Are you ready for some defense?
The Monday night game between the Rams (4-2) and Chicago Bears (5-1) at SoFi Stadium pits one good but still-unproven team against another in a fight for Super Bowl-contender legitimacy.
The game also pits two defiant defenses against the on-going trend toward flashier offense in the NFL, which has seen scoring rise by five points a game so far this season compared to last year.
The theme for this prime-time drama could be: The NFL of 2020 meets the teams of 15-6 and 17-7.
Those were the scores of their meetings in 2018, won by the Bears on a freezing December night at Soldier Field, and 2019, won by the Rams on a warm November night at the Coliseum.
“Chicago’s a stout defense, a great defense. We like to pride ourselves on being a defensive team as well this year,” Rams safety Taylor Rapp said this week. “Any time you can get that matchup with another great defense, and kind of have that showdown, it’s pretty cool.”
Cool, anyway, to the minority of fans and football rule makers who value tight and tactical games over exploding scoreboards and stat sheets.
“The scoring is a lot higher,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said of the league average, which is over 50 points a game, an NFL first if it continues all season.
“That matters to all the fantasy (league) people out there. But we only care about the win. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Nagy’s defense, led by 2019 Pro Bowl outside linebacker Khalil Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson, has secured Bears victories by 1, 4, 4, 4 and 7 points.
Two of those wins were sealed by Tashaun Gipson and DeAndre Houston-Carson interceptions, and two ended in defensive stands at the Bears’ 16- and 10-yard lines.
In a one-point victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears held Tom Brady to 5 for 12 passing and a Mack sack in the fourth quarter.
“The thing I think that says the most about them is that they’re best in crunch time,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of the Bears.
The win at Tampa Bay was Chicago’s only victory over a team with a .500-or-better record, while the Rams are looking for their first.
Defense has been key to the Rams’ four wins against NFC East teams, and they’ve held five of their six opponents without a second-half touchdown.
For the Rams, this is a chance to quickly erase the poor impression they made on a national TV audience last week in a Sunday night loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
That involves both sides of the ball. The offense needs to see the Jared Goff of the previous four games, and has to keep the ball long enough to take advantage of the healthy running-back rotation of Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers. The defense has to tackle better, and Aaron Donald and the high-ranked pass rush has to create more pressure against the Bears’ Nick Foles than they did against 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s short passing game.
It also involves special teams. McVay said Friday that Samuel Sloman, who has struggled with extra points and kickoffs, will kick Monday while the Rams wait for newly signed Kai Forbath to get on board. Cordarrelle Patterson of the Bears is No. 2 all-time in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (30.0 yards); No. 1 is Gale Sayers.
Mostly, Rams vs. Bears should revolve around the two defenses.
If they’re similar, that’s partly because first-year Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has brought to L.A. some of what he learned as the Bears’ outside linebackers coach in 2017-18 under then-Chicago coordinator Vic Fangio.
Staley said the Bears defense, now run by former Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, has something important in common with the 2018 unit that stifled the then-rampaging Rams.
“I would say that the strength of our team, when I was there, was those players,” Staley said. “Those players are all still there.”
One of those players now is with the Rams.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who had a sack against Goff in 2018, signed with the Rams last April after the Bears declined to exercise his fifth-year option in what Nagy called a “tough” financial decision. Floyd is off to a good start in L.A.
“Even last week, when we struggled a little bit, I felt like he was a bright spot. He brought a lot of energy and passion out there, which I love,” Rams defensive back Jalen Ramsey said.
“I don’t know the situation and how it went down in Chicago, but I’m extremely happy to have him on my team.”
Floyd admitted feeling extra motivation facing the team that let him go.
“There is a little more added energy for it, going against my old team,” he said.
But he made clear his motivation is mostly about the team, not personal. He hinted that he has given the Rams’ offense the benefit of his knowledge of the Bears’ defense. Although the Rams offense sees elements of the Bears’ defense almost every day that it faces Staley’s defense in practice.
“We’ve both got the same style, just different players, different bodies,” Floyd said of the Rams and Bears. “It’s just going to come down to who’s playing the best defense Monday night.”