The Washington Redskins are preparing for what they believe will be one of the more talented defenses they've faced this year, headlined by the reigning PFWA NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
After pitching their first shutout since 2006 – a 52-0 thumper over the Oakland Raiders last week – the St. Louis Rams bring their 5-7 record to FedExField on Sunday.
That's a great defense -- well put together on every level," Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. "Everybody hustles to the ball. They get after the quarterback pretty well. They get after the run pretty well. It's definitely one of the more talented defenses we're probably going to see this year."
Through 12 games, the Rams' defense ranks 21st in pass defense (245.3), 16th in stopping the run (111.3) and 19th in points allowed (23.8). But after reaching the halfway point in the season, however, the Rams' defense turned a corner.
St. Louis has gone 3-2 since Week 8 with defense-inspired victories over the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Raiders. In Week 9, they held the Broncos to just seven points while intercepting two of Peyton Manning's passes. The Rams' eight forced turnovers over the past two weeks are the most in the NFL, and two ahead of the Redskins' six.
As he prepares for his third start of the season, Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy said he's been studying plenty of tape from St. Louis' performance against Denver.
"You turn on the tape and the Broncos is one of the best offenses and they put up seven points against them," McCoy said. "For me as a quarterback watching Peyton [Manning] or watching other guys play against them, that certainly opens your eyes."
St. Louis' Week 13 win over the Raiders, however, proved to be their finest performance in recent years. The Rams held Oakland to 244 yards – with just 61 rushing yards – and forced five turnovers, including a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In that game, defensive end Robert Quinn -- the reigning NFL Defensive Player of Year as voted on by the Pro Football Writers of America -- put together his strongest performance of the season. Along with five tackles, he recorded three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Quinn has only gotten stronger as the season wears on. Each of his nine sacks have come in the last seven games, including three contests with at least two sacks and a forced fumble. Likewise, all five of his career-best pass deflections have come in that span, and three of them alone came against the Broncos.
"He does everything well," Williams said when asked about the All-Pro defensive end. "He doesn't stop playing till the whistle blows and that's every snap. Every time you turn on the tape he's running around like his hairs on fire."
Along with Quinn – the Rams' 14th overall pick in 2011 – St. Louis boasts two other first-round selections in defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. Last Sunday, Chris Long, whom the Rams drafted second-overall in 2008, returned to action after suffering an ankle injury that had kept him on the sideline since Week 1.
With four first-round selections expected to see action this Sunday, Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen believes that the strength of the Rams' defense lies within its front four.
"They got a really good, athletic front," Paulsen said. "They have a really dynamic front group of four guys and even their backups are pretty good. They used a lot of first-round draft picks on guys and they play like it."
Led by Quinn with nine, the Rams rank seventh in the NFL with 35 sacks. Similar to their gameplan against the Indianapolis Colts a week ago, Washington anticipates defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – who served that same role with the Redskins from 2004 to 2007 – to dial up plenty of pressure Sunday afternoon.
"They'll get heat on the passer but their blitz packages are unique," McCoy said. "They come at you from all different directions. They will bring safeties, they'll bring corners, they'll bring guys out of the secondary all the time."
In order to keep their quarterback upright, Williams believes that it's all about good communication between the offensive linemen and the quarterback.
"Everybody's got to be on the same page," he said. "Everybody's got be seeing the same thing and even the quarterback's got to be on the same page as we are. A lot of times, they bring more than we can block … hopefully we have a plan in place where we can beat it with the ball."
Another focus for the Redskins: improving on third downs. The Rams certainly don't make it any easier in thsoe situations, holding their opponents to just 38.8-percent on third down, ranking 13th in the league.
When their opponents find themselves in obvious passing situations, St. Louis turns up the heat. On the season, they have recorded 13 sacks on third down plays, with eight of those coming when opposing offenses needed at least six yards for the first down.
Redskins' offensive coordinator Sean McVay believes that running the football well to stay out of difficult third down situations will be a key to success on Sunday.
"If you're able to run the football, get yourself in manageable third down situations, then everything else goes off of that," he said. "You're able to keep teams honest on second down when it's second and medium and it's run-pass option. So, any time we're able to be better on first down, I think it'll be key for us."