After four days off, the Los Angeles Rams traveled east to face the NFC North’s Minnesota Vikings for a Week 16 clash. The game held significant meaning to the Rams, as first place in the NFC West was up for grabs after the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Indianapolis Colts the day before.
This week, it was Andrew Whitworth and Joe Noteboom on the COVID/reserve list; causing Sean McVay to reshuffle his offense yet again.
There were highs and lows en route to Los Angeles’s 11th win, a 30-23 victory at US Bank Stadium. The Rams received a Christmas gift from the special teams; swinging momentum after the offense sputtered during the middle of the game. But in the end, the Rams winning this game showed growth. The ability to win in very ugly fashion.
In the overview below, I’ll cover the players and position group performances including these major topics:
- Stafford falters; can he win 4 in a row in playoffs?
- Tyler Higbee - needs to be option #3 in passing game
- OL depth growing - a new name emerges
- ILB turnstile - E. Jones goes down, Rams must rely on T-Howard
- Special Teams starting to find itself with Hekker/M. Gay/Powell?
This article will cover each player’s PFF grade as it fluctuates week to week. The grade next to the individual is his current PFF grade.
*The differential +/- in parenthesis reflects whether or not he improved or declined from the previous week. Lastly, based on my own study of the game, I hand out a grade to the position group based on their ability and impact on the game (as well as injuries, signings, or releases). This grade factors into the overall grade of the positional group for the season, and ultimately the trend of the unit moving forward.*
Matthew Stafford: 79.1 (-3.3), John Wolford: 40.2 (DNP)
Rams fans will not want to see another Sunday performance from Matt Stafford for the rest of the 2021 season & playoffs. Stafford was off. Maybe it’s because of the lack of live practices over the last few weeks. So I can be somewhat sympathetic there. But Stafford is going to need to hit his WRs in the hands moving forward for the Rams to put the finishing touches on a potential-championship season.
Stafford was 21/37 for 197 yards, 1 TD, and 3 INTs.
INT #1 was underthrown and lacked field awareness/vision. Stafford was flushed from the pocket and he thought he had Sony Michel to the right in the flat, but he threw well short into Anthony Barr’s lap.
INT #2 was underthrown on a deep shot to Van Jefferson, with X. Woods able to haul in the easy pick.
INT #3 was a deflected pass at the line of scrimmage - but even then the attempt was thrown to a contested area. Anthony Barr caught the deflection and returned it to the LA 2 yard line. Altogether, the Vikings scored 10 points off of Stafford’s miscues.
#Vikings fighting for a win. Barr’s 2nd pick of the day. #hattrickbarr pic.twitter.com/uz3voshbYF— VikingsDaily (@VikingsDaily) December 26, 2021
For not being sacked, Stafford was clearly uncomfortable. Even without the sacks, his tackles (Jackson & Havenstein) played very well - so the pressure wasn’t really a crucial factor either.
Stafford’s throw on third-and-2 at LA’s 33 is a play I want to analyze. The Rams went PA and OBJ was open on a deep route to the right hashmark/right sideline. Stafford underthrew OBJ by at least 5 yards. It’s a play that you would like to see Matt Stafford make (a play that he needs to make in the playoffs). It’ll make or break a game. Again, maybe you don’t crucify Stafford for the misthrow because of lack of practices in the last three weeks, but moving forward - no more excuses.
Overall, Sunday was just the same phrase/vibe. “Ah, Stafford missed an opportunity/missed there.” Whether it was just off the fingertips of a WR or on a turnover. We know that McVay/Stafford want to be able to unleash the deep ball and hit on explosive plays, but at the same time - they need to let those plays develop and happen as the defense creeps toward line of scrimmage. And guess what - Los Angeles has a running game that is getting better and better, so the chances of drawing a defense’s front-7 is getting more likely.
As for whether Stafford can win 4 in a row in the playoffs… yes I think he can. It may not be with eye-popping numbers. But Stafford showed he can win four in a row. So it is possible. Competition is going to be stiffer. He’ll need to manage the games with precision and protecting the ball. If he wants to win 4 games, he’ll need to keep his turnovers in those four games to three or less (total).
