ST. LOUIS -- Bundling up before heading into a snowy evening, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis paused when a reporter mentioned to him that his team could have pitched a shutout against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
"Should have pitched a shutout," Laurinaitis quickly corrected.
Indeed the Rams' defense, perhaps playing as well as any group in the league over the past three weeks, could have held Peyton Manning and the high-octane Broncos scoreless in the Rams' stunning 22-7 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. As it was, they held Denver to its lowest point total since Manning arrived in 2012. It was also the first time since Week 13 of 2001 that Manning had attempted 20 or more passes and his team scored seven or fewer points.
For coordinator Gregg Williams' defense, there have been signs of reaching Max Q the past two weeks but shutting down Manning & Co. served as the ultimate notice to the rest of the league that the Rams are not a team, especially not a defense, you want to see on the schedule over the season's final six games.
"The scheme is built so that, if everyone is on the same page, you can play really fast," Laurinaitis said. "I think the last few weeks we have been able to just come in and play extremely fast and trust each other and know we don’t have to be perfect but let’s be aggressive. The light bulb is kind of switching on but we have got to keep that thing on, I don’t want it to run out."
If the Rams can find a way to duplicate Sunday's combination of scheme and execution, the light bulb should be able to burn brightly for the rest of the season.
Although the Broncos had 397 total yards, the Rams held them to 28 yards on 10 carries. Over the past two weeks, they've allowed just 56 rushing yards on 32 carries, which is the best two-game stretch against the run in franchise history. In making that group so one-dimensional, the Rams were able to throw a variety of tricks at Manning.
Instead of the usual two or three checks that Laurinaitis can make out of certain offensive looks, the Rams had six or seven. On defensive tackle Aaron Donald's fourth-down sack in the fourth quarter, Laurinaitis got called out as the MIC linebacker by Broncos center Will Montgomery. Laurinaitis had shown blitz but offered a subtle change at the line of scrimmage, switching the side where he lined up in an effort to create enough confusion to throw the Broncos off.
At the snap, Montgomery took the bait and end Robert Quinn peeled around the inside to Manning. Quinn was unable to bring Manning down, but Donald cleaned it up for a sack.
And the tweaks weren't just based out of blitz looks, either. On cornerback Trumaine Johnson's fourth-quarter interception, the Rams showed a normal Cover 3 look before the snap, something Manning had probably seen plenty of times in his tape study. But Williams had installed a different coverage from the same look earlier in the week and Manning threw down the right sideline where Johnson made an acrobatic interception.
"As long as all 11 are on the same page, we’ll be all right," Laurinaitis said. "That’s a great job by the defensive coaching staff knowing it would come to that and the best part about Gregg Williams is he gives me the freedom to call stuff if I don’t want to check and the feeling of the play just isn’t right, we play the call. A couple of times it happened and a couple of times he checked. It was the combination of a great game plan and just executing."
Of more importance than the yardage, the Rams held Denver to 4-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth. They also had two interceptions, two sacks, four quarterback hits and 12 pass breakups. Of those dozen breakups, five came from Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree near the line of scrimmage.
Even when Manning completed a pass, a member of the Rams' secondary was there to greet him with a crushing blow such as Rodney McLeod's big hit (and subsequent penalty) on Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
"It energizes us but, also, they know," McDonald said. "The offense knows that you put that ball up, you’re going to feel it. I think that’s something we take pride in, being a physical defense and offenses knowing that it’s not sweet [out there]."