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'That's all Coach Wade': Rams D hitting its stride in time for Super Bowl

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The price tag to assemble the Los Angeles Rams' defense was hefty, and despite clinching a division title, the results didn't live up to expectations throughout most of the regular season.

Then the playoffs arrived.

A once dormant Ndamukong Suh woke up, as the Rams shut down the season's leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott in a divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys.

"He used his talent," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He was really motivated to play well and he did."

In the NFC Championship Game victory over the New Orleans Saints, Aqib Talib, who spent eight weeks on injured reserve, regained form as a shutdown corner as he neutralized Drew Brees' favorite target Michael Thomas.

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"We have a Hall of Fame D-coordinator," Talib said. "He put together a great game plan, and for the most part we did a good job executing."

It took longer than expected for the defense to jell, but it is peaking just in time for Super Bowl LIII, where five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the New England Patriots await of Feb. 3 in Atlanta (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS).

"They've played consistent," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "It's a credit to those guys."

Over the offseason, the Rams franchise-tagged safety Lamarcus Joyner for $11.28 million, then traded for All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Talib, who are scheduled to earn $11 million and $19 million, respectively, over two seasons.

With reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, it seemed improbable that the Rams would join the free-agency frenzy for Suh. But they did, and signed the All-Pro defensive tackle to a one-year, $14 million deal. Then the Rams made Donald the highest-paid defensive player in history, signing him to a six-year extension worth $135 million, with $87 million guaranteed.

Donald's payday appears to be money well spent as he accumulated a league-best 20.5 sacks despite facing an inordinate number of double-teams.

But throughout a 13-3 regular season, the defense often appeared flawed, with the exception of its innate ability to make stops late in the fourth quarter in victories over the Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.

While on injured reserve, Talib was sorely missed as Peters struggled to break up explosive plays. The defensive line, which features three first-round picks in Suh, Donald and Michael Brockers, failed to consistently slow the run and gave up a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry.

So what caused the late-season turnaround?

Outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., whom the Rams acquired in a midseason trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars, credited Phillips for his ability and willingness to adjust to personnel.

"Wade kind of switched up the game plan during the season, which made it a little easier on us," Fowler said. "He's a mastermind and he finds ways. He knows his players."

But in a group stacked with natural ability, motivation also played a role.

"Guys just stepping up to the plate and taking their game up a notch, knowing what's at stake," Fowler said. "And we are where we want to go."

After giving up an average of 122.9 rushing yards per game through the regular season, the Rams held the Cowboys and Saints to an average of 49 rushing yards, and yards per carry dropped from 5.1 to 2.3, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

For the most part, Brees had his way with the Rams as he dealt them a 45-35 loss in Week 9. That changed Sunday as Suh and Fowler combined to sack him twice. Fowler also applied a hit in overtime that forced Brees into an errant pass that resulted in an interception.

McVay said Fowler's pressure from the edge, along with outside linebacker Samson Ebukam's, has changed the dynamic of the entire defense.

"Samson and Dante have both brought a physical presence to the edges and I just think that enables the second and some of our guys on the back end to be able to be a little bit freer," McVay said. "It makes it really tough to run the football and obviously protect if they're getting push in the pocket."

In the secondary, Talib and Peters combined to shut down Thomas, who had 12 catches for 211 yards in Week 9 but four catches for 36 yards Sunday.

"We ain't playing out here," Talib said. "Coach Wade, when the time comes he really gets in that bag and he really dials in. ... That's all Coach Wade."

Brady, who will appear in his ninth Super Bowl, will provide a similar challenge as Brees, who was sacked only 17 times during the regular season.

In two playoff games, Brady has yet to be sacked and has completed 64 of 90 passes for 691 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

But the Rams' defense was assembled and paid to reach a Super Bowl, and as Talib said, "This is exactly where we thought we'd be."