Not going to lie. I’ve been avoiding this write up because it still stings…
The Los Angeles Rams concluded their season on January 9 with a Week 18 clash against their division foe - the San Francisco 49ers. A lot was on the line for this contest making it into a heavyweight bout. For the 49ers, a win meant they clinched a playoff spot; sending the New Orleans Saints into their off-season. A win for Los Angeles meant clinching the #2 seed for the NFC playoffs and potentially sending their rival home. Not to mention, erasing the last 5 matchups with San Fran in which they were winless.
Through the first 27 minutes, I was in awe of the Rams as they were piecing together their best football of the year. Stafford couldn’t miss. The passing game clicking on all cylinders. The defense came ready to play vs. the heavy run game. But it all took a drastic shift as the 2nd quarter concluded. The Rams then allowed the 49ers to storm back and tie the game at 17. In the 4th Quarter, the Rams couldn’t prevent the 49ers 2:00 drive to tie the game again at 24. In OT, a 49ers FG and Stafford INT left Rams fans in disbelief and plenty of questions to be answered going into the playoffs as the #4 seed.
After watching the Rams pull off a comeback against Baltimore in Week 17, I saw the Rams in new territory in Week 18, when it was the first time ever in the McVay era that they had lost a game with the lead at halftime. In the overview below, I’ll cover the players and position group performances including these major topics (*bonus edition - more topics and coverage this week*):
- The highs & lows of Stafford; can he perform at higher level in playoffs?
- Cooper Kupp 2021 dominance summed up in Week 18
- Tyler Higbee confirms he is Option #3 over Van Jefferson
- Right side of OL must rebound quickly
- Aaron Donald’s quietest game in recent (and far) memory
- Injuries cripple secondary; major concerns
- Sean McVay - approach for 2021 playoffs? Conservative or aggressive?
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: 80.7 (+1.5), John Wolford: 40.2 (DNP)
After being hyped about his 2nd half stats last week, Stafford threw two INTs - one in the 3rd quarter and the other in overtime. Stafford’s game line was: 21/32, 238 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT. But this time, his first and second half splits were:
- 1st Half: 15/16, 153 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 2 sacks
- 2nd Half: 5/12, 76 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks
- Overtime: 1/4, 9 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 0 sacks
Pressure was a large factor in the game. The interior line and Havenstein got handled. In this case, with the pass rush being so intense, Stafford needs to be able to live with check downs, short routes, and utilizing a screen game. Hindsight being 20/20, but I don’t think McVay/Stafford used the WR screen game and RB screen game enough to counter the 49ers pass rush. By the same token, the 49ers do have very athletic LBs with Greenlaw and Warner, so the screen game might not have been an option.
In a review of the season, I think Stafford needs to be okay with the deep opportunities not being there. In Weeks 1-8, those opportunities were ample, but teams adjusted and have taken those away. The Rams have had much less success on deep ball opportunities (as evidenced the last four weeks). If teams are going to take that away, you have to be able to make them pay in the short & intermediate areas. Stafford and this WR/TE room are more than capable of having success and winning games that way. Especially with a guy in Cooper Kupp. And if there is any accuracy to the reports of Stafford being banged up with back/elbow pain - then why are you forcing the body to make throws that it simply can’t do effectively at this time?
I think to have a successful playoff run, Stafford needs to make defenses defend every angle, every blade of grass. No team. No defender to this point as shown an ability to stop the Rams vertically & horizontally. Utilizing the horizontal element that the Rams have would be a great way to open up things vertically again.
I think we will see a Stafford in these playoffs that takes better care of the football through the air. Regardless of the difference in pressure he faces coming from Detroit to LA, he knows his playoffs resume needs to be improved. That doesn’t necessarily mean more TDs, but more accuracy and keeping the football in LA’s hands.
