Look out, L.A.: Rams' defense gaining momentum as playoffs approach

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- There was no way Kenny Young was going to run out of steam as he looked ahead to the end zone.

With cornerback Jalen Ramsey blocking and defensive tackle Aaron Donald directing traffic, the Los Angeles Rams linebacker sprinted 79 yards to return an interception for a touchdown in a 24-3 victory over the New England Patriots on "Thursday Night Football."

"That's my favorite play of the game because you see two of the best players in the world out in front blocking for him and the genuine joy," Rams coach Sean McVay said.

"All I felt was a bunch of guys running behind me blocking and us trying to get the score," Young said. "And that felt pretty good to know my brothers was behind my back."

The Rams' defense has been dominant this season and the catalyst for a 9-4 record that has them atop the NFC West with three games remaining.

Part of their growth has been through scheme and technique, but players say they've also experience a galvanizing effect navigating an unusual season in mostly empty arenas, including SoFi Stadium, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"You have no fans, you have nothing else, so it's all about ball and you see how connected a team is," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. "So without fans, we're doing a helluva job continuing to have our energy up. We actually like and love one another."

Under first-year coordinator Brandon Staley, the defense ranks second in the NFL in efficiency and has allowed only 18.9 points per game, which ranks third behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins.

Recently, that unit has dialed up the turnovers and defensive scores.

In the first eight games of the season, the Rams had 10 takeaways, which ranked in the middle of the league. But over the past five games, they've produced 11 turnovers, which ranks second during that span and vaults them to the No. 2 spot overall behind the Steelers and tied with the Dolphins.

And in each of the past three games, the defense has returned a turnover for a touchdown, becoming the first team to accomplish such a feat this season and the first Rams defense to score three touchdowns in three games since 2003.

"We've been getting our hands on a lot of balls in practice as far as tips and overthrows and picks and stuff like that and we've been returning them in practice," said Brockers, who had his first multisack game of the season against the Patriots. "It's all about the work that we put in during the week of practice, and that gives us the confidence to go out here and play lights out."

Cornerback Troy Hill returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown during a 23-20 loss in Week 12 against the 49ers. The next week, he returned an interception 35 yards for a score in a 38-28 win over the Cardinals.

Young's pick Thursday came at an opportune time.

Late in the first quarter, Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw an interception, and the Patriots, trailing 10-0, were approaching scoring position from the Rams' 19-yard line. Young's instinct kicked in and he picked off quarterback Cam Newton and scored, putting the Rams up 17-0.

"Honestly, seeing Cam, he's a big guy so you can't miss him, so just his whole mannerisms showed that he was about to throw a screen," Young said. "So I just jumped as he threw a bad ball and he paid for that."

The interception was the first of Young's three-year career.

"What a swing in momentum," McVay said.

The Rams' defensive front also kept the pressure on the Patriots, holding them to 107 rushing yards, down from the Pats' 147.5 average. And they forced Patriots coach Bill Belichick to replace Newton in the fourth quarter with Jarrett Stidham.

The Rams sacked Newton four times and took Stidham down twice. Their 42 sacks this season ranks second behind the Steelers' 44.

When asked if the defense was peaking at an opportune time, Brockers provided an analogy he deemed more appropriate.

"I wouldn't want to say we peaked, because after a peak you are going downhill," Brockers said. "We are continuing to just keep climbing, getting better and just keep staying consistent each and every week."