Contact Form

    News Details

    Zach VanValkenburg, Ochaun Mathis growing as depth pieces for Rams’ defense
    • October 13, 2023

    THOUSAND OAKS — Zach VanValkenburg lined up at the line of scrimmage and crashed down on a receiver after the snap. That route disturbed, it left the Rams linebacker with one lineman between him and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. VanValkenburg used a swim move to get over the blocker’s shoulder and spin him around.

    As the Rams’ coverage held, Hurts was right in front of him, there for the taking. And VanValkenburg completed the play, the undrafted rookie’s first career sack and tackle.

    “It was pretty surreal,” VanValkenburg said. “Obviously you’re just trying to rush as a unit and kind of like a coverage sack, but those are opportunities where effort shines through and those are just as good opportunities to get the quarterback down.” He paused for a second, and let his modesty slip away. “It was pretty awesome, not going to lie.”

    Between VanValkenburg’s milestone, rookie Ochaun Mathis’ NFL debut and Duke Shelley’s third-down pass breakup in the end zone, last weekend’s loss to the Eagles was an important game as far as the Rams finding depth pieces who can help them down the stretch of the season.

    There was little hope for VanValkenburg to get that kind of opportunity as a rookie last season. He was cut by the Las Vegas Raiders prior to Week 1, then signed with the Rams two weeks later as a member of the practice squad, the kind of low-profile job that can make a player slip through the cracks.

    “I remember Zach probably about Week 18,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said.

    While doing his work to prepare the team for the coming game, VanValkenburg got time in with the coaches outside of meetings to pick their brains about the defense. He learned the play calls but knew he needed a chance to rep it before he could earn a role on the active roster.

    He began to feel more comfortable during training camp. The game had slowed down, and he had caught up in terms of learning the defense. When he got reps against the Raiders and Denver Broncos during joint practices, something clicked.

    “Some of those reps were maybe more valuable than preseason,” VanValkenburg said. “Feeling this defense slow down for me was pretty key.”

    He got a sack during the preseason opener, then broke through on Sunday in a game that mattered with three pressures and a sack.

    “In the game, you go, ‘Who got that?’ They say, ‘Zach,’ you say, ‘Oh, that’s awesome,’” Morris said. “I’m fired up for the kid, I’m fired up for where he’s come from, I’m fired up to have him. I love his energy, I love his play style.”

    Mathis went through his own journey to the field this preseason. A sixth-round pick out of Nebraska, Mathis injured his knee in the first practice in pads when, as he engaged with a blocker, a teammate fell onto his leg.

    Related Articles

    Los Angeles Rams |

    Rams traded Van Jefferson as respect for a ‘really special player’

    Los Angeles Rams |

    Rams trade WR Van Jefferson to Falcons

    Los Angeles Rams |

    Rams want CB Derion Kendrick to stay aggressive after penalties

    Los Angeles Rams |

    Swanson: Rams’ Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua make for an exciting tandem

    Los Angeles Rams |

    Rams’ offense disappears in second half of loss to Eagles

    He missed the rest of camp and started the season on the injured reserve. But when he made his season debut against the Eagles, Mathis had two QB pressures in 10 snaps, an experience he reflected on during the long drive home.

    “You’re going to hit traffic,” said Mathis, clearly already settling into Southern California. “It gives you enough time to sit back and reflect and see how far you came and seeing the opportunities for me to be on the field, it was one of my biggest dreams ever come true, if not the only one.”

    The Rams’ defense has been a pleasant surprise this season under Morris’ guidance. One of the biggest critiques remaining is depth. But between VanValkenburg, Mathis, Shelley and other players like safety Quentin Lake, the Rams are working on building up that second string with live reps in the event that an injury occurs.

    “We’ve got so many roles and so many different personnel packages that you can mix these guys in and find the best 11 to go out there and find a way to get your win that week,” Morris said. “Because it could be different every single week in how you want to do it. I love this young group. … I really believe that these guys are going to grow together and find something special.”

    ​ Orange County Register