The St. Louis Rams look a lot like the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants in one crucial respect.
Like those Giants teams, the Rams are built around their defensive line to a degree unmatched by anyone else in the league.
All four Rams starters – ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers – were first-round draft picks. And then coach Jeff Fisher augmented that talented group in the offseason by signing free-agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a talented if sometimes underachieving former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions.
That closely parallels the defensive line the Giants built going back to the mid-2000s that was the primary reason they won the Super Bowl in the '07 and '11 seasons. Those linemen too were mainly high draft picks (Michael Strahan, William Joseph, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jason Pierre-Paul, Linval Joseph and Marvin Austin) and expensive free agents (Chris Canty).
Now, this isn't a prediction that the 2015 Rams will win the Super Bowl. But the similarities suggest that the Rams are dangerous team for the long haul of the season, even if they're off to only a so-so start at 2-2, heading into Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.
"Their defense, (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams, it took him a year to learn those guys," said a scout from an NFC team. "He had to learn the players, the players had to learn his system. Now they get it. They're going to be good."
The idea of winning a title on the back of a dominating defensive line is an old one in the NFL.
The Detroit Lions, for instance, played in the NFL championship game four times from 1952 through '57 with teams built around a dominating defensive line (Les Bingamen, Thurman McGraw and Ray Krouse were first-team All-Pro multiple times; and Darris McCord went to a Pro Bowl).
The dominating defensive lines since then are better known, probably because of NFL Films. That includes the Los Angeles Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" (Rosey Grier join Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones), which turned that franchise into a championship contender in the late 1960s.
In the late 1960s and early '70s there was the Minnesota Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" (Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Alan Page and Gary Larsen), who led that franchise to four Super Bowl appearances in the '70s (Larsen was on only the first three).
And in the mid-to-late '70s there was the "Steel Curtain" ("Mean Joe" Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White), which was the core of the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty that won four Super Bowl titles.
What's different about building a title contender around the defensive line in today's free-agency era is the commitment in resources it takes. Because of free agency, it's almost impossible to keep a defensive line together for more than a couple years, so that means a team that committed to the defensive line has to constantly re-stock with high draft picks and the occasional free agent of its own.
The Giants used six picks in the first three rounds of the drafts from 2006-11 to keep the talent level high on his defensive line.
And Fisher and the head of his personnel department, GM Les Snead, have gone all-in on their defensive line. In three of their last five drafts they've used a first-round pick on that position group three times (Quinn in '11, Brockers in '12 and Donald in '14). Then last offseason they signed Fairley to a one-year, $4 million deal to be part of their defensive tackle rotation. Detroit had drafted Fairley at No. 13 overall in '11.
Fisher's thinking, like the Giants, no doubt is that a dominant defensive lines can cover up weakness behind them better than vice versa.
It worked for the Giants in '07 and '11. Neither of those teams dominated in the regular season – the '07 Giants were a 10-6 wild card, and the '11 Giants won the NFC East Division with a 9-7 record. But their defensive lines made them capable of slowing down premier offenses, because they could pressure quarterbacks with four-man rushes, and thus devote seven men to coverage.
So in '07 season they held a New England Patriots' offense that scored the second-most points in league history to only 14 points in the Super Bowl. And in '11, they held down a Packers offense that ranks third in points scored in league history in a 37-20 win.
The Rams, likewise, are looking for their defensive line to carry them to their first playoff appearance since 2004, and perhaps beyond.
While all four starters are good, the two standouts are Donald and Quinn.
Donald, in fact, is quickly becoming regarded as the best defensive tackle in the game. Though he's on the small side for his position (6-feet-1, 285 pounds), he's an incredibly explosive athlete who ran the 40 in 4.68 seconds.
One of the Packers' strengths on offense is the interior of their line with guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and center Corey Linsley. But they're in for a major challenge Sunday against Brockers, Fairley and especially Donald.
"Aaron Donald sets the tone for everything," the scout said. "Wait until you see the film. He's tossing (Justin) Britt and (J.R.) Sweezy, the two guards from Seattle, he's literally tossing them on their (butt). It's unbelievable."
Quinn has 43 sacks in his last 52 games and is as good an edge rusher as there is in the league. He generally lines up at right end, so he'll mostly be matched against left tackle David Bakhtiari.
"Robert Quinn is one of those freaks," said a scout from another NFC team. "He can get about six inches off the ground (turning the corner), and tackles can't lay a glove on him. He comes around the tackles through the back door on the quarterback. Those are the top two players on that team."
So the Rams go into Sunday's game with just the kind of defense that matches up against the Packers. They have the talent to pressure quarterback Aaron Rodgers with four rushers, which means they can cover with seven.
The Packers are 9-to 10-point favorites, but with the Rams' front four it's hard to see why the spread is that big. This figures to be a very tough matchup, and the Packers could end up needing all of Rodgers' mobility to win the day.
"(The Rams) are almost on par (with Seattle) as far as defense," one of the scouts said. "I'd have to give Seattle the nod for the better overall front seven, they have the linebackers and everything. But (the Rams) will beat you up so you're limping into the next week. That's what a lot of teams in the league are worrying about."
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