Week 16 Grade: D-, Overall: B, Trend: Moderate Downward
Darrell Henderson: 68.7 (+0.2), Sony Michel: 71.1 (-0.5), Jake Funk: 59.2 (-4.4), Buddy Howell: 66.6 (DNP), Mekhi Sargent: 57.8 (WAIVED)
Sony Michel just keeps on doing his thing. 27 carries, 131 yards (4.9 yards/carry), 1 TD to lead the offense with a struggling Matt Stafford. His longest carry on the day went for 16 yards and he had 4 rushes for 10 or more yards.
Henderson had the longest rush of the day for 17 yards on his lone carry, but injured his knee on the play. After a diagnosis on Monday, it turned out to be a sprained MCL; resulting in a 3-5 week stint on the IL.
While Henderson’s injury thins the RB room yet again, Cam Akers was activated this week with an expectation of playing a limited number of snaps against BAL. I feel a 10-15 snap game for Akers would be wise. Something to watch though is the weather as it is expected to rain over the weekend in Baltimore.
In the pass game, Michel had one rec (4 targets) for four yards. He did drop a sidearm throw from Stafford that needs to be caught.
The run game for Los Angeles is clicking right now as it has averaged 123.7 yards/game on the ground the last three weeks (all 3 wins). Furthermore, the Rams rushing offense has been better on the road than at home.
Week 16 Grade: A, Overall: A-, Trend: Slight Upward
Cooper Kupp: 91.8* (+0.2), Odell Beckham Jr: 68.4 (+0.8), Van Jefferson: 57.8 (-1.1), Bennett Skowronek: 57.8 (-0.1), L. Akers: 58.3 (N/A), Robert Woods: 75.7 (IR), Jacob Harris: 58.7 (DNP), TuTu Atwell: 60.7 (IR)
It was really just two names in the passing game that made any sort of impact. Cooper Kupp (obviously). And Odell Beckham Jr (91% snap share).
Cooper Kupp had 10 rec (13 targets) for 109 yards. He had a 37 yard reception on a 3rd & 6 which helped the Rams add a FG at the end of the drive and increase their lead to 30-20.
Artists. pic.twitter.com/kdqNXl7uup— Cooper Kupp (@CooperKupp) December 26, 2021
It was the 3rd down passing game that raised my eyebrows. Cooper Kupp was targeted only twice in the entire game on 3rd down situations. Both on the Rams final drive of the game. The 3rd & 6 at the LA 29 as mentioned above and on 3rd & 4 at MIN 16 for 7 yards. Odell Beckham Jr was targeted 6 TIMES by Stafford on 3rd down. They connected 50% of the time, one of which included a 7 yard TD. I think this is a positive sign moving forward despite only connecting half the time. Here’s why: 1) Stafford trusts his connection with OBJ on 3rd down now and doesn’t necessarily feel forced to force the ball to Kupp. 2) The Rams will need 2 or 3 go-to options in the playoffs, and OBJ naturally needs to be one of those. 3) On the three misses to OBJ, two of them were right the read (just missed execution on Stafford’s part). The first was a miss to OBJ toward the endzone on a throw to the near pylon on the right sideline. OBJ got a fingertip on the pass and just missed being able to bring it in. The other was on 3rd & 2 (as mentioned on the QB write up). OBJ was open and it was the right read and throw to make. Stafford just needs to get it to him.
Van Jefferson. Hmm. What to think of the 2nd year WR. Stafford and him just haven’t been reliable. Outside of a 52 yard TD against ARI, Van has caught 4 rec (10 targets) for 35 yards and 0 TD over the last 3 games. Not exactly confidence inspiring for WR3 who plays 90+% of the offense snaps. So who does McVay/Stafford get him involved? Is it via the screen game? Use quick slants (not exactly a staple play for LA on 1st and 2nd down)? Van has struggled to build timing & rhythm in the intermediate passing - on 10 to 15 yard hitches and 10 to 25 yard crossers. He’s been the vertical threat with Stafford, but realistically, LAR can only take so many deep shots in a game. He looked a little disengaged on the bench when the camera panned to McVay congratulating the offense on a scoring drive. I know the 2nd year WR has been through a lot this year, but he will need to step up a bit more down the stretch.
Skowronek (6%) was a non-factor in this one.
