Heading into the 2017 season, the common thought around the Rams was that the club would be able to improve all around. Under head coach Sean McVay, the offense would certainly be better after two consecutive seasons finishing No. 32. And with coordinator Wade Phillips, the defense had a real chance to take another step as well.
Through three games, Los Angeles is leading the league in scoring at 35.7 points per game — a far cry from last year's 14.0. And while there are categories in which the Rams rank well defensively — the club is No. 5 with 10 sacks, for instance — there's a clear sense that the unit must begin playing with more consistency.
It's a small sample size, but L.A. is currently No. 22 in total defense (343.7 yards per game), No 29 against the run (139.0 yards per game), and No. 27 in points given up (25.0). Last Thursday, San Francisco racked up 421 total yards, 25 first downs, and finished 9-of-18 on third down.
But if there's a silver lining, it's that the Rams made critical plays in critical situations in order to seal the victory.
Check out the best photos from the Rams' Week 3 victory over the 49ers.
"The thing I noticed most is that we never stopped fighting. I feel like we fought all the way to the end, and that's why we came out with the win," middle linebacker Alec Ogletree said on Monday. "There were plenty of moments in that game where we could've just laid down and let them score. We got a couple of turnovers, and we made them kick a field goal here and there — though we gave up a lot of the points that we wish we could've got back. But at the end of the day, you want to try to win the game and correct your mistakes, and what you did wrong."
"I feel like it wasn't as bad as we thought," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "We definitely made a lot of mistakes here and there. But it's nothing that we can't clean up. And I'd rather it happen now — early — than later. So we're going to be good."
Both Ogletree and Donald were asked if some of the defensive struggles could be attributed to the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, and while they admitted it could be a factor, neither appeared to think it was a sole cause.
"You can say that," Donald said. "But, like you said, it's a new defense, new scheme. So I'm pretty sure guys are still trying to get the hang of it and things like that. But nothing too crazy."
"I guess you could go to that. You could say that in some cases, yeah," Ogletree said. "It's still a lot of communication where you revert back to old stuff that you've been doing because you've been doing it for a long time.
"But at the same time, I think we're all professionals," Ogletree continued. "We're paid to learn really fast, and we have to do that. And I feel like we did that for the most part."
According to Ogletree, one simple adjustment the Rams can make is doing better to play within the confines of the defense that's called.
"Some stuff is just — you're just trying to make a play here, you're over-doing it," Ogletree said. "Instead of just doing your job, you may try to do something else other than what we're supposed to do. But at the same time, you have to make sure that you stay in a good place in knowing that you're doing the right steps and just trusting the process."
That's another part of the defensive improvement — building trust. L.A. did not have its complete first-team defense play in any of the preseason games. And it can be argued that the unit didn't even practice together until Week 2 once Donal returned. And so while the Rams may not have changed much when it comes to personnel, many players have different roles or are doing different techniques in the scheme.
"You've got to trust the process and trust what the coaches are trying to tell you," Ogletree said. "And also, trust your instincts and just go out there and play. We say it's a long season. We've played three games and we had two of them right back-to-back. So we've still got a little ways to go, but I feel good about where we're at. We definitely have got some work to do. But I think we can get it done for sure."
And they have one of the game's most legendary coaches in order to help them get there.
'He's been good. He's encouraging us each and every day to keep getting better," Ogletree said of Phillips. "He always says, 'The will to prepare has to be the same as the will to win.' And that's true. So we come out here every day and try to prepare for a game each and every day. And, like I said, we've got a good challenge this week. And with good preparation, I think we'll do fine."