Los Angeles Rams defense has been opportunistic but is still work in progress

While the Rams' defense isn't as stingy as it was a year ago, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and crew still make their share of big plays. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald leveled Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff while 12 yards away, Los Angeles Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey leaped across the goal line to intercept Goff's pass to prevent a possible go-ahead score.

The one-two punch delivered by Donald and Ramsey late in the fourth quarter of the Week 7 matchup helped set up a 47-yard field goal by kicker Matt Gay to put the finishing touches on a 28-19 victory over the Lions.

"I like how opportunistic we are," coach Sean McVay said about the Rams' defense. "And I love the fact that some of our best players are shining their brightest at those most important moments, which definitely was on display with Aaron and Jalen the other night."

The Rams are 6-1 as they prepare for a Week 8 game against the struggling Houston Texans (1-6) at NRG Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

First-year defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has a well-known mantra, "You know how I feel about stats," he said, providing another reminder when asked to assess the defense's progress. "They're for losers."

But stats do tell at least part of the story for a unit that continues to be a work in progress with a new coordinator and several new starters.

The defense is coming off a top-ranked season, and while they've produced several late-game heroics -- including fourth-quarter interceptions in victories over the Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks -- there's also plenty of room for improvement.

The Rams rank No. 21 in total defense, having allowed an average of 373.9 yards per game, including averages of 111.9 rushing yards (15th) and 262 passing (21st).

But they tighten up when needed most.

The Rams are tied at No. 7, alongside the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, with 20.9 points allowed per game. Their undoubted strength has been near the goal line, where they rank No. 2 in red zone efficiency, only allowing 42.3 percent of opposing red zone trips to result in touchdowns.

"There's a lot of good things, I think there's a lot of things that we can build upon," McVay said.

Some growing pains were expected following significant offseason turnover.

The Rams lost coordinator Brandon Staley after one season when he was named head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, and four starters also departed via free agency and trades.

"It's always a process, we always got to grow, but I would say so," Ramsey said when asked if the defense has been able to move on from departed personnel. "I think right now, if you look at how we've been playing, look at the team success, I think that you can say we've been doing a pretty good job so far. But obviously, we hope to continue growing."

Donald, Ramsey and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd have provided stability. Floyd has 4.5 sacks while Donald has 3.5. Ramsey has two interceptions, six passes defended and recorded a bruising hit on Goff this past Sunday.

Second-year pro Terrell Lewis has kept a nagging knee issue at bay and provided a spark opposite Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker, who was selected with a third-round pick last year and was slowed by his knee as a rookie, has three sacks.

"He's absolutely been phenomenal," Morris said about Lewis. "He's another guy that's kind of taken advantage of the snap count. We've seen it go up increasingly more and more every single weekend. It's a credit to him ... it's a credit for him to taking care of himself, it's a credit to him putting his position to take advantage of the moment."

Although the defensive front is taking shape, inside linebacker and parts of the secondary remain in flux.

The Rams made a surprise trade earlier this week, sending inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2024 seventh-round pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for a 2024 sixth-round pick.

Young started all seven games and provided a spark that included two sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

McVay said the move was "financially driven" and that they expected third-year pro Troy Reeder, an undrafted free agent who has grown into a consistent role player the past two seasons, and rookie third-round pick Ernest Jones to step up.

In the secondary, third-year cornerback David Long Jr. earned a starting spot alongside Ramsey and cornerback Darious Williams out of training camp, but lost the job to rookie Robert Rochell after a struggling against the Arizona Cardinals in a Week 4 loss. The Rams also have had to rely on former practice squad cornerback Dont'e Deayon the past two games after placing Williams on injured reserve because of an ankle sprain.

"He's very talented, he's got great short space quickness," McVay said about Deayon, who has seven tackles in two games. "He played really well last week and expect him to improve on that performance."

"I really think that these guys are getting better every single week," Morris said. "I'm seeing different people grow. I'm seeing people step up. I think that's what a good quality football team does every single week."

Sunday marks the Rams' third straight game against a team with a struggling offense and dismal record after dominating the New York Giants (2-5) and outlasting the Lions (0-7).

It could provide a final tune up before facing a surging Tennessee Titans (5-2) squad on Sunday Night Football in Week 9.