It was overtime and Fowler felt his blocker at the snap, then spun away.
“It was like an instinct,” he said.
A flash later, the Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker hit Brees, as the New Orleans Saints quarterback lofted a pass that hung inside the Superdome before falling into the hands of Rams safety John Johnson III. It was the last offensive play of the Saints’ season.
“Brees was sitting right there looking down the field,” Fowler said. “He wasn’t even looking at me.”
Outside of the Rams’ practice facility, the most memorable play of last season’s NFC Championship Game is the botched pass interference call inside the two-minute warning of regulation, when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman hit Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived, and with the game tied, forced the Saints to settle for a field goal.
But inside the Rams’ locker room, two plays remain ingrained in the minds of nearly every player who participated in that game. The blown pass-interference call, which led to an NFL rule change that enables pass interference to be reviewed, is not among them.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein‘s field goal that won the game in overtime, and sent them to Super Bowl LIII, is an obvious favorite. But Zuerlein has made many clutch kicks before, and several teammates said they had no doubt that Zuerlein’s 57-yard attempt would go in.
What Rams players didn’t necessarily expect was Fowler’s hit, which prevented the 12-time Pro Bowl selection Brees from leading the Saints to a game-winning score on the opening drive of overtime.
“I was on the sideline, just waiting, and I seen him hit the spin and I was like, ‘That’s a sack,'” said outside linebacker Samson Ebukam. “And then [Brees] still threw it and I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ and he threw it and the ball was kind of in the air for a minute.”
Said receiver Josh Reynolds: “I see Dante getting back there, disrupt Brees a little bit, Brees just throws a little floater in the air and I’m just kind of — the ball is like slow motion in the air, and I look down and I see Mike Thomas and I say, ‘Oh yes, J.J. got it. We got a chance.'”
The Rams acquired Fowler, 25, last season at the trade deadline from the Jacksonville Jaguars, who sent their third overall pick in the 2015 draft away in exchange for a third- and fifth-round pick. In 3½ seasons in Jacksonville, Fowler was plagued by injuries, behavioral issues and underwhelming performances.
In L.A., he received a fresh start.
New to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, Fowler’s effort gained traction late in the season and into the playoffs. His sample of work demonstrated enough promise to earn himself a one-year deal worth $12 million this offseason.
“That’s what he’s there for,” said two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who was double-teamed on 64 percent of his pass rushes against the Panthers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. “He’s got to keep doing that and he’s going to keep getting better and that’s what you want to see.”
Fowler’s two sacks against the Panthers match his total in seven regular-season games with the Rams last season. He accomplished the feat Sunday with a pass rush win rate of 62 percent, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the top-ranked pass rush win rate in Week 1 across the NFL by a 20 percent margin and it is tied for the third highest by any player since the start of the 2018 season.
Donald, who was voted as the top player in the NFL in polls both by players and pundits, said the 25-year-old Fowler has unlimited potential.
“He’s a young guy that’s got a whole lot of talent that I feel like if he just keeps working, he can take over this league,” Donald said. “He’s got natural ability that a lot of guys don’t got. He can rush the passer just naturally, once he keep working on his technique and little things — the sky is the limit for him.”
The Rams’ front will be tested again this Sunday. Brees is among the best at getting the ball out fast. Last week, Brees completed 81 percent of his passes when the Houston Texans
In the NFC Championship Game, the Saints focused their blocking effort on Donald, who was double teamed on 82 percent of his pass rushes in that game.
Phillips said he expects that Donald will face even more double- and triple-teams this season.
That could be the case on Sunday, and if so, it might allow Fowler to spin his way back to Brees again.