Week 16 Grade: B-, Overall: A-, Trend: Slight Downward
Tyler Higbee: 62.5 (+1.9), Kendall Blanton: 37.7 (+2.2), Brycen Hopkins: 52.4 (+0.2), Johnny Mundt: 64.7 (IR)
I think it was a good thing that Higbee missed two games for the sake of his body getting some rest. He gets beat up pretty quickly in run blocking and YAC; typically playing 90+% of offensive snaps. With Van Jefferson’s inconsistency, Higbee will need to be the 3rd option in the passing game. Stafford & Higbee have hooked up for 5+ rec in 7 games this year. In those 7 games, the Rams are: 6-1. In those 7 games, Higbee has averaged 47.1 yards, which is a healthy average for the 6th year TE. With only 3 drops on the season (2 in the SF game), Higbee has been more sure-handed than Van (5 drops). For these reasons, if I was compiling the Rams offensive game plan, I’d want to get Kupp/OBJ/Higbee the majority of targets. Higbee has also been able to work the middle of the field well with quick slants. That dynamic with Kupp can cause issues for defenses.
As for the MIN game, Higbee had 5 rec (6 targets), 41 yards, 0 TD. Higbee had 2 rec (2 targets) on 3rd downs. He picked up a crucial one late in the game, and was just a few inches short of picking up one on the Rams first drive. The Rams did convert on 4th down.
Blanton (11% snap share) and Hopkins (4% snap share) were not targeted in the passing game.
Week 16 Grade: C+, Overall: C, Trend: Slight Upward
Andrew Whitworth: 84.8 (COVID), Joe Noteboom: 78.3 (COVID), David Edwards: 66.1 (+1.3), Brian Allen: 78.3 (+0.6), Coleman Shelton: 56.6 (-5.4), Austin Corbett: 69.4 (-0.7), Bobby Evans: 48.2 (+0.1), Rob Havenstein: 81.9 (+1.8), Alaric Jackson: 70.2 (+32.3)
Without Andrew Whitworth & Joe Noteboom, the Rams were faced with starting a new Left Tackle. Bobby Evans & Tremayne Anchrum were possibilities. However, David Edwards drew the start there with his collegiate experience and Coleman Shelton then slid into the left guard spot. But after an injury to Brian Allen at center a quarter of the way through the game, the Rams had to call upon undrafted free agent, Alaric Jackson.
Alaric Jackson’s performance turned some heads; earning the highest grade on offense: 81.3. He earned the highest run blocking grade on the offensive line and he only allowed 2 pressures on Stafford; against a MIN DL that led the NFL in sacks (44) going into Week 16.
Undrafted FA AJ Jackson or OG David Edwards will serve as LT today for Rams with Whitworth and Noteboom OUT. https://t.co/pbM6Zy9VvV— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) December 26, 2021
Alaric Jackson’s performance creates a new dynamic moving forward. With Andrew Whitworth rumored to return in 2022, the Rams can afford to let Joe Noteboom walk in free agency. Even though Noteboom would be a great name to keep, he will likely want top dollar and a starting gig somewhere. His departure will allow LA to use Alaric Jackson as the backup LT. Now, I think Jackson can only play LT, Noteboom can play LT/LG/RT, so the Rams will lose diversity, but the saved $$$ can allow them to spend elsewhere (especially with B. Allen, Shelton, and Corbett being free agents too).
The interior line remains the weaker portion of the OL. Getting Allen back from a knee injury will be paramount as I believe his strength is better than Shelton’s.
Week 16 Grade: B, Overall: A-, Trend: Slight Upward
Aaron Donald: 93.9* (+0.1), A’Shawn Robinson: 73.2 (+1.9), Greg Gaines: 75.0 (-0.8), Bobby Brown III: 62.6 (+0.9), Marquise Copeland: 68.4 (-2.7), Mike Hoecht: 46.7 (DNP), Jonah Williams: 66.3 (DNP), Sebastian Joseph-Day: 62.4 (IR)
AD99 sack total now moves to 12.0 on the season. 97.5 sacks so far through his 8 year career. Will he get to 100.0 with 2 games left? He’s keeping his name alive in the DPOY chase, but M. Parsons, T. Diggs are probably the front runners.
