Christmas came early for the Los Angeles Rams when the team’s former quarterback, Jared Goff, beat the division rival Arizona Cardinals to move the Rams into a tie for first place in the NFC West. Los Angeles has also won its last three games and the Rams have plenty of momentum to finish the regular season on a strong note.
Once upon a time the Rams were a mere 7-4 and had been soundly defeated by playoff caliber teams in the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers. There are a number of players that raised their individual play to help the Rams turn things around mid-season - so who has been “Naughty” and who has been “Nice”?
The Naughty List
Troy Reeder, ILB
In LA’s most recent loss, Week 12 against the Packers, Aaron Rodgers sought out coverage mismatches against the Rams’ linebackers - and Troy Reeder had a rough outing in an important NFC matchup. The fallout in the weeks that followed resulted in rookie Ernest Jones taking over as the primary inside linebacker for LA’s defense, and Jones has been relatively effective in recent outings. Reeder does still have a role on the Rams defense as a run-stopping linebacker, and he will be an important player against teams like the 49ers. It is also worth mentioning that Reeder is a key special teams player for Los Angeles.
David Long, Jr., CB
David Long, Jr. was on the “Nice” list for a brief moment after a stellar performance against the Cardinals in Week 15; however, he returned to his old ways Tuesday night against the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle’s first drive of the second half was impressive and physical, but it also started with an explosive play of 25 yards that could have been thwarted if Long did not miss a tackle on Freddie Swain.
Big play alert. Freddie Swain breaks a tackle attempt by David Long and picks up 25 yards.— Corbin K. Smith (@CorbinSmithNFL) December 22, 2021
Long was awarded a PFF grade of 56.1 against the Seahawks, which put him in the bottom 3 of Rams defenders in that game.
Darrell Henderson, RB
Third-year running back Darrell Henderson missed the Week 13 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars due to injury, and then he missed the following game versus the Cardinals due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. In his absence veteran Sony Michel has taken over as the lead back for Los Angeles, and Michel’s physical style of running has been the missing ingredient for the Rams offense.
Sean McVay thought Sony Michel was "outstanding" tonight and said Darrell Henderson Jr. "did a nice job with his opportunities."— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 22, 2021
No reason to think Michel won't remain RB1 moving forward
Henderson has struggled at times in short yardage situations in terms of both the run and pass game, but Michel has seemed to excel in this area in recent week. Henderson was healthy and available for the Rams Tuesday against the Seahawks, and the running back received only 8 touches for 27 yards (3.4 average).
The starting job is Michel’s to lose moving forward.
Brycen Hopkins, TE
Starting tight-end Tyler Higbee has missed the last two games due to COVID-19 protocols, but Brycen Hopkins has not made much of the opportunity to fill Higbee’s absence. The young tight-end has been minimally involved in the Rams offense in his second year, and his rookie season was nothing more than a redshirt year. In the two games that Higbee has missed, Hopkins has recorded a reception for 9 yards.
Matthew Stafford to Brycen Hopkins to convert a 3rd and 5 #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/MDwnAt4j85— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) December 22, 2021
Though the Rams invested a 2020 fourth round pick to select Hopkins, it is difficult to see the tight-end having much of a role with this team in the future.
The Nice List
Cooper Kupp, WR
After another stellar performance on Tuesday night, Cooper Kupp now holds the Rams single-season reception record with 122 catches and counting. Los Angeles has a rich history of exemplary players at the receiver position, and breaking Isaac Bruce’s mark puts Kupp in rare territory - the star is having one of the best individual seasons for any receiver ever.
It is evident that Kupp has taken his game to another level with Matthew Stafford now under center for the Rams.
1️⃣2️⃣0️⃣ receptions... and counting.@CooperKupp now holds the franchise record for most receptions in Rams history! pic.twitter.com/SiL44EbaEu— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 22, 2021
Aaron Donald, DT
Aaron Donald is still playing at an extremely high level, but until about 3 weeks ago his impact wasn’t necessarily apparent on the stat sheet. But things change quickly in the NFL, and Donald is now squarely in the conversation for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award - which winning in 2021 would mark the 4th time for his career, a record in itself.
It is clear that Donald has raised his level of play in recent games, which could be driven by either the acquisition of Von Miller or the emergence of Greg Gaines.
Aaron Donald not only ranks No. 1 in PRWR at defensive tackle, but the gaps between him and No. 2 and him and average are larger than they were last season, when he won DPOY.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 16, 2021
Double team rate (x) by pass rush win rate (y), all while playing DT.
(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/8tVdxienP7
Best year for DPOY candidates in a long time.— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) December 19, 2021
Watt, Bosa, Parsons, Garrett, Donald all very deserving.
Greg Gaines, DT
In order for the Rams’ team building model of trading premium draft capital for proven players to work, LA needs to defy the odds and identify key contributors in the later rounds of the draft. Former fourth rounder Greg Gaines has emerged as an effective pass rusher this season, and he may be playing Sebastian Joseph Day, whose contract is up after this season, out of a job.
Other than Donald, Gaines has been the Rams’ best pass rusher since the Packers game. This is an encouraging development for Los Angeles, especially if Gaines can maintain this performance into the playoffs.
The Rams have Greg Gaines signed for cheap for one more year, but it might be time to start negotiations.— Joe Baccamazzi (@JoeMazziFB) December 22, 2021
Jalen Ramsey, CB
It was somewhat of a Christmas miracle that the Rams were able to keep Kyler Murray out of the end zone in Week 14 without Jalen Ramsey, who missed the game due to the NFL’s COVID-19 guidelines. With that said, Ramsey is still as important as ever to LA - and he proved his worth again on Tuesday by limiting the impact of star receiver DK Metcalf.
Ramsey will once again have his hands full when the Rams take on the Minnesota Vikings and Justin Jefferson in Week 16. Can the defensive star rise to the occasion?
Two pass breakups (both on third down and five-plus) as well for Jalen Ramsey on Tuesday night. "He's a special player, gifted by God with all of the size and skill set that he has," said Ramsey tonight. "Not only is he as big as some of our DEs, but he's fast...It's a challenge https://t.co/ABfeQUavf9— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) December 22, 2021
An important aspect of offensive line performance is consistency. When the Rams reached the Super Bowl in 2018, the team had the same starters on the OL for every game, and in turn they were one of the best units in the NFL that season. Unfortunately, consistency is not something that Los Angeles has had much of lately - as Brian Allen has missed time with injury and Rob Havenstein and Joe Noteboom missed Week 15 due to COVID restrictions.
The Rams did surrender four sacks to the Seahawks with Bobby Evans playing at right tackle, but the fact that this unit was serviceable after all the changes they’ve undergone recently is a massive credit to them. Rob Havenstein will be back for the Rams, and Joe Noteboom has proven himself useful as a sixth offensive lineman in jumbo sets - so there are some positive signs for future outings.
This group has played well so far this season, and their job of keeping Matthew Stafford upright is of the upmost importance as the team prepares for the playoffs.