The football world has fallen in love with the Los Angeles Rams offense.
And why not? They’re the NFC’s youngest unit, led by the youngest head coach in NFL history, and lighting up the league. Sean McVay is calling audibles in Jared Goff’s ear at the line of scrimmage, Goff and running back Todd Gurley are offensive player of the year candidates, no group in football has generated more 40-yard passing plays than their new-look receiving corps, and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth has helped transform the offensive line into a tremendous asset.
Only the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles have scored more points this year than the Rams.
But lost in LA’s 8-3 start is the fact the defense has also improved greatly in 2017.
They’ve held six of their last seven opponents to 20 or fewer points, which is something that happened just six times in all 16 games they played in 2016. And only four defenses (Baltimore, Jacksonville, Philly and Tampa Bay) have generated more takeaways (19 in 11 games, which is one more than they had all of last season).
In terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Football Outsiders ranks the Rams fifth in football on that side of the ball, behind only the Ravens, Jaguars, Eagles and Steelers. That’s way up from the middle of the pack in 2015.
What’s different? All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been the unit’s dominant leader this year, just as he was last year. But Donald has more support now than ever before, and that probably starts with his coordinator, Wade Phillips.
The defense remains relatively shallow beyond Donald, but Phillips is one of the most underrated defensive minds of this era. He always gets more than anyone could have expected out of the units he runs, and the numbers back that up.
Under Phillips’ tutelage…
- The Broncos ranked in the top five in terms of points and yards allowed and in the top 10 in terms of takeaways in both 2015 and 2016.
- The Texans had a top-seven defense all three years he was there (2011-2013).
- The Cowboys had a top-10 defense in all three of his full seasons as head coach (2007-2009).
Phillips hasn’t overseen a defense for a full season that didn’t finish the year ranked in the top 10 since 2005. And he seems to bring a magic touch to defenses, with little delay.
- In 1988, the year before Phillips arrived for his first stint with the Broncos, they ranked 20th defensively. In his first season, they had the league’s top-rated D.
- In 1994, the year before Phillips arrived in Buffalo, they ranked 12th defensively. In his first season, that ranking rose to 12th.
- In 2001, the year before he joined the Falcons, they ranked 24th in terms of points allowed. In his first season, they shot up to eighth in that category.
- In 2003, the year before he joined the Chargers, they ranked 31st in terms of points allowed. In his first season, they shot up to 11th in that category.
- In 2006, the year before he joined the Cowboys, they ranked 20th in terms of points allowed. In his first season, they shot up to 13th in that category.
- The year before he arrived in Houston, the Texans ranked 29th in the league in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed. And in his first season, they finished fourth and second, respectively.
- Last year, the Rams ranked 23rd in terms of points allowed. This year, they’re up to seventh.
And while they were always half-decent with Donald supported by veterans Mark Barron, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Trumaine Johnson and Alec Ogletree, the emergence of safeties Lamarcus Joyner (a 2014 second-round pick coming into his own in Year 4) and John Johnson III (a third-rounder fresh out of Boston College who deserves to be in the defensive rookie of the year conversation) has helped put them over the top.
That explains why only three teams have allowed fewer points since Week 5. It might be hard to believe, but the Rams are legit. On both sides of the ball.