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The Rams’ terrifying defensive trio is why they’re in Super Bowl 53 — and maybe how they can win it

Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White shows how Dante Fowler, Ndamukong Suh, and Aaron Donald made life miserable for Drew Brees. Is Tom Brady next?

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Early last March, the Miami Dolphins decided to release Ndamukong Suh in what was characterized as an effort to effect “culture change” on the team in teal in South Florida. Dante Fowler, who was the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, was traded away by the Jacksonville Jaguars in late October in the middle of his fourth season in the league. It was pretty clear at that point that the Jaguars had given Fowler all of the opportunities they were willing to give him, and that they were finally ready to move on.

Both of those guys were deemed expendable by their former teams for different reasons, but with their respective abilities, the Los Angeles Rams saw two players who could have a major impact on their defense.

When they picked up Suh in free agency, there was a lot of chatter about him being “done.” When they traded for Fowler this past fall, quite a few people doubted whether they could get any more out of him than the Jaguars had over his first three and a half seasons. I think it’s clear after their performance against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game that to the extent that bringing in either guy was a “gamble,” the Rams seem to have hit the jackpot.

On Sunday against the Saints, Fowler and Suh teamed up with reigning (and soon-to-be two-time) Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald to make life a living hell for Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense. All three of them had outstanding individual plays throughout the game, but some of their most impressive work came when they played off each other to create big plays.

I actually started off trying to pick one of them as my Hoss this week, but after watching the film several times, I finally came to the conclusion that all three of them deserved it. I simply could not choose just one guy because they all played so well. So instead, I’m naming all three of them as my Hosses Of The Week. I’m also going to focus on three plays where they worked together to force lost yardage plays on the Saints, rather than focus on their individual big plays.

No matter what you think of the end of that game (and trust me, I have some thoughts, too), if these three cats hadn’t balled out all day, the Rams would’ve never even had a chance to win in the first place.

The way the game started off certainly did not favor Los Angeles, especially playing in New Orleans. The Rams found themselves already down 13-0 at the beginning of the second quarter after surrendering a touchdown and two field goals, and they were in real danger of the game getting out of hand. After finally getting on the board with a field goal on the first drive of that quarter, it was the defense’s turn to show up and make some plays if they wanted to try to claw back into the game.

With a little less than 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, New Orleans had a first-and-10 at its own 25-yard line. On this particular play, Donald was lined up as the left three-technique on the outside edge of Saints right guard Larry Warford. Fowler was lined up on the same side outside of him as the left edge rusher opposite Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Brees was in the shotgun with Alvin Kamara off set to his left, and it appeared the Saints wanted to try to run Kamara on a belly play to the right. The problem with that plan was that it required Warford to try to zone block on Donald all by himself.

On the snap, Warford came off hard at Donald’s outside shoulder to try to gain outside leverage on him. Donald recognized the reach block right away, and instead of trying to fight it, he simply did a swim move inside to avoid Warford and backdoor the play. Now, normally a guy coming inside like that when he is about to be reach blocked would create an immediate running lane outside for the running back.

Donald, however, is anything but normal.

As a matter of fact, that swim move wasn’t all that simple, either. Donald did something that I only noticed once I watched in slow-mo; he actually changed directions in mid-air. Seriously.

On my initial watching, I just kind of assumed that Donald took a step upfield, planted his foot in the ground, then stepped inside with his swim move. But I was wrong. I will try to explain what actually happened, but I’m pretty sure I won’t do it justice.

Donald had his right hand down and his right foot back in his stance, which meant his first step would be with his right foot, but he would be using his left leg to spring himself forward on his get-off. When the ball was snapped, Donald did indeed step with his right foot, but he noticed Warford’s reach block while his right foot was still in the air. His left foot, however, was still on the ground at that point, and somehow — I’m still not sure exactly how — Donald’s body was able to react so fast that he went from using his left leg to propel him straight forward, to having that same left leg push him just a hair inside before his right foot hit the ground. And that is what helped him to slide inside in mid-air and slip by Warford with a swim move.

Did you get all that?

(You really should watch it again in slo-mo if you can.)

The swim move itself was also top-notch as, even in mid-air, Donald was able to take his inside (right) hand and swipe Warford’s inside (left) hand out of the way. To ensure Warford couldn’t recover, Donald finished the move by using his outside (left) arm to pin Warford’s inside arm behind him. Donald continued right on his merry way into the backfield, almost totally unimpeded by Warford’s block, but he couldn’t quite take down the slippery Kamara behind the line of scrimmage.

No matter, however, since he chased him right into the waiting arms of Fowler, who had done a good job of holding his ground and keeping his outside leverage on Ramczyk’s base block attempt. With Donald having done most of the work, all Fowler had to do was stand there and wait for Kamara to come right to his waiting arms. It went in the books as a 2-yard tackle for a loss for Fowler, but Donald definitely deserves an assist for that play.

The Rams would go on to force their first three-and-out of the game on that drive.

With just under three minutes left in the first half, the Rams forced the Saints into a second-and-16 situation from their own 24-yard line. Suh had beaten Saints left guard Andrus Peat like a drum from his nose tackle position and sacked Brees on first down for a loss of 6 yards. On second down, Suh went from being aligned as the nose tackle to actually being kicked out as the right defensive end opposite Saints left tackle Terron Armstead. Donald was inside of him as the three-tech, while Fowler was once again lined up as the left edge rusher opposite Ramczyk.

The speedy Fowler came screaming off the ball at the snap like he was shot out of a cannon. Ramczyk took a decent pass set, but as the saying goes, speed kills. Fowler took a subtle step wide initially that forced Ramczyk to step wider than usual to try to come out and get him. Then with Ramczyk quickly approaching, Fowler dipped low and came through with a big-time rip move with his inside (right) arm.

