Sometimes it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Playing defensive end next to Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers is the definition of being in the right place at the right time. That’s exactly what’s happened for Dante Fowler Jr. since arriving in Los Angeles via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Fowler didn’t quite live up to the hype of being the third pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He never really grew into the impact defender that the Jaguars needed him to be, but he’s been a solid role player for the Rams as they’ve marched toward the Super Bowl.
The Rams have been a perfect landing spot for Fowler, too. They don’t need him to be a dynamite pass rusher — they just need him to be the complementary piece to Donald and Suh that he’s been so far.
In eight regular season games for the Rams, Fowler recorded two sacks, five quarterback hits, and six tackles for loss. He’s stepped up his game even more in the postseason.
In two playoff games, Fowler has totaled 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits — including the clutch hit on Drew Brees that forced him to throw an interception during overtime of the NFC Championship Game. The Saints never got the ball back.
Fowler has a good chance to make his presence felt against the Patriots. But the Super Bowl is a big opportunity for Fowler beyond the game itself. Fowler is set to be a free agent in March, so a strong performance Sunday could help grab a nice payday this offseason. Of course, playing on the same defensive line as Donald has also helped Fowler’s value before he’ll hit he open market.
Life is good playing next to Aaron Donald
Donald is a one-man wrecking crew. Even when teams scheme around his otherworldly talents with double-teams, triple-teams, and help from running backs, he can still straight-up dominate opposing offensive lines — hell, he had a league-leading 20.5 sacks as a defensive tackle this season.
The Rams have put Fowler into some great positions where all he’s seeing is one-on-one blocks due to the attention that teams have to give to Donald.
Even when teams don’t double-team Donald, they still try to keep him from detonating plays before they can get off the ground. Here’s an example from their game against the Detroit Lions. The left tackle and left guard are running a “pin and pull,” where the left tackle blocks down on Donald and the left guard pulls out into space.
While the “pin and pull” works in blocking Donald, it leaves a tight end in a situation where he has to block Fowler — that’s a huge advantage for Fowler, who ends up making a tackle in the backfield.
This season, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips got creative on the defensive line by sending Donald and Fowler on stunts to make use of their athleticism and get them free in space.
On this play against the Bears, Donald is the “smasher” on a stunt while Fowler is the “scraper.” Donald’s job is to explode into the left tackle while the left guard blocks him, occupying two blockers at once. All Fowler needs to do is enter the space that Donald created, then find the ballcarrier for a play in the backfield.
Here’s another example from the Rams’ Divisional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys. This time, the Cowboys are running away from the stunt, but Fowler is athletic enough to chase down Ezekiel Elliott from behind and get in a big hit before Elliott can really turn up the field.
While Fowler has certainly benefitted from playing next to Donald, he does make some positive plays that don’t directly come from the help of Donald.
Dante Fowler can win in isolated situations
The best way to bring value as an edge defender is being able to win one-on-one pass rush reps. Completely dusting offensive tackles off the snap isn’t Fowler’s best attribute, but it’s something that he can do well in spurts.
Fowler got a strip sack against the Seattle Seahawks rushing against former All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown. These are the situations where you can see the 4.6 40-yard dash that Fowler ran at the NFL Combine.
Fowler doesn’t have a great array of pass rush moves, but he does bring a ton of effort to his game. That allows him to create plays in the backfield even if his original plan is stifled. This “sack” against the Cowboys shows that.
Even though Cowboys tackle La’el Collins beat Fowler’s initial speed rush, Fowler kept working to get behind him. Eventually, Fowler found Dak Prescott, who had drifted to where Fowler was going. Fowler got his hands on him and the referees blew the play dead, crediting Fowler with a sack.
What does Fowler’s presence mean for Super Bowl 53?
Fowler isn’t the perfect defensive end, or even an overly productive one — if he were, he’d still be playing with the Jaguars. What he does bring is a skill set that matches well with Donald and the rest of the Rams’ defensive line.
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots’ stellar offensive line is going to be a load for the Rams’ defensive line — they haven’t allowed Tom Brady to be sacked during the playoffs. Sony Michel has also had an impressive postseason behind that offensive line, setting a rookie record for playoff rushing touchdowns with five.
Fowler will see a lot of reps against Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon, the Patriots’ pair of offensive tackles. He’ll get a chance to show his moves on the edge while the Patriots likely throw the kitchen sink at Donald and Suh on the inside. His ability to win the natural one-on-one matchups that he’ll see could wind up being the defensive X-factor for the Rams.
In the end, the Super Bowl might not come down to Donald making a game-winning play. It just might fall on the guy lining up next to him.