Two key moves that helped turn Wade Phillips' Rams defense around

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- In his first job interview with the Denver Broncos in the late 1980s, Wade Phillips was asked by Dan Reeves about his willingness to play rookies.

"I'll play the best players," Phillips recalled telling the coach. "Whoever's the best player, that's who's going to play."

Nearly 30 years have passed since then, and the motto still sticks. Phillips is in his first season as Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator, still learning about an entirely new set of players. But he hasn't been afraid to pull the trigger on some drastic personnel changes, even though the season is well underway and even though it involves giving mid- to late-round rookies a significant amount of playing time.

Those tweaks are a big reason why his defense looks dominant again.

Two weeks ago, Phillips moved veteran nose tackle Michael Brockers to defensive end, a position he hadn't played since high school. It prompted rookie sixth-round pick Tanzel Smart to start at nose tackle, and it helped the Rams limit the Dallas Cowboys to six second-half points in a key road win. Last week, strong safety Maurice Alexander was benched -- then ultimately waived -- in favor of rookie third-round pick John Johnson, who helped limit the Seattle Seahawks to one touchdown in a game the Rams lost only because they committed five turnovers.

"It's about the players," Phillips said. "It's not the scheme you run; it's what the players can do. We felt like Brockers, in another position, would help us more, and it turned out that way. John Johnson was ready to play. We felt it all along."

Johnson started alongside Cody Davis as mainly a single high safety last week, but is expected to get most of his snaps at strong safety if Lamarcus Joyner (hamstring) is able to start Week 6, on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnson intercepted a Russell Wilson pass on Sunday, returning it 69 yards, and also made nice plays to break up a couple of deep throws.

Phillips called him "a heck of a football player" who has "a lot of savvy." Johnson's athleticism and ball skills gives Phillips more flexibility with what he can do with his secondary, particularly when Joyner is healthy.

"They obviously trust me," said Johnson, who has been playing both safety positions evenly during practice. "I just have to go out there and prove them right. If they put me out there, I have to make plays and make them understand that they made the right decision."

Brockers has already done that. In the two games that have seen him line up mostly as a 5-technique, the sixth-year defensive lineman has accumulated a sack, two quarterback hits, two pass deflections and six tackles. Brockers was initially hesitant to make the move, but part of him also wanted to give it a try. Lining up as a defensive end -- a need since Dominique Easley tore his ACL during training camp -- means his numbers stand out and his body takes less abuse.

"Inside," Brockers said, "I wanted to show the world what I had. You want to be a team player, you want to do what you have to for the team, but at the same time, sometimes you want to get those little accolades, to get those sacks and hear your name called."

Dating back to the second half in Dallas, the Rams have allowed only 22 points, two touchdowns and 394 yards in a span of six quarters against two dangerous offenses. In the 10 quarters prior to that, the Rams allowed 90 points, 11 touchdowns and 1,093 yards. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn still believes this unit can be better, but said "guys have made a big improvement just communicating better and allowing our minds to slow down a little bit."

"Our guys are solid," Phillips said. "They work hard; they're trying to get things the way we want them done. It comes down to the individual players playing well within the system, and we're starting to do that better and better."