Dante Fowler and Rams defense key to beating Saints
The celebration is hardly understated.
After Rams edge rusher Dante Fowler sacks a quarterback, he takes several dramatically long strides behind the line of scrimmage. He stands up straight and then bends forward as if bowing, swiping his right hand back and forth across the top of his cleats. As he raises his torso, he kicks his right leg high and throws back his head.
Then he screams.
“Just to get it all up out of me,” Fowler said, laughing.
Fowler recorded two sacks last week in the Rams’ season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers. He will be hunting for more Sunday at the Coliseum when the Rams play the New Orleans Saints in a rematch of last season’s NFC championship game.
Fowler, 25, played a huge role in the Rams’ victory over the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in January.
On the first possession of overtime, he made an instinctive spin move to break free in the Saints backfield. He hit quarterback Drew Brees just as the future Hall of Famer released a pass.
“He was looking down the field, trying to make a nice throw, and then he saw me and hurried to get it out,” Fowler said.
The ball fluttered beyond the line of scrimmage, safety John Johnson intercepting the pass as he fell onto his back. The Rams then drove for a game-winning field goal that gave them a 26-23 victory and sent them to the Super Bowl.
“If you’re in overtime and you cause a turnover… and it wins the game, that’s a big play — you’re a big-time player,” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week when asked about Fowler.
A play-by-play look at the final drive that pushed the Rams into the Super Bowl last season in last year’s controversial NFC title game against the Saints.
The hit on Brees was exactly the kind of impact play the Rams anticipated when they acquired Fowler in a trade-deadline deal last season.
Fowler, 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, was the third pick in the 2015 NFL draft. But his three-plus seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars were marked by a season-ending knee injury before his rookie season and several incidents on and off the field that raised questions about his maturity.
Fowler started only one game, but was effective at times playing in rotation.
In 2017, Fowler had eight sacks and then added two more in the AFC title game against the New England Patriots.
But the Jaguars did not exercise their fifth-year option on Fowler, which would have been about $14.2 million this season. Instead, they traded him to the Rams for a third-round pick in last April’s draft and a fifth-round pick in 2020.
Within days, Fowler played for the Rams in a Week 9 game against the Saints at the Superdome. The Rams lost 45-35, but Fowler easily blended in. He made a tackle for a loss and broke up a pass.
“That was my way of earning my stripes with the players,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
The next week, Fowler forced a fumble while sacking Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, helping the Rams win an important NFC West game at the Coliseum.
“That’s why they brought him here,” Wilson said afterward.
Fowler made other big plays during the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl and finished with two sacks and five quarterback hits in eight games.
After the season, Fowler was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Instead, he signed a one-year, $14-million contract with the Rams with the hope of earning an extension.
The Rams also signed linebacker Clay Matthews to start opposite Fowler. Matthews, a 10-year veteran, said he studied “little stuff” about Fowler during offseason workouts, such as how he moved his hip or his foot while executing various techniques.
“I couldn’t believe he had not been a starter in this league,” Matthews said.
It did not take long for Matthews, who had 83½ sacks for the Green Bay Packers, to see potential in his younger teammate. Matthews has described Fowler as a “double-digit sack guy,” who will blossom as a full-time starter.
“When I came here, I just told myself I was never going to look back,” he said, “and just be the guy I always wanted to be.”
Drew Brees and the Saints visit L.A. to play the Rams in a rematch of the NFC championship game that already could have playoff ramifications.
With defensive tackle Aaron Donald drawing double teams and Matthews also commanding attention, Fowler’s opportunities for more sacks — and the celebration he adopted during his junior year in college at Florida — are expected to grow.
But that is not his only value.
“I don’t think people give him credit for the run defense,” Phillips said.
It remains to be seen what Fowler’s future might be with the Rams. They could sign him to an extension, put the franchise tag on him or let him leave as a free agent.
Fowler is not worried about that at the moment. He is looking forward to another opportunity to make big plays against the Saints.
“It just feels good to be able to put it all on the field,” he said. “That’s what I cherish the most about it — just having fun with the guys.”
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