The Los Angeles Rams took an enormous leap forward in 2017, and to further that success in 2018 they are going all-in on a defense more suited to Wade Phillips, the team’s renowned defensive coordinator. Combined with an already-impressive offense, the team’s personnel moves could push the Rams from a nice story to one of the N.F.L.’s best teams.
First, the Rams added Marcus Peters, a Pro Bowl cornerback, in a trade with Kansas City that was agreed to last month. Then they traded away Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree, mainstays of the defense in recent years. And now, according to multiple media reports, the Rams will reunite Phillips with one of his favorite players from his dominant tenure with the Denver Broncos: the All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib.
The moves — with more sure to come when free agency begins next week — show a commitment to embracing the defensive philosophies of Phillips. His signature 3-4 defense that propelled Denver to victory in Super Bowl 50thrived, in part, because the front-seven was able to rely on superb coverage by the team’s cornerbacks. While Talib, at 32, may have lost a step compared when he was with Denver three years ago, he is still more than capable of thriving on the same field as an elite player like the 25-year-old Peters.
As the news of Talib’s imminent arrival leaked out, the Rams seemed to acknowledge Phillips’ influence when the team’s Twitter account shared a GIF of the coach smiling and pointing to the camera. Phillips, who has been the coordinator for a top-five defense eight times during his lengthy career, was added to Coach Sean McVay’s staff before the start of the 2017 season. While the Rams showed immediate improvement in terms of points allowed — improving to 12th in the N.F.L., from 23rd the year before — they slid backward in total yardage allowed, partially because the offense often forced their opponents to fight from behind so often.
Unmistakable improvement, though, came from Aaron Donald, the unit’s centerpiece at defensive tackle. Donald, who got a late start to the year because of a contract holdout, began the season as one of the league’s most underappreciated stars and ended it as the N.F.L.’s defensive player of the year. Despite playing just 14 games, Donald led all interior linemen in the N.F.L. with 11 sacks, 34 hurries, and 27 quarterback hits. His five forced fumbles set the tone for a defense that often made showy plays early in the game, helping the Rams’ offense get off to quick starts.
Even with Donald’s improvement, and the team’s impressive 11-5 record — in 2016 the Rams were just 4-12 — there was still a sense that the defense was not holding up its end of the bargain alongside an offense that became one of the most dominant in the N.F.L. behind Jared Goff, the quarterback entering his third year, and running back Todd Gurley.
Goff and Gurley, along with a receiving corps that was largely rebuilt through free agency, helped Los Angeles become the league’s highest-scoring team a year after they finished last in that category. But in the playoffs, the team did not seem quite ready for prime time, with flaws on both sides of the ball resulting in a 26-13 loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons.
Taking some pressure off the offense would certainly be a welcome change for the franchise, and Phillips has the résumé to show that he can do special things when given the right personnel. The next question is how much the team will be able to do in free agency and the draft to complement their recent moves on the trade market. With the Seattle Seahawks seemingly in full retreat, and the San Francisco 49ers’ roster still extremely young, the timing certainly seems right for the Rams to cement themselves as the front-runner in the N.F.C. West.