Slightly more than halfway through a season that followed a Super Bowl appearance, the Rams are on the verge of falling out of playoff contention.
Don’t blame the defense.
The Rams are 5-4, but going into Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears the defense has played well since an Oct. 13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
It is no coincidence.
The Rams traded for shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey after the loss to the 49ers. They defense was subsequently stout in victories over the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals and in last Sunday’s 17-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Jalen’s a game changer,” safety Marqui Christian said Thursday.
Players say the arrival of Ramsey, 25, caused a philosophical shift and new identity for the defense. With a player that essentially shuts down one side of the field, the Rams have been able to better disguise coverages and play more aggressively.
Ramsey’s ability to track an opponent’s top receiver all over the field forces quarterbacks to abandon their primary option. That skill provides defensive linemen and edge rushers more time to apply pressure.
“The man can play all the routes, so it definitely makes it easier on the defense when you have him on one side,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said.
Rams players have felt Ramsey’s presence, and the two-time Pro Bowl selection can sense his impact.
“I play with a lot of passion, heart when I’m out there,” he said. “I hope that’s contagious not only with the secondary but with everybody.”
Ramsey’s biggest frustration appears to be a lack of opportunities to make plays. Steelers star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, for example, was targeted only five times.
“I can’t say that I’ve been happy with my performance,” Ramsey said. “I’m my harshest critic. So when I look at games and I see I’m only getting two targets a game or whatever the case may be, if I lose one of those, one of those targets then, technically, I’m 50%.
“Like that’s not going to sit well with me. I want to do better than that. I want to be able to make a play somehow.”
The Rams’ defense made several big plays against the Steelers.
Edge rusher Dante Fowler scooped an errant snap and returned it for a touchdown. Tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Clay Matthews combined for a sack that resulted in a safety.
But those points were not enough to make up for an offense that converted only one of 14 third-down attempts and did not score a touchdown.
Defensive players and coaches have not pointed fingers.
“I understand how everybody’s feeling, which we are too,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Because we were in the Super Bowl last year, everybody thinks you ought to be 9-0 — we’re not. But, we’re not a losing team, either.
“I still think we have a good football team.”
The Rams rank 11th in total defense, giving up 330.1 yards per game. They are 17th in pass defense (240.2 ypg.), sixth in rushing defense (90.8 ypg.), and 15th in scoring defense (21.2 points per game).
Against the Steelers, the Rams benefited from Matthews’ return from a jaw injury. Matthews had 1½ sacks, increasing his season total to a team-best seven and his career total to 90½.
On Sunday, the Rams face a Bears offense that ranks among the NFL’s least productive. The Bears are 29th in yards, 30th in passing, 28th in rushing and 27th in scoring.
Ramsey probably will match up against receiver Allen Robinson, a former Jacksonville Jaguars teammate. Robinson has 53 catches, three for touchdowns.
“He can make plays, for sure,” Ramsey said.
Backup quarterback Blake Bortles, who played for the Jaguars, recalled the 2017 training camp battles between Ramsey, the fifth pick in the 2016 draft, and Robinson.
“That was Jalen’s second year and he was starting to feel comfortable,” Bortles said. “A-Rob just felt like he was the No. 1 established guy, so it was fun to watch those guys compete every day. It went back and forth.”
Tight end Tyler Higbee participated in a walk-through but did not practice for the second day in a row because of a left knee injury. Tight ends Gerald Everett (wrist) and Johnny Mundt (groin) were limited, per the Rams’ injury report. ... The Rams signed defensive back Adonis Alexander to the practice squad.