The small blow was that Greg Gaines fractured his hand, though he was able to return. McVay said that he will play with a club on his hand moving forward. We’ll see how that impacts his play. Will he be able to generate the same type of pass rush like he was vs. GB, JAC, ARI, and SEA? He had a huge sack on 1st down after the Vikings got the ball off of Stafford’s first INT at the LAR 11. It forced MIN to settle for a FG. Gaines also added 2 TFLs. I’m not sure when he broke his hand, whether those plays happened before or after his hand fracture. Nonetheless, Gaines now has 4.5 sacks and 13 QB hits. His production is definitely making up for what Michael Brockers provided in 2020.
A’Shawn (52% snap share) had 2 pressures and 2 tackles. He could be an x-factor for the Rams down the stretch. They may need a little more pass rush or a few PDs at the LoS especially if Gaines is slowed down or limited in his snap usage.
Copeland (33% snap share) has tapered off in his effectiveness. Bobby Brown III (2% snap share) is still struggling to overtake him for the 4th DL spot/A’Shawn Robinson’s rotational piece.
The DL helped control the MIN ground game to 66 yards on 22 carries (3.0 yards/rush). It would have been fun to see the Rams DL face Dalvin Cook.
Week 16 Grade: B+, Overall: A-, Trend: Neutral
Troy Reeder: 47.0 (+1.2), Ernest Jones: 58.6 (+1.3), Travin Howard: 69.2 (+7.6)
WOW. What an effort from this group. Ernest Jones was a monster out of the gate. He had two tackles on the Vikings first drive that stonewalled the pass catchers (Conklin & Mattison) to no gain after the point of catch; forcing MIN to punt on 4th & 1. Unfortunately, the Rams lost Jones to a high ankle sprain on the Vikings next drive. And as it turns out, Jones will need surgery to fix the high ankle sprain; forcing him onto the short term IR for at least the next 3 weeks.
With Ernest Jones exiting, the Rams turned to a combination of Troy Reeder (86% snap share) and Travin Howard (38% snap share). Shortly after Jones exit, T-Howard found himself with a late-Christmas gift; picking off Kirk Cousins on a deflected pass by Darious Williams. Howard played well, adding 5 tackles (4 solo) and 2 pass deflections. For playing 24 snaps in the game, he was around the ball a lot - and in an impactful way.
Travin Howard comes off the bench and picks off Cousins in the end zone! #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/9r1VWBgrfo— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) December 26, 2021
Troy Reeder also played well. He had 6 tackles (6 solo) with a TFL in the run game and a pass deflection of his own. I’m not sure Reeder will be as dynamic as Ernest Jones, but he will at least need to make a presence with run defense. That will then allow T-Howard to come in on passing situations, as his range is better than Reeder’s.
Week 16 Grade: A, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Upward
Leonard Floyd: 76.1 (+0.5), Von Miller: 86.4 (-2.3), Justin Hollins: 69.4 (-2.6), Terrell Lewis: 50.3 (INA), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 85.4 (-3.5), Chris Garrett: 53.8 (INA), Justin Lawlar: 63.8 (INA), Jamir Jones: 57.4 (WAIVED)
Quieter game for the edge unit. No sacks posted from the edge rushers. Floyd (71% snap share) had 4 tackles (3 solo) and 1 TFL. Von Miller (89% snap share) had 1 tackle.
Since being activated Justin Hollins (32% snap share) has had a firm grip as the 3rd edge rusher, but he hasn’t been able to do much with the role. Perhaps, an acclimation coming off the IL.
Okoronwko (16% snap share) was the only other edge rusher to see the field, as Terrell Lewis was yet again inactive (along with Justin Lawlar & Chris Garrett).
Jamir Jones was waived on December 25th.
Week 16 Grade: C+, Current Grade: B+, Trend: Slight Downward
Jalen Ramsey: 85.1* (+1.2), Darious Williams: 61.0 (-3.4), David Long Jr.: 63.1 (+0.5), Dont’e Deayon: 69.2 (-1.2), Robert Rochell: 61.9 (IR), Kareem Orr: 28.1 (DNP)
Ramsey shut down Justin Jefferson when matched up against the second year WR. He had a team high 7 tackles (6 solo) and a pass deflection.
Darious Williams saw his grade decline despite 4 tackles (3 solo), 1 TFL, and a pass deflection that resulted in a Travin Howard interception. D’Marco Farr did a great All 22 presentation of how DWill mirrored Osborn perfectly to force the INT. The grade decline came from the 4 receptions he allowed for 81 yards, including a touchdown.
