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Rams D peaking at the right time

Wade Phillips’ troops appear to be peaking at the right time courtesy of a stout defensive line that is suddenly playing its best football of the season.

The NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams generate a lot of press for their high-powered offense, and rightfully so; they finished second in the league behind Kansas City in total points with 527, which ranks 10th all time in NFL history, and finished among the top five in yards, rushing and passing.

This is where we typically tell you the numbers often lie, particularly in the case of Los Angeles' defense. While the Rams ranked near the bottom of the league in several key categories – specifically against the run, where they finished dead last while allowing an eye-popping 5.07 yards per carry in 2018 – Wade Phillips' troops appear to be peaking at the right time courtesy of a stout defensive line that is suddenly playing its best football of the season.

Credit general manager Les Snead, who began laying the foundation through the draft, starting with the selection of Michael Brockers in the first round of the 2012 draft, and the acquisition of five-time Pro Bowl tackle Aaron Donald, who, in addition to the development of a likely Hall of Fame, is also revolutionizing how undersized players – he clocks in at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds – are used at the line of scrimmage.

The Rams took the NFL by surprise last year with an 11-5 finish, snapping a streak of 10 consecutive losing seasons, so Snead went all-in during the offseason, acquiring cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib in addition to wide receiver Brandin Cooks and veteran defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, the surprising – and equally intriguing – move during a busy winter for Los Angeles.

The addition of Suh gives the Rams three former first-round draft picks on their defensive line, and while the numbers didn't always reflect their performance during the regular season, it's the battle in the trenches that could ultimately decide the outcome of Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots on Sunday in Atlanta.

Seventeen years since their last appearance in the championship game, the dynamic Rams face the NFL's greatest dynasty in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI, the one that officially launched the Patriots' remarkable streak of success. Sunday will be New England's ninth Super Bowl appearance in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, and this year's run can be credited mostly to the Patriots' workmanlike offensive line, which did not allow a sack in either playoff game and allowed only one quarterback hit in the AFC Championship Game against a Kansas City that registered a league-best 52 sacks during the regular season.

The Rams know firsthand what applying pressure on the opposing quarterback can do for their defense; in overtime of the NFC Championship Game at New Orleans, linebacker Dante Fowlers' hit on Drew Brees forced an interception that gave Los Angeles the ball at the 46-yard line. Five plays later, Greg Zuerlein nailed the game-winning 57-yard field goal to send the Rams to the Super Bowl. Fowler was acquired in a Week 8 trade with Jacksonville, another big-time move by Snead to bolster the defense. 

They will need more of the same Sunday, especially against a quarterback like Brady who's not afraid to check down to his running backs and prefers to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid oncoming pressure.

"We've got our secondary, and they're going to lock things down and give us opportunities to get to [Brady]. We've just got to take him down when he holds the ball," said Donald, who earned his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl this year after finishing with a career-high 20 sacks, thanks in large part to Suh's presence up front. "You can't let him get comfortable. You've got to get him off the spot. He's a great quarterback, but if you put pressure on him, then, just like anybody else, it'll be a tough day for him."

Pressuring Brady is what many would consider a generic blueprint for success against the Patriots. The New York Giants utilize this game plan to perfection twice, first with nine quarterback hits and five sacks in Super Bowl LII, and again in Super Bowl XLVI with eight hit and two sacks, one of which occurred on the game's final drive with 48 seconds remaining. The Giants, in fact, did that twice; then rookie Jay Alford dropped Brady for the Giants' fifth and final sack on the final drive of the aforementioned Super Bowl LII win, setting up a third-and-20 with 25 seconds to go.

Understand what needs to be done and actually going out and doing it against a stellar offensive line and a tremendously savvy quarterback are two different things, but the Rams are hopeful they can lean on Donald – "He's pretty much unblockable," Brady said – in their biggest game of the season. Donald was quiet in Los Angeles' playoff wins over Dallas and New Orleans, but most of that had to do with the extra attention paid to him, which allowed Phillips to line up the versatile Suh in a number of different spots to confuse the opposing offense. 

After allowing more than five yards per carry in the regular season and ranking 20th in points per game allowed, the Rams limited the Cowboys and Saints, who ranked 10th and 6th in the league in rushing, respectively, to just 2.28 yards per carry in the playoffs. A total team effort, starting with the defensive line dominating up front, fueled Los Angeles' defensive renaissance in January, which is why glossing over numbers – some of which were skewed by high-scoring shootouts in September and October – can be misleading.

"You've got myself, you got Dante, you got Michael Brockers, you got Suh. There's a lot of guys you've got to worry about," Donald said. "We're going to do our job and get after them."

The Rams have been significantly better defensively since the bye week, allowing nearly 100 fewer yards per game from Weeks 13 through 17, and they've played their best in the postseason. The ability to dial up the pressure and dominate against an offensive line that has been impenetrable in recent weeks will determine whether or not the Rams, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, can upset the favored New England Patriots on football's biggest stage.

"It's a great task for us," Suh said. "I'm excited about it. I look forward to it. First and foremost, we need to shut down the run. Until we take care of that, we won't have the opportunity to take care of Tom."

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