With ascending quarterback Jared Goff, star running back Todd Gurley and playmaking receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins, the Rams’ offense is getting most of the attention.
But the defense is equally responsible for the four-game winning streak that has vaulted the Rams to a 7-2 record and sparked projections of a potential deep playoff run.
“They’ve been the backbone of this team,” Goff said after last week’s 33-7 victory over the Houston Texans.
Going into Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Rams lead the NFL with 19 takeaways, including 12 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. They are giving up only 18 points a game, fourth fewest in the NFL.
“They have to be the No. 1 defense the last five or six weeks,” Gurley said. “Those guys are playing lights out.”
The Rams, playing in coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, caused one turnover in their victory at Jacksonville, two in their shutout of the Arizona Cardinals at London, three in a road rout over the New York Giants and four against the Texans.
“They’ve done a really good job of keeping people out of the end zone and getting the ball back for our offense,” coach Sean McVay said of the defense, “and I think that’s a big reason why you see them leading the league in takeaways, and then we’ve been fortunate to capitalize and turn that into points.”
Lineman Aaron Donald has a team-best five sacks. On the first series in each of the last two games, he recorded a sack that led to a fumble and, eventually, Rams points.
Donald is not the only player causing problems for opposing offenses. The collective effort has produced a formula for success.
“You have guys that are all over the field that are making a lot of plays, you’ll win a lot of games in the NFL,” Donald said.
Linebacker Mark Barron leads the Rams with 63 tackles and three interceptions. Against the Texans, Barron’s second-quarter interception quashed a threat and set up a field goal.
Linebacker Alec Ogletree caused the Coliseum crowd to roar in the third quarter when he returned an apparent interception for a touchdown. The play was nullified because Ogletree was penalized for holding, but it still appeared to provide a spark.
The Rams’ offense began a 21-point eruption on the ensuing series.
The defense has played well dating to the second half of a Week 4 victory at Dallas. McVay said players have become more comfortable with the “nuances” of Phillips’ scheme.
“What makes him such a good coach too is that as you get more familiar with your personnel, then you’re able to adjust within the framework of your system,” McVay said. “I think you … have heard him say this before: ‘You don’t ever make your players fit to your system, you adjust to them.’
“That’s what good coaches do. That’s what Wade’s done.”
The defense continues to get key contributions not only from starters but also from role players, including rookies.
Rookie safety John Johnson has started the last five games. Rookie defensive lineman Tanzel Smart has started four games.
Against the Texans, rookie linebacker Samson Ebukam sacked quarterback Tom Savage and forced a fumble.
“He’s explosive, he can play in space, you see how quickly he closes to Savage when he forces that fumble,” McVay said. “He made a handful of plays on special teams as well.”
Defensive back Blake Countess, a second-year pro, has played as a cornerback, safety and on special teams. Countess intercepted a pass against the Texans.
“It’s exciting to see those guys be able to make some plays a little bit later on in the game, and it ended up being very important for us,” McVay said.
The Rams’ Nov. 26 game against the New Orleans Saints at the Coliseum was “cross-flexed” by the NFL from Fox to CBS. Kickoff was moved from 1:05 to 1:25 p.m. The move enables roughly 80% of the country to see the game rather than 20%. The Rams’ Dec. 10 game against the Philadelphia Eagles is a potential candidate to be moved to “Sunday Night Football.” … Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold is the Rams’ nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, presented annually to the NFL player who “best demonstrates the qualities of on-field sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for the game and opponents, and integrity in competition.” The winner of the award is determined by a vote of NFL players. … The Rams were off Tuesday. They resume practice Wednesday.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein