Matthew Stafford will wake up this morning with a lot of hate coming his way after an abysmal performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. His 197-yard, three-interceptions, and one-touchdown performance earned him a 46.8 QBR, which was his lowest of the season. He often threw into double coverage and missed open receivers—yet the Los Angeles Rams still walked away from the game with a victory.
The 2nd Matthew Stafford INT— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 26, 2021
Both INTs are super-bad pic.twitter.com/ijx8gqPPa6
A sign of a good team is one that has the ability to win even when their quarterback is playing some of his worst football. An even better team is one that conquers adversity. For all the disappointment felt towards Stafford, the last two weeks for the Rams facility has been hectic. Forced into a short week because of a Covid-19 outbreak, players had to “practice” remotely for much of the two week span. Regardless of how late it is in the season, Stafford is still working on building rapport with his receivers and missing those live reps with them is costly—especially with Odell Beckham Jr. still adjusting to the team.
Los Angeles is peaking at just the right moment as they fight for a NFC West crown after already earning their ticket into the playoffs. Stafford will need to improve down the stretch, but he has already proven throughout the weeks he can be elite. After an erratic couple of weeks, hopefully there is some semblance of normalcy this week as LA gets prepared to take on the Baltimore Ravens.
Until we get too far ahead of ourselves though, here are four other thing I learned in Week 16.
This team can win in multiple ways
When Stafford was not at his best, everyone on the team stepped up in a big way to get the win. After Ernest Jones went out with an injury, Travin Howard subbed in and on his first snap of the game he intercepted a tipped pass in the corner of the end zone. The offensive line played admirably given their circumstance, including dealing with an injury in-game to starting center Brian Allen and left guard Andrew Whitworth out with Covid-19. Stafford was not sacked a single time and they helped propel Sony Michel to a 131 yard day on the ground.
When their quarterback was throwing interceptions in his own territory, the defensive unit as a whole stopped the Vikings from running up the score and forced them to settle with field goals instead. Jalen Ramsey’s days as a pass rusher seem to be all but over after he stuck to Justin Jefferson like glue for most of the game. He only allowed the budding star to catch four receptions for 40 yards when he was in charge of the coverage. The defensive line cashed in three sacks and kept Kirk Cousins uncomfortable for most of the match. Though the scoreboard may have Minnesota at 23 points, the defense played some of their finest football given the circumstances their offense put them in.
Aaron Donald has not lost a step
If we are looking for reasons why the Rams found a way to win when some of the puzzle pieces were missing, look no further than game wrecker Aaron Donald as the answer. Donald continues to make an argument for defensive player of the year after finishing the game with three tackles for loss, a sack, and seven quarterback pressures. His effectiveness in the run game was also some of the most impressive football I have seen this year.
As long as Aaron Donald is playing football, he should be the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. pic.twitter.com/BPYSBK4yDW— DRF Sports (@DRF_Sports) December 26, 2021
The defensive line is really coming into its own late in the season. Von Miller is getting more and more comfortable as the weeks go on, Leonard Floyd continues to prove why he got his pay day, and Greg Gaines is becoming a beast of his own. It is obvious that teams are showing more respect to the guys around Donald, finally freeing up Donald to showcase his game-ruining talent. With the future hall of famer playing some of his best football going into January, the defense is finally hitting an elite level after questions surfaced about Raheem Morris’ scheme at the beginning of the season.
Brandon Powell to the rescue
Entering the 2021 season, Los Angeles had what seemed a spoil of riches at the return position on special teams. The evasive rookie Tutu Atwell out of Louisville appeared to be the most exciting option, but a veteran who still had a quick step in DeSean Jackson, and an underdog in Jake Funk were other options as well. That obviously did not pan out well, as both Tutu Atwell and Jake Funk were injured early in the season, and Jackson wanted out after realizing it was the Cooper Kupp show in LA.
With all the setbacks at the position, it was Kupp fielding the majority of punts. It was obvious though that the position was only temporary for LA’s super star, who was too busy beating franchise and NFL records to worry about punt return duties.
It became most apparent in a Week 12 matchup against the Green Bay Packers that the punt return position needed to be figured out, and quickly. J.J. Koski got the nod off of the practice squad to play as the Rams return man, but a detrimental turnover during a return was proof enough that he was not the answer.
In Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it became the Brandon Powell show when he took the opening kickoff 65 yards. Fresh off of free agency, Powell became the answer at the return game on special teams.
Which brings us back to this week. With the offense attempting to give the game away to the Vikings in a much needed win to take over first place in the division, Powell fielded a punt at his own 39 yard line. He found his way to the sideline, pointed to the only defender left to be blocked, and turned on the jets on his way to the end zone—finishing it all off with a flip over the white line.
It was only the second punt return for a touchdown all season, and the first for the Rams organization since Tavon Austin did it in 2015 against the Seattle Seahawks. The touchdown meant much more than just six points for LA, it meant stability in a position they have been lacking in all season long.
This team is reminiscent of the 2018 Super Bowl squad
If you were to look at the tape at the beginning of the season and compare it to LA’s last four victories, the teams identity would look much different. Sean McVay’s offense was defined by quick scoring, chunk plays, and relied on the pass to set up the run to begin the season. An embarrassing Week 9 loss to the Tennessee Titans, however, grounded the Rams high-flying passing attack and gave the rest of the league the blueprint to defeat LA, leading to a three game losing streak.
Something similar happened in the Rams Super Bowl season in 2018. While it was though that McVay had ended defensive football with an offense that schemed receivers wide open, the Chicago Bears humbled the best team in the NFL when they held Jared Goff and company to just six points. Los Angeles would then lose its next game against the Philadelphia Eagles before ending their losing streak against the Arizona Cardinals the following week. In the playoffs of that year, McVay turned to a run-first offense, riding the duo of Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson all the way through the playoffs and into the promised lands.
After their losing streak in the middle of this season, McVay has gone from putting Stafford into the shotgun for most of the game and has elected to instead drop him behind the center and use a run-heavy scheme with play-action to set up big plays down the field. Michel finished the game with 27 carries—the most attempts by a Rams rusher this season. In the four games that they have won since ending their losing streak in Week 13, three of their four games LA has surpassed the 100 yard mark; something they did not do once during their three game losing streak.
SONY MICHEL GETS IN— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) December 26, 2021
The Rams have changed their identity offense and reverted to what got McVay and his team to the Super Bowl in 2018. With Cam Akers ready to go for the playoffs, the duo of him and Michel could be a dangerous combo for opposing defenses to contain. This time around, however, they have a quarterback that can make all the throws and a defense that is currently playing at an elite level.
What did you learn against the Vikings? Let’s discuss in the comments below!