INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Music boomed and thudded through the Los Angeles locker room just minutes after a missed field goal by Seattle secured the Rams’ fourth win of the season, and their first in November since 2020.
The celebration was tinged with some relief: The Rams scored just 17 points Sunday in their 17-16 effort, another sub-20-point outing for a team averaging only 19.5 points per game (No. 22 in the NFL) under its offensive-minded coach and veteran quarterback.
“There’s a lot of things that we can learn from, offensively,” McVay said. “But it sure feels good to be able to do that after a win.”
Receiver Cooper Kupp left the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. Kupp stayed out on the sideline in uniform, believing he might be able to come back in at some point. McVay had no update postgame about Kupp’s status.
In his absence, creativity with other receivers was a necessity (as was their need to step up). Lesson No. 1 of the day, on that side of the ball anyway. On the Rams’ two touchdown drives, there was a four-to-five run-to-pass play balance, and Stafford divvied the ball out to four different targets per drive. Now, readers know that I am not a strict “equal run-to-pass” balance person, understanding that the offense should also be fluid to capitalize where it sees leverages and advantages. However, the Rams, especially minus Kupp on both drives, needed to keep an expanded play-menu intact. Keeping the Seattle defense accountable for the run, and therefore opening the potential of moving Stafford’s pocket, was important.
Non-scoring drives revealed where this roster still has to go. On more than one occasion, including a couple of hits and throwaways, Stafford held the ball while searching for an open receiver and couldn’t always find one. The Rams opened the game with a three-and-out, and got no push on the line of scrimmage inside Seattle’s 5-yard line on their second drive of a scoreless first quarter. That was after getting 59 net penalty yards on the drive — only to stall out on fourth-and-2 (a pass play, after three failed runs) instead of imposing physicality in short yardage.
“You have four (first-half) drives, I believe it was, you end up going three-and-out on two of them so it’s hard to have any sort of rhythm,” McVay said. “We go right down the field (on the penalty-yards drive), then it wasn’t a really good call on fourth down. There were a couple of previous plays where I thought we could have executed better. So you come away with no points, right there. So that’s tough.”
For those interested in the explanatory side, asked McVay and Stafford postgame about the second and third down calls at the goal line, before the go-ahead FG. Both loved the second down call, if executed in two outcomes other than what did actually occur. Comments: pic.twitter.com/JyQBuOsdVb
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) November 20, 2023
Offensive line will have to be an area of focus this spring, even after some personnel improvements last offseason. So, too, will receiver (another Kupp injury is a sobering reality, though the seriousness of his current situation isn’t yet known) and running back, though the Rams expect starter Kyren Williams to return from injured reserve next week. A harder topic to mull: Although Stafford reiterated that his still-recovering thumb did not limit what the Rams were able to call Sunday, he also admitted he is not “100 percent” and took a massive shot to the stomach/chest on an underthrown ball that was intercepted in the third quarter. The longer-term health of two of the players the Rams refer to as “weight-bearing walls” is constantly under scrutiny.
The hit itself seemed to fuel Stafford, though.
“I don’t know, I mean, it pissed me off,” he said, chuckling postgame. “I don’t know if I need to take that level of a shot every week to get going.”
Added McVay with a laugh, “Maybe we should punch him in the gut right before games, huh?”
A 32-yard dig concept to Puka Nacua later in that same quarter, threaded through double coverage that included star linebacker Bobby Wagner, was Stafford’s best throw of the game and ultimately helped set up the final go-ahead field goal.
“No. 9, the best in the world,” said Nacua, laughing. “The ability for him to hang in the pocket and put the ball anywhere.”
On defense, too, the team says it will keep learning even in a strong finish. Cornerback Derion Kendrick was a good example of exactly that on Sunday. Kendrick all but lost his starting spot, but got back the role because Cobie Durant was inactive Sunday with a shoulder injury. Kendrick had a rough start to the game — he had a penalty, and was visibly frustrated with himself for miscommunicating on an assignment that ended up as a crucial second-down conversion on Seattle’s first touchdown drive — but batted down a Drew Lock pass attempt in the fourth quarter, and then intercepted Lock on a deep sideline one-on-one matchup with Tyler Lockett two plays later.
“I commend Derion,” inside linebacker Ernest Jones said. “He worked himself back into it. He wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the week, but the way he prepared and got himself going, he came out and he executed like we know all year — Derion, a few mistakes here and there. But when it’s time to go play, he’ll rise to the occasion.”
Seattle extended its opening drives with third- and even fourth-down conversions as the Rams’ own offense couldn’t sustain anything. The Rams’ defense was on the field for almost 20 minutes in the first half — almost double its own offense’s time of possession — but clamped down in the second half, holding the Seahawks 1 for 8 on third down and to just three points, while flipping the time of possession advantage.
McVay gave the defensive captains game balls in the locker room after the win, among them Jones, saying repeatedly that the defense kept the Rams in the game.
“We were able to just keep everybody together,” said Jones, who led the Rams with 12 tackles, a half-sack and two quarterback hits, cradling his ball under his arm. “I pride myself on, when these guys get down or start second-guessing themselves, I want to lift them up, ‘Hey, you’re still a dog, you’re still a baller.’ This game ball means more to me than most, the most that I’ve ever gotten. I’m thankful.”
In the second half, the Rams mixed in some new ideas on defense — a lesson in adjustments, in thinking outside the box with personnel even with a limited roster.
The Rams will have to address their cornerback position, and sorely need to add pass-rushing help after this season. Midseason, they are working with and developing the guys they’ve got. That means trying new things.
Instead of bringing a third cornerback in to play the slot/Star, they expanded a different sub package to include four safeties, two in hybrid “cover linebacker” roles and two in their usual single or two-high look. They especially did this on known passing downs (third-and-medium or third-and-long), and had two stops in this look (the Seahawks converted a fourth down after one of them). Safety Russ Yeast also broke up a pass while covering in a hybrid role.
They also mixed up their pressures, including blitzes and even some funky pre-snap movement along their defensive line which led to a sack.
“They were the key to the game,” McVay said of the Rams’ second-half defense. “It’s always a team game, (but) I thought for them not to be affected by some of the things we were struggling with, and our offense was struggling with as a whole, they just kept playing. They kept competing. They kept it to a tight game.”
In a perfect world, the Rams aren’t depending on a missed kick by their opponent to secure a win. But they entered this season knowing they weren’t going to exist in a perfect world, nor with a perfect roster — or even one that is a player or two away.
They say they have learned a lot in their six losses; they gained a lot to chew on in their fourth win, too.
“There was a lot of things that didn’t go our way, but they just kept staying the course, they kept just learning from it,” McVay said. “I think learning how to win, and learning how to identify those moments where the game pivots and you get a chance to be able to come away with (these) results, you’ve got to learn how to do that. Well, what’s the way to learn? You feel what these feelings feel like.”
(Top photo of the Rams celebrating Seattle’s missed field goal: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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