Ramczyk was pretty much toast after Fowler got underneath him with that rip move, but he tried to ride Fowler on by the level of the quarterback. However, Fowler was simply too fast and too low to the ground, and he was still able to cut the corner tight enough to force Brees to step up into the pocket.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Suh was momentarily caught up in all the extra attention that teams show Donald every game. First, Saints tight end Dan Arnold came off the ball and tried to chip him. Although it appeared that Arnold may have taken the worst of that collision, he was able to force Suh inside a little and right down the middle of Armstead. Suh then appeared to try to toss Armstead outside and come inside, but he ended up bumping into Peat, who was double-teaming Donald with the center, Max Unger.

Eventually, however, Peat had to go back to trying to block Donald, and it was at that same point that Brees was trying to step up in the pocket to avoid Fowler’s speed rush.

With Fowler still in hot pursuit, Suh managed to cross Unger’s face to get over and block Brees’ escape route up the middle. The other defensive tackle, Michael Brockers, just about got in on the sack, but he ended up sliding off of Brees. Fowler and Suh then converged on Brees and took him down for the sack.

It only ended up being a 1-yard loss, but that sack helped to keep New Orleans off schedule. After gaining only 3 yards on a screen to Kamara on third-and-17, the Saints were once again forced to punt.

The Rams offense would score their first touchdown of the game on the ensuing drive to pull within three points at halftime.

OK, so I know the no-call near the end of regulation on the pass interference/helmet-to-helmet hit on the Rams was really, really bad. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Rams defense, and specifically this trio, made plays to win in overtime. I saw a lot of people complaining about overtime rules after the Chiefs-Patriots game because the Kansas City offense and its fantastic second-year quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, never got a chance in overtime.

Well, the Saints got the ball first in overtime in their game, and it didn’t work out so well for them, did it?

Fowler had the big pressure in OT to force Brees into an interception, but the play before that one was pretty impressive by that Rams defensive line, too. The Saints had the ball at their own 40-yard line after a 14-yard pass interference penalty, and with a couple more first downs they would’ve been pretty close to field goal range.

Now, one understated problem the Saints had at that point was that they were almost running out of tight ends. Their stater, Ben Watson, missed the game completely with an injury, and backup Josh Hill got hurt in the first quarter. That left Arnold and Garrett Griffin as the last tight ends standing in overtime.

You might be asking yourself why you should care about some tight ends you have never heard of. Well, it’s because one of them, Griffin, was asked to block Suh one-on-one on a running play on that first down in overtime.

Fucking Mistake!

The Saints came out with Griffin and a wide receiver to the offensive left side of the formation, with two receivers on the opposite side. Brees was in shotgun with Mark Ingram offset to his left, and New Orleans was going to try to run a zone play to the right with Ingram. Normally a zone run play like that would have a natural cutback lane behind the tight end’s block backside, because the defensive end to that side is usually in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

If the defensive end drives down hard inside to try to stay in their C gap, they usually have to go so flat down the line that it allows the running back to cutback down hill all the way outside of them.

If they try to muscle up the tight end instead and push them into the backfield, they usually give up that C gap and the running back can cutback downhill in that hole with a fully head of steam.

Of course, normally that defensive end isn’t Ndamukong Suh. And normally that tight end wouldn’t have been Griffin either, for that matter.

To say Suh dominated Griffin on that play just doesn’t come close to doing it justice. For about half a second after they made contact, it almost appears that Griffin might be able to hold his own. And then reality hit.

Or should I say, Suh did.

Suh got control of Griffin and mushed him back like he was a toddler, then tossed him aside like some cold McDonald’s french fries right into the C gap so that Ingram couldn’t try to cut back in that gap. With Griffin’s body blocking his path, Ingram was pretty much forced to try to cut it all the way back to the D gap, and, unfortunately for Ingram, that meant cutting back meant running right at Suh. He might as well have tried to run over a brick wall. Suh wrapped Ingram up and immediately two yards behind the line of scrimmage.

But, the play wasn’t over.

Suh, ever aware of his reputation as a dirty player and wary of getting a dumb penalty in that situation, just tried to sling Ingram backward instead of his normal regular season chokeslam him into the turf. Well, Ingram was able to keep his balance and stay upright, and the officials allowed the play to go on.

That actually didn’t turn out to be a good thing for Ingram, or the Saints, however.

See, Donald, who was lined up inside of Suh as the right three-tech, had done a great job of playing the scoop block by Peat and Armstead on that play. He was able to anchor down against Peat and once Armstead came off the block to go up to the second level, Donald was able to expand back outside and to where Ingram had cut back. No sooner than Ingram gathered himself after Suh tried to throw him to the ground, Donald was right there on his ass to keep him from gaining any more yards.

Out of instinct, Ingram tried to continue to run and make something out of nothing on that play, but he actually ended up losing more yards than he would have initially when it was all said and done. Instead of a 2-yard loss, Donald ended up taking him down for a 6-yard loss, and pretty much forced the Saints to throw on the next play.

And we all know how that turned out.

Feel however you want about how that game ended, and I totally get that. The one thing you can’t deny is that Fowler, Suh, and Donald were kicking ass for most of that game. From the first play to the last on defense, all three were outstanding individually, and collectively they were even better.

Now they head to the Super Bowl to face the Patriots and Tom Brady, who many people believe to be the greatest quarterback ever. I think of how sweet it must be for Fowler and Suh after their former teams gave up on them. I don’t know that they will win the Super Bowl to get the ultimate revenge, but after the big hand they had in getting the Rams there, it is my pleasure to award Dante Fowler, Ndamukong Suh, and the all-world Aaron Donald, as my Hosses of the Week for the Conference Championship Round of the playoffs.