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Rams rely on defense to defeat Bears and preserve playoff hope

LOS ANGELES -- Who would have thunk it? A Los Angeles Rams team coached by offensive wunderkind Sean McVay tying its identity to ... defense?

"It's the NFL, man," said safety Eric Weddle. "It's a year-to-year business."

That reality was on full display Sunday night in L.A. Memorial Coliseum, where the Rams relied on their defense to keep alive their playoff aspirations with a 17-7 victory over the Bears.

The idea of the Rams prevailing on an evening when the offense was without two of its top three receivers, started two rookies on the right side of the line, committed back-to-back turnovers to start the game and completed only 11 passes would have been nonsensical a year ago, when Los Angeles rode the success of that unit to its first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years.

But a lot has changed in only one season. Injuries, inconsistencies and load management have sapped the unit of its otherworldly powers. Now instead of winning with glitz and glamour, they've accepted that grit and resolve are the best way forward.

That need for an identity shift hit home Nov. 10 in a 17-12 loss at Pittsburgh. Trailing by two early in the fourth quarter, the Rams allowed the Steelers to go on a 14-play, 60-yard drive that consumed 8 minutes and ended in a field goal, which left them with only one legitimate possession to win the game.

Afterward, defenders talked among themselves about the need to be better. Then on Monday, after the coaches addressed the team, members of the defense addressed each other in private.

"We talked about what we need to get done," Weddle said. "Everyone was on the same page: Every snap, we've got to be great."

It helped Sunday that they were playing an offense with its own issues. The Bears (4-6) have scored more than 21 points just twice this season and were hurt early by missed field-goal attempts of 48 and 47 yards in the opening quarter. Chicago ran 41 plays in the first half yet failed to convert them into a single point. Some of that was the Bears' own ineptness, and some of that was a Los Angeles defense that was locked in.

It's not a stretch to say that if the Rams (6-4) are going to make a push for the playoffs, the blueprint will look a lot like Sunday until and unless everyone gets healthy. Wideout Brandin Cooks missed the game while in concussion protocol, and fellow starter Robert Woods was inactive for personal reasons. That left McVay short-handed, so for the first time this season, he leaned heavily on running back Todd Gurley, who has been on a pitch count much of the year due to concerns about wear and tear.

There appeared to be no such concerns on this night. Gurley carried 12 times for 64 yards in the first half alone, which surpassed his rushing yards in six of his first eight games this season. His average coming in was 13 carries, with a high of 18. But against the Bears he had 25 carries for 97 yards, a yardage total which matched his season high.

As he walked up the tunnel to the locker room, he smiled in the camera and proclaimed: "I'm back! I'm back!" Quarterback Jared Goff, who benefits as much as anyone when Gurley is in a groove because it sets up play-action passes -- like on the 50-yard completion to Kupp to set up the Rams' first touchdown -- ran up behind Gurley in the tunnel and grabbed his shoulders. He appeared to be emotional as he spoke in Gurley's ear.

"I told him he fights," Goff said later. "He fights, man. He's been through the ringer and that dude fights. I couldn't be more proud to be his teammate."

With Gurley running well and the defense keeping the Bears out of the end zone, Goff was relieved of having to shoulder the load. His 18 pass attempts and 11 completions (for 173 yards) were both season lows. He did not throw a touchdown for the second straight week, but he walked away content because the team won.

"This is one of my favorite wins as a Ram, no doubt," he said. "I think with all the circumstances, being at home in front of our home fans and the way that the game was going, I don't care how many times I throw the ball, how many times we run the ball, how many completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns, interceptions -- the way that game went, and the way that we fought, and the way that we continued to fight all the way until the end in that last drive ... I think it's up there in the top of my head as one of my favorite wins as a Ram, and again, I couldn't be prouder with the guys on this team."

At some point Goff is going to be needed to carry a heavier load, perhaps next Monday night, when quarterback Lamar Jackson brings the Ravens and their top-scoring offense to town. A third straight week with a negative turnover differential at his position likely won't fare as well against Baltimore, which has been playing at an extremely high level of late.

But as much as the focus might be on Goff, who is expected to at least get back Cooks this week, the defense will face its greatest challenge to date.

"We have the players to step up," said defensive end Michael Brockers. "Tonight we faced adversity, and we played through it. Our mindset is we have to play harder, we have to do more, our brothers need us."

Added Weddle: "We know our identity; we're a defensive-minded club and we've got to shut teams down to win. Our offense can control the ball and score when it has to, but we've got to hold teams down. That's how we're going to win."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at _@JimTrotterNFL_.

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