INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The No. 1 rule of the preseason, any preseason — even such a weird one as the Los Angeles Rams are having — is to not jump to any full conclusions.
How about partial conclusions?
The Rams’ 34-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night hinted at some positive trends, and some concerning trends, too.
Five developing thoughts:
1. The more backup quarterback Stetson Bennett plays, the better he can get.
Bennett didn’t start the game, but after entering in the second quarter, he finished it.
Similar to how he has been in training camp, Bennett’s play fluctuated, especially in his early minutes. He was nearly intercepted twice and held on to a throw where he had receiver Ben Skowronek in the flat. But after an ugly few minutes in the red zone late in the second quarter — including discombobulation in the huddle that would have led to a delay of game penalty if the Rams had not called a timeout, and Skowronek getting smacked in the head by Chargers safety JT Woods (and holding on the next play) — Bennett helped reset the group and hit rookie receiver Puka Nacua for an 11-yard touchdown.
Stetson Bennett finds @AsapPuka for our first TD of the night! 🙌
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) August 13, 2023
Through the third quarter, Bennett seemed much more poised and it was clear where he and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur (who was calling the game), were problem-solving and seeing things better. A free pressure on a bootleg that led to Bennett getting ripped to the ground early on was corrected by the end of the game, where Bennett quickly found the underneath outlet player to beat a similar pressure. He made a couple of really impressive throws, including a 17-yard pass to veteran receiver Tyler Johnson on third-and-10 that eventually led to a Royce Freeman rushing touchdown a few plays later.
“It’s the first NFL game that you’re playing in, you’re gonna come in and be a little nervous (and) try to make a play when sometimes plays aren’t there,” Bennett said. “But then, as we started to groove, we started calling plays and just started to settle in. Once you get hit first, honestly, it’s like everything else. …
“I thought there were some bone-headed plays that I made, and I thought there were some good plays that I made.”
Bennett went 17 of 29 for 191 yards, a touchdown and no turnovers.
“Didn’t turn the ball over even though I tried to a few times,” he said, drily. “Gotta clean that up a little bit.”
2. The Rams are small along their defensive line, and technically inexperienced. This can be fixed, but it’s hard to deal with both at the same time.
The Chargers probably could have run the ball every play, if they didn’t care about getting their quarterbacks or receivers work in the passing game. It sounds harsh, but they were averaging over 5.9 yards per carry against the players who figure to make up the first-team defensive line (minus Aaron Donald, of course). They finished the game with 214 rushing yards and would have gotten close to 300 had a 71-yard touchdown run not been called back for a hold.
Now, the Chargers also were playing their two starting guards, Zion Johnson and Jamaree Salyer, to open the game. But that’s less of an excuse against a group of interior defensive linemen who the Rams will need to start for them. Without Donald, the opening front featured (with some rotation) Marquise Copeland, Earnest Brown IV and Bobby Brown III.
The yards-per-carry (which ballooned to 6.9 by the end of the game) looked bad. But one play in particular could be a little ominous foreshadowing for what is to come, if the Rams don’t find a solution: Early in the game, Chargers running back Josh Kelley stayed upright and moving his legs against a pile of Rams defenders … and as his teammates joined Kelley, that pile got moved for a first down. It’s one thing to have a lot of technical work to clean up, and another thing to get bullied.
“It just takes one guy to be able to get out of a gap,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said after the game. “So, especially some of the stuff early on, it felt like they were getting some good surges. I felt like we could use our hands overall better. We talk about trying to be able to gap-and-a-half, play with some violence up front. Didn’t feel like we played the way we were capable of.”
Byron Young started opposite Michael Hoecht at outside linebacker, which is how the last week-and-a-half or so of training camp has looked. This could mean that Young has leapfrogged second-year outside linebacker Daniel Hardy on the depth chart.
While the interior defensive line looked problematic against the run at the beginning of the game, the outside edges had trouble sealing against the run late in the game.
“Some of the late ones that they hit, we just lost the integrity on the edge of our defense,” McVay said, “(that was) the main culprit there.”
3. Rookie cornerback Tre Tomlinson and rookie receiver Puka Nacua will contribute sooner rather than later.
In the early days of training camp, it seemed like Tomlinson couldn’t make a play without a referee flagging him for pass interference. Each time, defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant would sprint over to him and coach him through it — making it clear that the aggressive play style was a plus, but Tomlinson had to learn how officials would call the game at the NFL level.
Saturday night, Tomlinson was certainly a bright spot on for the Rams’ defense. He got a significant workload at outside corner — an “OK, prove it” nod from the coaching staff because Tomlinson is 5-foot-9 — and played smart, physical coverage including credit for a pass breakup against former TCU teammate Quentin Johnston.
He was, through the last few weeks of camp, encouraged to be “himself” while also learning the more technical sides of the NFL game.
