant than a general.
The Rams would not be 3-0 without Wade Phillips. The defense has bailed the offense out which is something that fans wouldn’t have expected but here we are. They’ve got some tough games yet to come but if the defense can round out into shape there’s no telling just how great this unit can be, and behind it is the son of Bum.