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Ndamukong Suh can turn the Rams into a nuclear-grade version of Nebraska’s terrifying 2009 defense

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The Rams now have two of the most talented interior defenders of this millennium, and I’m very much here for it.

New Orleans Saints v Miami Dolphins Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images

On Oct. 8, 2009, my understanding of football changed.

To that point, most of the writing I had done about offense and defense revolved around scheme and structure. 4-3 vs. 3-4 vs. 4-2-5. Spread vs. pro-style vs. triple option. We lean on these terms as stylistic short hand, but that’s all they are. So much of what you do, in both structure and tactics within structure, is based on matchups. And if you have a single, drastic advantage, you can build really creative things off of that.

On the second Thursday of October, I watched Nebraska operate out of a base dime defense. Its starting lineup listed two defensive ends, two defensive tackles, a middle linebacker, two cornerbacks, and four safeties.

This wasn’t a philosophical decision. Head coach Bo Pelini and his coordinator brother Carl weren’t attempting to revolutionize football defense. They were simply exploiting the biggest matchup advantage college football has seen in the 2000s.

One of their defensive tackles was Ndamukong Suh. No other matchup mattered.

Nebraska met Missouri in Columbia in a game that would decide the Big 12 North. In the most torrential conditions in which I have ever watched a game — storms knocked out the power in half the stadium, and the lighting was “small-town high school” hazy — Suh made five solo tackles, an assist, and a sack, and he picked off a pass, broke up another one, and forced a fumble. And that didn’t tell even half the story.

Suh commanded double-teams (at least) on nearly every snap, and Mizzou linemen still committed three holding penalties. (That probably means that another 16 went uncalled.) And his sack might have changed the trajectory of Blaine Gabbert’s career.

Gabbert never really had perfect pocket timing, but after Suh dragged him down from behind, forced a fumble, and injured his ankle, Gabbert’s clock was broken, his step-up-or-flee instincts permanently warped.

That Nebraska dime defense — the Pelinis would begin calling it the “Peso” defense the following spring — finished 2009 ranked No. 1 in Def. S&P+.

Suh not only had 20.5 tackles for loss, the double-teams he commanded set the table for tackle Jared Crick to make 12.5 and end Barry Turner to add 12 more.

Without blitzing, the Huskers’ four linemen thoroughly defeated any opposing line (even eventual BCS runner-up Texas’), and in pass-rushing situations, teams had no choice but to keep the running back in as a sixth blocker. That created a 7-on-5 advantage for the rest of the defense, 7-on-4 if the QB wasn’t a runner. A secondary that featured future pros Prince Amukamara, Larry Asante, Dejon Gomes, Eric Hagg, and Alfonzo Dennard didn’t need that much help, but got it anyway.

Eventual BCS runner-up Texas nearly fell victim to one of the most dominant individual performances we’ll ever see: Suh’s 11-tackle, 4.5-sack destruction in the Big 12 title game. Nebraska allowed 31 points to Texas Tech but otherwise only 8.8 points per game. Only one opponent (Colorado) averaged even 5 yards per play.

This was an absolutely unfair defense. I love nothing more than a defense that turns the trenches into a bar fight, creates anarchy, and lets its other defenders swarm the ball with numbers advantages.

We saw another good version when Robert Nkemdiche peaked at Ole Miss in 2014. He and undersized nose tackle Isaac Gross took a chainsaw to the interior of any opposing line and let everybody else clean up the mess.

And now that the Los Angeles Rams have just signed Suh to line up alongside Aaron Donald next year, we might get to see the NFL version.

With Suh, Donald, and Michael Brockers collapsing pockets from the inside out, the franchise boasts the league’s least-stoppable interior linemen.

Having Suh’s pass rushing will help mitigate the loss of defensive end Robert Quinn, who was traded to the Dolphins this offseason.

The additions of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters will likely help the pass rush too.

Earlier in March, I wrote about the salary cap balance that most successful teams end up pulling off. Generally, if you add up the 10 most expensive players from most good teams, their contracts amount to between 50 and 60 percent of the salary cap. Any more, and you’re probably too top-heavy and thin in too many positions. Any less, and you’re either the Patriots or don’t have enough star-caliber talent.

Really, only one team this decade has gotten away with bumping that figure over 60 percent: 2017’s Rams.

In the sample of eight teams that went over 60 percent (they were at 63.1 percent), last year’s 11-5 Rams were one of just two that had a winning record* and were the only team with a scoring margin higher than plus-60 — at plus-149, they had the third-best margin of the year.

They bucked the trend by having a lot of big contributors on rookie contracts [including QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, WR Cooper Kupp, DT Aaron Donald, and S Lamarcus Joyner.]

Per Spotrac, these nine productive players combined to take up just 12 percent of the Rams’ cap space. Having this many cheap players thrive was fortuitous. It’s also unsustainable, as eventually you have to re-sign some of these guys. Donald, for instance, will soon be far more expensive.

With the Rams placing the franchise tag on Joyner, we’ve already seen Quinn get traded and Watkins leave for Kansas City via free agency. Johnson is also a top free agent, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib have been brought in as replacements, and there are even more big decisions on the horizon for the Rams, if not in 2018, then in 2019.

Goff, Gurley, Kupp, and Donald are still inexpensive; they’ll occupy just 13.1 percent of the team’s cap this year even though Gurley was the league’s offensive player of the year and Donald was defensive player of the year.

The Rams therefore had a chance to throw out some short-term cash and make themselves a contender.

Like, say, a one-year, $14-million contract to a still-mostly-dominant 31-year old DT. Suh will spend more time as a 0-technique nose than he’s used to in Wade Phillips’ system. That’ll probably work out OK.

The addition of Peters and Talib had already upgraded the secondary, and now they’ve just added one of the five or six best interior linemen to line up next to the best interior lineman in the league.

Goodness.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Aaron Donald
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The salary cap makes it hard to build a good team unless you’ve got a lot of players on rookie contracts. For at least a little longer, the Rams have that.

And now they’ve almost got the pieces for a professional Peso defense.

Blow up the interior of opposing offensive lines, and let the chips fall where they may.

Gabbert, by the way, spent last season playing for the Cardinals, one of the Rams’ division rivals. He just signed a new deal with Tennessee. He got out just in the nick of time.