THOUSAND OAKS — It’s not time to worry about the Rams’ defense. Give that another couple days.
Thus far, the scheme of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has underwhelmed. The Rams rank 26th in the NFL in points allowed per game (25.0) and 22nd in yards allowed (343.7), and last week the Rams ended up in a shootout against a San Francisco team that previously hadn’t scored a touchdown.
The challenge doesn’t get easier this Sunday, as the Rams travel to face a balanced Dallas offense that includes quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and tight end Jason Witten.
“We look at it as a big challenge,” Phillips said after Thursday’s practice at Cal Lutheran. “I think we’ll see a lot about our team this week, as far as where we are, to match up against that premier offense.”
The Rams clearly are having some issues. After their dominating season-opening game against an Indianapolis team that lacked its quarterback and center, the Rams allowed 27 points and 385 yards in a loss to Washington, then 39 points and 421 yards in a way-too-close victory over the 49ers.
Run defense remains an issue, cornerbacks have been beat on big plays and, last week, the 49ers converted on nine of their 18 third-down attempts.
On the other hand, Phillips pointed out that special-teams miscues sent the Rams’ defense onto the field in unusual circumstances multiple times, and Phillips said the unit would get a boost from the expected return of starting cornerback Kayvon Webster, who missed two games with a shoulder injury.
Phillips also hinted that the Rams might move Michael Brockers, who has been one of the most productive players up front, away from nose tackle and to a defensive tackle role.
“A premier challenge,” Phillips said of Dallas. “When you’re playing a really good offensive team, that’s when you have to step up and be a good defensive team. I think we’ll get better in some of the areas we need to, but we’ll find out. That’s why we play the games, to see what happens. But I like our group.”
Phillips’ recent history shows that early-season struggles, when he takes over and transitions a team from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 front, are not uncommon.
In 2011, Phillips took over an awful Houston defense. In the third game of that season, the Texans allowed 40 points and 454 yards in a loss to New Orleans. Houston finished that season ranked fourth in points allowed (17.4 per game) and second in yards (285.7).
In 2004, Phillips’ San Diego defense allowed an average of 28 points in its first three games. The Chargers finished that season 11th in the league, with an average of 19.6 points allowed per game.
Even in Denver in 2015, when Phillips took over what had been a fairly stout defense, the Broncos twice allowed 40-plus points. So while these early bumps for the Rams shouldn’t automatically cause panic, another bad week or two might counter the narrative that Phillips is a turnaround artist.
“It goes both ways,” Phillips said. “One year we started 0-3 in Buffalo and made the playoffs. Then, I think in Denver in our first game we gave up 170 yards. It’s all about how you play and who you’re playing, too. I’m looking forward to this one.”
In his last four stops as defensive coordinator (Denver, Houston, San Diego and Atlanta), Phillips has improved his teams’ points-against and yards-against totals in the first year. Not since 2005 has a Phillips-coached defense finished out of the NFL’s top 10 in points and yards.
Receivers Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin, both of whom suffered concussions last week, fully participated in Thursday’s practice. Coach Sean McVay said both will play Sunday, but per NFL rules, both receivers will need to receive final clearance Friday to be removed from concussion protocol.
Safety Lamarcus Joyner (hamstring) did not practice and center John Sullivan (hip) was listed as limited.
Rams running back Todd Gurley was named NFC player of the month for September. Gurley totaled 341 rushing and receiving yards, second among non-quarterbacks to Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt. Gurley and Hunt also are tied with an NFL-high six touchdowns.
Phillips will return to Dallas, where he worked as head coach from 2007-10. Phillips said he retains “fond memories” of his time with Dallas, one of his 10 stops in the NFL.
“If I had a vendetta against every team that fired me… That’s a quarter of the league,” Phillips joked. “Things happen. Part of coaching is getting fired.”
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