Star-studded Rams de­fense

Three ac­qui­si­tions boost en­ter­tain­ing unit

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Lind­say H. Jones

THOU­SAND OAKS, Calif. – Wade Phillips stands in the mid­dle of the Rams prac­tice field, turn­ing slowly to watch a group of de­fen­sive line­men go­ing through drills near one end zone.

Phillips turns, shift­ing his gaze to the lineback­ers, near mid­field, work­ing on a force fum­ble drill, and fi­nally to the de­fen­sive backs, who are prac­tic­ing catch­ing in­ter­cep­tions by the far side­line.

Phillips, the Rams’ 70-year-old de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, raises his right arm in the air and spins his right fin­ger. “Ro­tate!” Phillips yells, then an­i­mat­edly claps his hands as play­ers trot past him.

The Rams de­fense has the po­ten­tial to be one of the most en­ter­tain­ing shows in the NFL this sea­son after the ad­di­tions of cor­ner­backs Aqib Talib and Mar­cus Peters and de­fen­sive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and Phillips is the ring­mas­ter.

“That’s what keeps you young, coach­ing-wise, is new chal­lenges, and new play­ers, new play­ers that you get to work with. And when you get to work with great play­ers? That’s re­ally fun,” Phillips told USA TO­DAY on Tues­day.

Per­haps the most dis­tinct chal­lenge for Phillips, how­ever, is the chem­istry ex­per­i­ment of meld­ing Talib, Peters and Suh with the ex­ist­ing group. Each player, while pos­sess­ing stel­lar on-field ré­sumés — a com­bined 12 Pro Bowls and five first-team all-pro nods among them — also has a fiery on-field de­meanor. Talib and Suh have each been pre­vi­ously been sus­pended by the NFL for un­sports­man­like con­duct, and Peters was banned for one game by Chiefs coach Andy Reid after a blowup last year.

For now, the Rams are bet­ting that they can main­tain order with the ar­rival of those play­ers. Some of that con­fi­dence stems from the pres­ence of Phillips, who coached Talib pre­vi­ously in Den­ver and earned the re­spect of Rams play­ers shortly after join­ing head coach Sean McVay’s staff last year.

“You have no choice but to re­spect what he brings to the table,” safety La­mar­cus Joyner told USA TO­DAY. “He re­spects you. This isn’t day­care to him. He’s not try­ing to treat you like you need any spe­cial attention. He sets the plat­form of trust, and gives you the ac­count­abil­ity to be able to trust you, and play­ers, we hone in on stuff like that. We re­spect the fact that he re­spects us as hu­man be­ings and as peo­ple.”

But main­tain­ing com­po­sure will also fall to the play­ers them­selves. Peters said Rams coaches have not asked play­ers to rein in their con­tentious­ness at all, in­stead in­struct­ing them to play ag­gres­sive with­out cross­ing a line.

“It ain’t about what pre­vi­ous coaches were let­ting me do,” Peters told USA TO­DAY. “It’s about what my coach­ing staff is do­ing, but it’s not just me. It’s the whole team, and that’s the best part about it. They’re coach­ing ev­ery­body the same. You know what you’re go­ing to get. That’s the best thing about it.”

Talib knows he has no mar­gin for er­ror when it comes to dis­ci­pline after last year’s sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing his fight with for­mer Raiders re­ceiver Michael Crab­tree. Yet he pointed to the Bron­cos’ 2015 de­fense, which tied for third in the league with 13 penal­ties for un­nec­es­sary rough­ness, as proof that a team can thrive with a play­ing style that tests bound­aries.

“We all know the rules and what you’re go­ing to get in trou­ble for. I swing on Crab­tree, I know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” Talib said. “Ei­ther you’re wor­ried about it or you ain’t wor­ried about it. We know where that line is. We’re all grown, we’re all vets.”

For now, the Rams’ new ad­di­tions have earned noth­ing but pos­i­tive re­views from their team­mates. Talib in par­tic­u­lar is emerg­ing as a vo­cal leader, in large part be­cause of the cred­i­bil­ity he al­ready has with Phillips. The 11th-year veteran hasn’t been afraid to push his new team­mates in meet­ing rooms and on the prac­tice field. He’s taken an ex­tra men­tor­ship role with Peters, who he said re­minds him of him­self at age 25 — brash and con­fi­dent, if some­what un­pol­ished.

“I’ve been in some great, great sec­on­daries, but top to bot­tom, with depth, this is prob­a­bly the best one I’ve played in,” Talib said. “The sky’s the limit — we just have to be on our stuff. Be in meet­ings on time, get sleep at night. The tal­ent is there, you just have to do the ex­tra stuff.”

KIRBY LEE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

New Rams de­fen­sive tackle Ndamukong Suh pre­vi­ously played for the Lions and Dol­phins.

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