“I feel like it’s just my mentality,” Tomlinson said. “Aggressive, feisty, competitive. It’s just in me. … Most of it is just my mentality. I can’t change my style of play, because that’s what got me here. Just making the adjustments, understanding the calls and how things would be called in the NFL versus college, that was the biggest thing. But once I finally get it down … I feel like I can make a lot of plays.”
Meanwhile, Nacua had three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown, carrying forward a workload that has stood out from previous Rams rookie receivers of the last couple of seasons.
4. Some offensive line questions will take a little longer to answer than others.
Alaric Jackson and Steve Avila, both of whom could be respective starters for the Rams at left tackle and left guard, played some of the first quarter. Interestingly, Joe Noteboom — who McVay said is now competing at right guard after spending the majority of training camp competing at left tackle — did not dress out.
“Just coming off the Achilles,” said McVay, of why the Rams did not play Noteboom (who tore his Achilles last year but has been a full participant in training camp). “I think Joe has had an excellent camp. We’ll get an opportunity against the Raiders to get two competitive practices. We’ll get two more against the Broncos. And if we feel that Joe has gotten the amount of work that is necessary to start the season and be ready to go, he’s going to be an important part of this team.”
McVay added that at some point, the Rams need to establish their best five players and stick with them. That could mean no longer rotating Noteboom, though McVay was sure to praise Noteboom’s experience at both tackle and guard.
However, I also suspect it’s an indication of how the Rams are in fact leaning at right guard … especially after Tremayne Anchrum, who essentially stayed on the first team at the position through most of training camp, played nearly the entire preseason game at right guard. While the Rams are treating preseason a little differently this year, they still didn’t keep other likely starters in the game that late. If Noteboom ends up winning the starting right guard job, Anchrum has played right or left guard and even a little tackle, so he could be a swing-depth player.
Rams risers, question marks, predictions, camp MVPs as team enters preseason
Logan Bruss, who switched back to right tackle full-time in training camp (the position he played in college), gave up two sacks and had a false start. He also played essentially the entire game, because he’s re-learning the position at an NFL level after the Rams moved him to guard his rookie season (and he blew out his knee in the first preseason game in 2022) and he needs to make up for lost reps.
I talked with Bruss after the game about his first night back. He was pretty honest in his self-evaluation, which I’ll share below (lightly edited for clarity):
Can you take me through the ups, downs, and what you’re going to take from this?
“The biggest thing I wanted to get out of this game was getting confidence, feeling good again. There’s confidence in playing fast, full-speed, and just to come out of this game feeling healthy — last time I was on an NFL field, things didn’t turn out so well. Just getting that mental confidence and getting past that mental block of, ‘I’m not hurt anymore, I’m healthy (and) feeling good,’ that was the biggest thing for me. … Moving back out to tackle, I had not done that in a game in the NFL. Made some mistakes in the pass pro (protection). All things that are easily correctible. I learned some lessons, I know how I can be better.”
On how he felt about his run blocking
“I think most of my mistakes came in the pass. I think that’s just mental, how I’m approaching things. How I’m taking my set. Overall, I felt more calm out there (and) more powerful. Healthy. It’s good to get back out there again and play some football. Obviously a lot of things to clean up, so I’m looking forward to doing that.”
On what he wants to show next week in joint practices and the preseason game
“Progress and improvement. More consistency in the pass game. I think when I have a good rep, it feels really good. Sometimes, like today, I let a few get away from me. It’s a consistency thing, mentally. Taking the right approach every snap.”
5. As expected, special teams could be a bumpy ride.
With an all-rookie specialist operation, this was pretty much a given. Rookie kicker Tanner Brown missed a 46-yard field goal, but made a 39-yarder and hit both of his extra-point attempts. Is distance possibly an issue for Brown? Part of the journey with such a young kicker is getting a large enough sample size to decide whether it is, or isn’t.
Meanwhile, the Rams tried punter Ethan Evans out on kickoffs late in the game (this was previously his specialty before he picked up punting). He had a touchback. Evans averaged 51.3 yards per punt with a 62-yard long and seemed to have control of his angles; unfortunately for him, one of them was returned for an 81-yard touchdown after breakdowns in the coverage. The Rams aren’t just playing rookies at the specialist spots…they also are playing a lot of inexperienced guys on their coverage units.
Didn’t play: Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Donald, Tyler Higbee, Van Jefferson, Brycen Hopkins, (injured tight ends) Hunter Long and Davis Allen, Noteboom, Rob Havenstein, Coleman Shelton, Brian Allen, Cam Akers, Kyren Williams, Ernest Jones, Jordan Fuller, John Johnson III, Cobie Durant, Ahkello Witherspoon, (injured) Derion Kendrick.
(Top photo of Stetson Bennett: Kirby Lee / USA Today)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.