During an NFL coaching career that spans more than four decades, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips witnessed some outstanding individual performances.
Linebacker Samson Ebukam’s Week 11 effort against the Kansas City Chiefs ranks among the best, Phillips said Thursday.
“One of the greatest games ever,” he said.
Ebukam, a second-year pro, returned a fumble for a touchdown, returned an interception for a touchdown and caused a fourth-quarter interception when he hit Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He also had a sack and a tackle for a loss.
Ebukam’s performance helped the Rams improve their record to 10-1 heading into their off week, and put them in position to clinch a second consecutive NFC West title Sunday when they visit the Detroit Lions. A Rams victory or a Seattle loss or tie against San Francisco would do the trick.
Ebukam said this week that his phone was “blowing up” after the Rams’ 54-51 victory over the Chiefs.
“I kind of turned it on ‘Do not Disturb,’ ” he said.
Against the Chiefs, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Ebukam was every bit the disruptive force that the Rams envisioned when they traded veteran Robert Quinn and installed Ebukam as a starter.
Ebukam, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick from Eastern Washington, had shown pass-rushing flashes as a rookie playing behind Quinn and Connor Barwin.
This season, he forced fumbles in Week 6 against the Denver Broncos and in Week 7 against the 49ers.
His performance against the Chiefs earned him recognition as the NFC defensive player of the week.
“He’s a guy that, if you watch him, he’s really just consistently gotten better,” coach Sean McVay said.
Said Phillips: “He plays at top speed all the time, and that’s why he makes plays.”
Ebukam lamented not making another play. On the Chiefs’ final snap, he tried to knock the ball out of Mahomes’ hand and just missed recording a sack. Mahomes escaped the pocket but his pass was intercepted by safety Lamarcus Joyner.
“I’ve got to be able to stay calm in those situations,” Ebukam said, “and just make a play.”
Ebukam’s performance helped the Rams survive the Chiefs — and another game in which the defense gave up huge yardage and big plays. The Chiefs amassed 546 yards, but the Rams forced five turnovers.
“Yeah, we want the five turnovers,” Phillips said. “We don’t want all the yards or the points.”
The Rams are giving up 372.5 yards per game, which ranks 20th in the NFL. They are 19th in passing defense (252.6 yards per game), 21st in rushing defense (119.9) and 20th in scoring defense (25.6 points per game).
The defense is expected to receive a boost if veteran cornerback Aqib Talib returns from a left ankle injury to play against Lions. Talib practiced Wednesday for the first time since Week 3, and participated in walk-throughs Thursday.
McVay said that, barring setbacks, he anticipated Talib would play Sunday. Phillips said the 11th-year pro was “wait and see” and would be monitored the rest of the week.
“He’s a veteran player that I trust that would say, ‘Hey, I’m hurting or I’m not. I can play or I can’t play,’ ” Phillips said.
The Rams are vying with the New Orleans Saints for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Saints are 10-2 after a 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.
Phillips anticipates better defensive performances in remaining games against the Lions, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and the 49ers.
“The good thing about this team defensively is they’ve been resilient in key situations — I call them pressure situations,” Phillips said, adding, “You want to play more consistent, not give up big plays and that’s our goal the rest of the way.”
Ebukam plans to build on his performance against the Chiefs, which he has put behind.
“You just got to take it in stride and move on,” he said. “Good or bad, you always got to play the next play, so that’s my mentality.
“Keep it level.”