SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It was a short week -- a very short week -- and the Los Angeles Rams' defense was nearing the point of exhaustion. Two special-teams fumbles and their own ineffectiveness kept them on the field for almost the entire last half of Thursday night's fourth quarter. But there was no time to rest while holding on to a two-point lead against the division-rival San Francisco 49ers and looking to salvage a victory from a wild night.
"We had to dig deep," Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said after an eventual 41-39 win. "We had to really dig deep. At that point in time, it ain’t no pointing fingers, none of that. Let’s just get it done. That’s what it came down to at the end, and that’s all we were thinking."
The Rams finally got it done thanks to Aaron Donald, who muscled 49ers guard Brandon Fusco to the turf and wrapped up Brian Hoyer for his first sack of the season. The Rams won for the second time in their first three games. Jared Goff is throwing the ball all over the field, Todd Gurley is effective on the ground again, and the entire offense -- an offense that finished last in the NFL in yards each of the last two years -- is clicking under first-year head coach Sean McVay.
But what about that defense?
"We have to do a little bit more for those guys," Donald said, referring to the offense -- and when's the last time you heard something like that from a Rams defensive player?
Three games in and the Rams' offense has been more effective than the Rams' defense, which hasn't been the case in quite some time. The Rams' defense, now under the supervision of legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, allowed a Washington Redskins team that doesn't rely on its running game to gain 229 yards on the ground Sunday. Four days later, it allowed a 49ers team that went without a touchdown in its first two games to amass 421 yards from scrimmage.
"We feel like there’s so much we can clean up," said Rams nose tackle Michael Brockers, who exited with an injury and returned on two occasions Thursday. "There’s so much we can clean up. The points that they scored were unacceptable. Not saying we feel like we’re just the greatest defense ever, but we feel like we’re better than that."
The Rams took a 41-26 lead with only 8:43 to play, but they let the 49ers crawl back in it. Hoyer led a four-play, 64-yard drive near the midway point of the fourth quarter to make it a one-score game. Pharoh Cooper then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the 49ers gained 29 yards on eight plays to score again -- on a 1-yard run by Carlos Hyde -- with 2:13 remaining.
But Troy Hill, added to the roster earlier this week after serving a two-game suspension, jumped a route to break up the two-point conversion that would've tied it. And after the 49ers got the ball back on the ensuing onside kick, the defense finally made a stand, causing a turnover on downs.
"We still gave up a lot of points," Donald said, "and we shouldn’t have let them get that close."
The Rams' defense dominated in the opener, returning two interceptions for touchdowns, recovering a fumble and causing a safety. It started Thursday's game similarly, with Robey-Coleman intercepting Hoyer on the first play from scrimmage, then recovering a fumble 11 minutes later. But the Rams' defense has allowed too many big plays over these last two games, a surprising development given the track record of the coordinator and the overall talent on their roster.
Robey-Coleman was asked if this group has more in it.
"Oh god, yes," he said. "Oh my god, it’s a lot more. It’s a lot more. And the thing about it is we’re still getting better. We’re still getting better. Week by week. Week by week."