Deayon (48% snap share) appears to have a slight advantage over David Long Jr (21% snap share). Each had 1 tackle in the game.
Week 16 Grade: B-, Overall: B, Trend: Neutral
Jordan Fuller: 73.5 (-4.2), Taylor Rapp: 64.0 (+0.3), Terrell Burgess: 55.3 (DNP), Nick Scott: 50.2 (-2.7), JuJu Hughes: 35.5 (DNP)
The safeties found themselves with two of the three worst grades for the game. This was Fuller’s worst game of the season; missing 1 tackle and allowing 3 rec for 54 yards. Scott (29% snap share) allowed 2 rec for 24 yards in 18 snaps.
Taylor Rapp might have been the best safety on the day even though that’s not saying a whole lot.
Overall, the safety group didn’t play well and did not influence the game in any significant way. MIN found a way to create multiple explosive plays against them, with receptions of 34, 30, 25, and 19 yards. For a team that uses a shell coverage - this wasn’t ideal.
Week 16 Grade: D, Overall: C-, Trend: Moderate Downward
Johnny Hekker: 66.6 (+2.4), Matt Gay: 83.1 (+0.6)
Matt Gay with 3 more field goals to bring his season numbers to 31/32 on FGs. He is 4-4 on 50+ yard field goals. His lone miss was from 46 yards out in Week 4 at home vs. Arizona.
Johnny Hekker had one of his best games. 2 punt for 108 yards (54.0 avg) with a long of 55. One of the two punts was Inside the MIN 20. And MIN failed to accumulate any return yards.
It's time to vote for the @CedarsSinai Precision Play of the Game!— x - Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 28, 2021
RT for Brandon Powell's special teams TD
Like for Travin Howard's INT pic.twitter.com/5uZ74I6aLs
Brandon Powell was the difference maker. He stole momentum from MIN after the offense sputtered in the middle quarters. His 61 yard return was a shock to all Rams fans. I do want to highlight multiple parts of the return. 1) Buddy Howell got great pressure on Jordan Berry to force the short punt. 2) Powell received a pair of great knockdown blocks to get an edge on the right sideline. 3) Powell caught it and just got upfield (no dancing like we have seen in years past from other returners). Powell also added a 14 yard return which was significant because it allowed the Rams to start at the LAR 30 and they ended with 3 pts that drive.
The Rams also had fantastic kick return coverage; limiting the Vikings to returns of 9 yards, 7 yards, and 0 yards. Wow. One of those was a pop up kick by Matt Gay.
The only special teams issue was Ben Skowronek getting in Powell’s way on a punt return catch. But all things considered, job very well done by this group.
The Rams may have found their core group for special teams after 16 weeks. Who would have thought?
Week 16 Grade: A+, Overall: C+, Trend: Moderate Upward
MCVAY AND CO.
Maybe there was some questioning of play calling for McVay but he was limited with Whitworth & Noteboom out. And with that, McVay still ran the ball 30 times. Yes, he could have called more run plays when backed up near their own endzone, but at the end of the day, Stafford needs to execute as the quarterback.
Raheem Morris’s defense may have given up 23 points on the scoreboard, but they really only allowed 13, since 10 pts were gifted to the MIN offense via 2 of Stafford’s interceptions. Other than the quick scoring drive via two screen plays by MIN that kept the game close AND the couple of explosive plays across the middle, the defense played well. I look forward to these next two games for the defense as they will face run heavy offenses in Baltimore and San Francisco. It will be a good tune-up and gauge for the defense before playoffs. And in the playoffs, you NEED to defend the run well. We saw how that cripled the Rams in the divisional round vs. Green Bay.
DeCamillis can not only hang his hat on the fact that he has a pro bowler in Matt Gay, he now has a NFC Special Teams Player of the Week - Brandon Powell. How about it?!?
Overall, the Rams got a win. It was ugly. But it showed the focus to remain locked in when things aren’t going your way and win even when you lose the turnover battle.
McVay finds himself in the playoffs for the 4th time in 5 seasons. Can he get his team to stay on mission now with a playoff berth in hand? It’ll be a true testament of maturity for his team.
Week 16 Grade: McVay: B+ / Morris: B+ / DeCamillis: A+, Overall: B+, Trend: Slight Upward