‘It makes a player very mortal’: How an NFL defender thinks

When life’s getting you down, when it all seems too hard and you need a boost of serotonin, what do you reach for?

The yoga mat? Almond Magnums? Re-runs of Seinfeld?

Los Angeles Rams safety Nick Scott whips out his phone and watches a replay of his thundering shot on San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel in NFC Championship match from last season’s NFL playoffs.

“Oh man, I still watch it to this day,” Scott laughs. “Sometimes, I just scroll through my phone and watch it if I want to feel good about myself. Just watch the Deebo hit. That will absolutely do it.”

Samuel is what Americans call a “stud”: a bona fide superstar who puts himself on the right postage stamp on the field at exactly the right moment as a 50-yard pass from his quarterback magically lands in his fingertips.

That is until someone like Scott thumps him into the middle of next week, as described by Fox Sports’ Joe Buck at the time: “Samuel gets blown up!”

YouTube it. Deebo does indeed blow up.

“That Deebo hit was great for me and my team because over the course of his career, and my career, he’s been giving us so much trouble,” Scott says. “He’s had this immortal aura around him. We just couldn’t tackle him; we couldn’t stop him. You never want to hurt someone or have a serious injury, but to see him on the ground, it makes a player very mortal. This guy can be stopped. This guy’s human too. He can be beat.”

We’re talking to Scott on his whirlwind trip of Australia as he spreads the gospel of American football and the Rams, who after beating the 49ers then defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in a gripping Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles in February.

Australia is one of the Rams’ designated marketing areas, so Scott has been taking the shiny Vince Lombardi Trophy all over the city in the past two days, including training sessions with the Roosters and Swans.

The 27-year-old isn’t a household name like Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Cooper Kupp and beast defender Aaron Donald.

He can still walk the streets of LA without being harassed too much by selfie-hunters. “People will ask, ‘Are you Nick Scott?’ and I’ll say, ‘As a matter of fact, I am’. It’s all new to me.”

Nevertheless, he reeled off some eye-popping defensive plays during the Rams’ post-season that have made fans — and rival offences — take notice.

Mostly, it came in the form of booming shots similar to the one on Samuel. But it was his interception of a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady in the divisional round that truly announced Scott’s arrival.

“Man, that’s what I’m talking about!” Donald bellowed at Scott as the Rams’ offence took the field following the intercept.

“I’m here too!” Scott said. “I’m here too!”

I ask him what he meant by that.

“I wasn’t really a starter at that point,” Scott explains. “If you listen to the commentators, they say, ‘Even the back-ups are making plays today for the Rams’. That intercept was big for me because it showed my teammates that I may not be a starter, but just know that if I’m on this field you can rely on me.”

Scott is a prime example of how far persistence can take the professional athlete, particularly in the US where there’s usually someone bigger, faster and stronger coming along the production line.

At Fairfax High in Virginia, he played quarterback. At Penn State, he was a running back before future superstars Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders popped up and Scott found himself on special teams.

Nick Scott, the LA Rams safety who has been on a promotional tour of Australia this week.Credit:Getty

The Rams picked him in the seventh round in the draft in 2019, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that he became one of two starting safeties.

In basic terms, the “strong safety” and “free safety” are defensive backs who stand behind the line of scrimmage. The strong safety defends the big, mobile tight-ends while the free safety patrols the backfield, cutting off receivers before or after they receive the ball.

“The Rams’ defence is we don’t assign as strong and free safety,” Scott says. “Both safeties can be in the box, in the run area, or the deep end of the field. Technically, I’m a free safety, but I can play both. I’m probably called a strong safety because of how hard I hit.”

Scott is making a name for himself as a big-hit specialist, even though he weighs about 91kgs. “I’m like a rugby league winger,” he smiles.

‘Aaron Rodgers. It’s not so much deception, he just knows where he wants the ball to go before the ball is snapped.’

So what’s he looking for on each play?

“When the ball is snapped, I’m looking at the quarterback and feeling the routes going on around me,” he says. “Anywhere the quarterback’s eyes are, that’s where I’m going. I’m going to take off that way, knowing how the ball is likely to come out. Just watching his eyes, trying to get a read on him. I feel like I’m a natural like that because I played quarterback so long when I was younger. I have a mental clock. I’m thinking, ‘He can’t hold the ball for too much longer’. We’ve got a guy called Aaron Donald [playing defensive tackle] so you know the quarterback will have to let go pretty soon. As soon as I catch his eyes, I’m gonna go get it.”

Ask him which quarterback is hardest to read and Scott doesn’t hesitate: “Besides Matthew Stafford, I’d say [Green Bay Packers] Aaron Rodgers. It’s not so much deception, he just knows where he wants the ball to go before the ball is snapped. He’s really good at reading the coverages, so there’s less time for me to get to read him.”

It surprises that he doesn’t mention Joe Burrow, the Bengals’ whizkid quarterback who just after halftime in the Super Bowl threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins to give their side a 20-13 lead.

“Any bad team loses that game from there,” Scott says. “But we’re well coached and have great leadership … and we’ve got Cooper Kupp.”

When Stafford and Cupp connected late in the game to give the Rams a three-point lead, it fell on their defence with 1 minute 20 seconds remaining on the clock to win the match.

“What sticks with me the most from is how confident our defence in that moment,” Scott says. “Once they scored, and we knew we had to go back, we knew we’d win the game.”

Fittingly, Donald snuffed out any chance of a Bengals’ victory when he got to Burrow in the dying seconds, forcing an incompletion.

In the weeks that followed, most assumed Donald had retired. He certainly celebrated like he had. He was rarely spotted with his shirt on as the champagne and cognac flowed and cigars sucked down.

“I’m talking to him about that!” Scott laughed. “He’s always got his shirt off. Yes, we know you’re ripped, relax, we get it. We give him crap about that.”

Shirt off, trophy up … Aaron Donald holds the Vince Lombardi TrophyCredit:AP

Donald is the 185cm, 130-kilogram weapon who casually walks into the gym, throws 220kgs of weight onto a bar and bench presses it with ease. Or picks up 70kg dumbbells and start doing bicep curls.

“He’s an animal,” Scott says. “It’s terrifying seeing it up close. Everything he does, you can tell why he’s the best player in the world. Everything he does, he does like he’s in the game.”

Earlier this month, Donald ended months of speculation about his future by committing to the Rams for one more season.

“It’s huge,” Scott says. “Sometimes you can just sit back and patrol the field and watch him take down the quarterback or put him on the back foot.”

Which gives Scott enough time to find the next wide receiver who needs reminding they’re human.

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