One of the main reasons why the Los Angeles had a major turn around season in 2017 was that they already had a stout defensive front.
Four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald, defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree were already in place for new coach Sean McVay and veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The Falcons, the sixth seeed, will be without their starting left guard in Andy Levitre when they face the Rams at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the NFC wildcard round of the playoffs.
Ben Garland will start for Levitre. “He’s a guy loaded with grit,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
The Falcons are confident that Garland can hold up against the Rams’ stout defensive front.
“He was in a close battle with Wes (Schweitzer) for our starting (right) guard (position),” Quinn said. “When we named Wes as the starting at that spot, you’d expect a guy to feel a certain way. It was a real lesson in humility to see how he handled his business as a professional. Wes and Ben worked everyday together, so often, not one time did it reflect or show in his attitude.”
Garland has played as a blocking tight end, right guard, left guard and center. Last season, he played some on the defensive side of the ball.
“As a ball player, he’s someone that we really rely on,” Quinn said. “It’s his quickness off the ball. He can really climb and stay on the second level.”
Donald has been named All-Pro twice and can disrupt the entire offense with his penetrating moves.
Garland will get some help from center Alex Mack.
“It’s not going to be on his own the whole game because he plays in a number of different spots,” Quinn said.
Donald has 11 sacks and five forced fumbles.
“Aaron is really having a fantastic year,” Quinn said. “What makes him unique is that he has this really good get off and that’s part of being a good defensive tackle.
“The use of his hands is excellent. He can get up the field. All of that, from a challenge standpoint, for this game, he’s a factor for sure.”
The Rams offense, which leads the league in scoring at 29.9 points per game, features running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff.
Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns.
“You add those together, that’s about 2,000 yards and over 300 touches,” Quinn said. “He’s been a real factor.”
The Rams selected Gurley four picks after the Falcons took defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley with the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft.
“We knew the physicality of style we wanted to play, so I definitely had an eye on him and looked at him and evaluated him,” Quinn said. “For a guy who had his size, he had exceptional ability to put his foot in the ground and accelerate out.
“So, he had kind of the combination of the make-you-miss and the ability to kind of size you up and run you over. What I didn’t know was how good a pass catcher he is, and that part of his game has really come through.”
Goff, who’s in his second year in the league, has thrown 28 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions.
“So, (he’s done) an excellent job of taking care of the ball,” Quinn said. “He’s had some fumbles on some hits, and that would be one for sure we’ve got to make sure if we can knock a few out, that’s going to be a factor.”
The Rams also revamped their wide receiver corps by adding veterans Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. The also drafted Cooper Kupp in the third round out of Eastern Washington.
Kupp leads the receivers with 62 catches for 869 yards and five touchdowns. Woods has 56 catches for 781 yards and five touchdowns.
Watkins, the former start at Clemson who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo, has 39 catches for 593 yards and eight touchdowns.
“What makes their offense difficult to go against is that they challenge you to defend the whole field on all three levels on pass routes,” Quinn said. “So, they can really spread you out.”
Quinn said the defense must communication well and rely on its speed against the Rams.
“We are pumped for the challenge,” Quinn said.