Smack in the middle of a series of brutal physically demanding tests, that will challenge the Rams defense to slow down some of the league’s most potent run games, that group has aced its first two exams.
Smack in the middle of that success is a rookie, a rookie who doesn’t look the part either in terms of his imposing size or his performance.
While plenty of his Rams rookie brethren have earned accolades and weekly awards at their easier-to-judge positions, you might be hard-pressed to find a first-year player performing better than defensive tackle Michael Brockers right now.
“He’s healthy, he’s strong, there’s no sign of fatigue or anything like that,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s using his hands much better week in and week out. He’s controlling his block and he’s on the right side of the block. And now that he’s learning to pass rush inside he understands that we’ve got great edge speed and all you need to complement that edge speed with is inside push and that’s what he’s giving us.”
Brockers ascent has been a steady one since he returned from a high ankle sprain suffered in the team’s preseason finale. That injury slowed his progress a bit but he seems to be hitting his stride at just the right time as the Rams still must face the league’s first, third and second leading rushers in consecutive weeks to close out the season.
“You know Brockers has been playing well,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “Early on in the year, a high ankle sprain in this league and in this business is a serious deal, especially for a young defensive player that was just learning techniques. He and (defensive line coach Mike Waufle) had worked about to where they wanted with the progression of his development and then you get a high ankle sprain and you’ve pretty much got to start all over again. Michael Brockers is an excellent, excellent football player and we’re extremely happy that he’s here.”
That happiness has never been more evident than the past two weeks. Last week against the Niners and running back Frank Gore, Brockers posted an eye-popping 11 tackles, a number that usually comes over the course of three games or so for someone playing nose tackle.
Brockers followed with a strong encore against Buffalo on Sunday when he posted six tackles, two quarterback pressures, two quarterback hits and a sack and a half against the Bills’ vaunted running game.
After missing the first three games because of that aforementioned injury, Brockers has made up for lost time. He’s got 48 tackles, four sacks, 12 quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits in 10 games. His tackle total ranks second among Rams defensive linemen, just one stop behind partner in crime Kendall Langford.
For many rookies, this time of year would be the time where they begin to wear down but Brockers seems to be finding ways to improve from week to week, answering the challenge of his coaching staff.
“As we get to the end, Coach is like ‘You have got to push to the finish and up your play level,’” Brockers said. “I feel like that’s what I’m doing and I’m feeling good about it.”
One week after holding San Francisco running back Frank Gore to 2.5 yards per carry on 23 attempts, the Rams shut down Buffalo’s fourth-ranked rushing attack and the two-headed monster of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in even more impressive fashion.
Spiller and Jackson combined for 51 yards on 16 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt. Bookended by defensive ends such as Robert Quinn and Chris Long only ups the ante for a defense that’s always eager to create pass rushing opportunities.
The idea being that the longer the Rams can physically dominate up front, push the offensive line around and shut down the running game, the floodgates can open and Long and Quinn go to work.
“We feel like if we keep pounding on that rock, pounding on that rock, eventually it will crack,” Brockers said. “That’s our challenge every week. And if we stop that run and they have to end up passing, I think we have a very good secondary that can hit guys in the backfield, knock down balls and get interceptions. This unit is an all around unit, especially when we meet our challenges every week.”
PENALTY FREE: One area that has consistently plagued the Rams all season, particularly in close games, has been penalties, especially ones coming on either line of scrimmage.
On Sunday, that was no an issue as the Rams were flagged just twice for 17 yards with no penalties on the offense at all and none of the 5-yard offsides or false start variety.
“We didn’t have any line of scrimmage issues at all, which was good,” Fisher said. “It’s something we have been talking about has to improve and worked on it very hard. To win a game like this in a hard place to play against a team like that, we had to play that way. We had to play good in all three phases.”
WINNING UGLY: Asked Monday afternoon whether he was OK with winning games without style points, Fisher made it quite clear that he didn’t care what the method was so long as the team was finding ways to get victories.
The past three weeks, the Rams have relied on their defense to provide big plays and or stops to stay in games before the offense would come through with just enough at the end of the game.
That’s not the ideal way for things to be done, of course.
“We have got to score more points offensively,” Fisher said “We can’t rely week in, week out on the defense to go in after a sudden change and hold someone to a field goal and get the ball back.”
Still, while his young team is growing and guys are improving, he’s fine with winning this way now with hopes that a continued evolution will lead to more in the future, especially for the offense.
“A win is a win,” Fisher said. “We are not equipped like New England to put 40 up on everybody every week. Hopefully we will get to that point but right now we are finding ways to win.”
INJURY REPORT: The Rams made it out of Sunday’s game relatively healthy considering how physical it was but Fisher said that some guys will have to be managed early in the week.
Center Scott Wells (knee) has been sitting most of the practice week and playing on Sundays and Fisher indicated that would again be the case this week.
Left tackle Rodger Saffold (back) made it out of the game OK and Fisher said he’d be all right. Safety Craig Dahl suffered a concussion and will have to go through the normal protocol of tests before he can be cleared to return.
As for receiver Danny Amendola, who is dealing with a foot/heel injury, Fisher said he attempted to give it a go before Sunday’s game but ultimately they believed it was better to rest him again.
“Danny tried to go and he was much better than he was last week,” Fisher said. “But we just felt it would make sense if we waited another week. So I think he’s got a much better chance this week.”
Fisher said for Amendola to return, he needs to get back to the point where he can stop himself with no pain.
“It’s uncomfortable and it’s a foot injury that still needs to heal,” Fisher said. “Danny needs to be close to 100 percent to be effective, to be able to catch himself particularly.”