THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Back in early August, new Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was asked about his assessment of the defense so far and what he wants to accomplish in training camp.
It was a difficult question to answer, considering the Rams hadn't gone against anyone other than themselves at that stage of the preseason – their joint practice with the Cowboys in Oxnard was still three days away. However, he liked the players' energy and where they were at from a learning-curve standpoint and mentality standpoint.
What he wanted to see next was M.A.D. – or make a difference – plays.
"My saying is 'stats are for losers,'" Morris said on Aug. 4. "But if we can go out and make those memorable plays, those plays that make a difference in the game to help us win football games, that's all I'm here for and that's all I care about."
Fast-forward five weeks later, and the Rams had multiple in their Sunday night win over the Bears, with outside linebacker Justin Hollins and linebacker Kenny Young both integral pieces to those plays.
"I couldn't be more happy for those two players being those difference-making players in that game," Morris said Thursday. "And it was reflected on the game balls that we gave out when we got back to campus."
Hollins kicked off the 2021 season with the first multi-sack performance of his career, posting two in the Rams' 34-14 win over the Bears. The first was a sack-fumble on Bears quarterback Andy Dalton that later led to a 22-yard Matt Gay field goal that extended the Rams' lead to 13-0 early in the second quarter. The second was another takedown of Dalton that resulted in a 15-yard loss on a Bears drive that ended with a turnover on downs three plays later. Morris' assessment of Hollins' play was that he was "violent with his rush, physical with his rush and skillful with his rush" and showed versatility playing some inside linebacker.
"The first one, it was special because, we actually called something where we had double-edge pressure, and then the Bears, they changed their personnel, they changed something else, and we tried to get to something else where I wasn't dropping," Hollins said Monday. "Everybody didn't quite get it, so we had a little five-man rush going. (Bears left tackle) Jason Peters, being an OG, he was trying to do a lot, he was trying to block down. I saw some space open and I just bent the corner, I just tried to get there and I got there. Actually, I was looking for the ball when I got up, and my dog Kenny had picked it up, and that was really exciting.
"The other one, I was trying to cover AD (Aaron Donald) on the second sack, because AD, he get free game to do whatever he wants in the pass rush being the best player ever. He kind of went real fast, and I'm just bull-rushing and the next thing you know, I slip through. It's unheard of for him to miss, so I was like, 'I got your back dog, let me go ahead and clean this up for you, get you a little sack celebration, get the crowd pumped up.'"
Young, meanwhile, deflected a Dalton pass in the redzone that led to Rams cornerback David Long Jr. intercepting in the endzone, and also recovered the fumble forced by Hollins, as Hollins mentioned. Morris pointed out this came as the Rams dropped back into zone defense shortly after making a touchdown-saving tackle on Bears running back David Montgomery's 41-yard run that put Chicago in Los Angeles' redzone, while the fumble recovery was practicing what they had been preaching during the offseason about make-a-difference plays.
"I was doing my job, man," Young said after Wednesday's practice. "Inside linebacker, that's one of your jobs is to communicate. That's what I take pride in doing."
That both players are in the middle of game-changing plays isn't necessarily new.
Hollins recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles through his first two NFL seasons. During his time at the University of Oregon, he tallied a total of eight forced fumbles in 2017 and 2018 – good for the most in the nation over that span, per his school bio.
Young, meanwhile, had 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception through his first three NFL seasons – the pick coming last year on a screen pass by then-Patriots quarterback Cam Newton which Young returned 79 yards for a touchdown.
M.A.D. plays like those will play a role in the outcome of Sunday's game against the Colts in Indianapolis. Quarterback Carson Wentz completed 25 of 38 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns in the Colts' 28-16 loss to the Seahawks, a performance that led to offensive coordinator Marcus Brady praising his decision-making. The challenges presented by running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines and other Indianapolis skill players further underscore the importance of keeping its offense off the field.
Take a look at the best snapshots from the Los Angeles Rams vs. Chicago Bears 2021 season opener at SoFi Stadium in Week 1.