Week 18 Grade: C+ (A- in 1st half / D in 2nd half) , Overall: C+, Trend: Slight Downward
Sony Michel: 65.8 (-3.4), Cam Akers: 51.2 (N/A), Darrell Henderson: 68.7 (IR), Jake Funk: 58.9 (DNP), Buddy Howell: 66.6 (DNP)
Easily the worst game of the year for the RBs. The 49ers DL just overpowered the Rams OL and the RBs had nowhere to go. Michel and Akers were getting hit at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield on nearly every play. The total number of runs resulting in negative yards: 5. Total number of runs resulting in 0-2 yards: 15.
McVay still stuck with the ground game despite no running room. Michel carried the ball 21 times for 43 yards (2.0 avg) with 0 TD. His longest run went for 14 yards thanks to a Cooper Kupp lead block.
Akers (20% snap share) returned from his achilles tear and as expected - had minimal impact. His 5 carries only totaled 3 yards.
Akers caught all 3 of his targets in the passing game (10 yards). While Michel was only able to haul in 1 of his 4 attempts.
I expect the Rams to make a major adjustment going into their wild card matchup vs Arizona; making the run game a major priority like they did in 2018 vs. Dallas.
Week 18 Grade: D-, Overall: B-, Trend: Moderate Downward
Cooper Kupp: 92.3* (+0.3), Odell Beckham Jr: 67.8 (+0.2), Van Jefferson: 59.8 (+0.2), Bennett Skowronek: 57.2 (-0.9), L. Akers: 58.3 (N/A), Robert Woods: 75.7 (IR), Jacob Harris: 58.7 (IR), TuTu Atwell: 60.7 (IR)
Cooper Kupp was phenomenal from Week 1 to Week 18 and Week 18 just put the exclamation point on his all-pro season. He finished with 7 rec, 118 yards, 1 TD. His receptions on the 46, 30, and 4 yard pass plays from Stafford were vintage Kupp. He showed his elite hands, his body control, and his awareness of the field to optimize position. And this is exactly what Cooper Kupp did the previous 17 weeks. It was a shame that he did not break Calvin Johnson’s receiving record, but hopefully the Eastern Washington product can put together a run in the playoffs to cap off a Top 3 all-time WR single season performance.
Odell Beckham (78% snap share) as the #2 option in the passing game was largely irrelevant. His 2 rec (5 targets) for 18 yards were fourth-best for the offense. The two receptions were both on 3rd down. The first was a leaping grab over E. Moseley; plucking the ball out of the air. The other was a quick slant on 3rd & 3 at LAR 28 to move the chains again. The drive stalled out because the Rams failed to convert on 3rd & 1 at their own 42, where the game started to turn in SF’s favor.
Van Jefferson (69% snap share) was slightly better than OBJ; finishing with 2 rec (3 targets), 31 yards. On one of his receptions, Greenlaw hit him in his helmet; adding an additional 15 yards on the play. Outside of that, Van’s stock has fallen since MNF in Week 14.
Ben Skowronek had 0 rec on 2 targets. He was the target on Stafford’s first INT. Which again, seems odd, that Stafford felt inclined to take a deep shot for Skowronek who was double teamed.
Week 18 Grade: B, Overall: A-, Trend: Neutral
Tyler Higbee: 67.2 (+3.4), Kendall Blanton: 38.6 (+0.0), Brycen Hopkins: 52.4 (DNP), Johnny Mundt: 64.7 (IR)
This is the Tyler Higbee you want to see with guys like Robert Woods on IR and DeSean Jackson no longer on the team. He caught 6 passes (8 targets - lead the team) for 55 yards and 2 TD. His first TD was a 4th & 1 at SF 2 off of Play Action. It was a great play design for the TE in a goalline situation. The second one was a great throw and catch. It reminded me of his TD catch against Jamal Adams on TNF in Week 5. His Week 18 capped off arguably Higbee’s best regular season. He missed two games because of COVID too. With Stafford and Higbee’s connection heating up over the last three weeks, expect the two to connect more on wild card weekend.
One play design, I want to see more from McVay is PA rollouts that utilize Higbee floating in the middle or TE screens that allow Higbee to work in space. One of his biggest assets (often overlooked) is his YAC ability. Make the defense hurt.
Week 18 Grade: A, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Upward
Andrew Whitworth: 86.1 (+1.1), Joe Noteboom: 75.8 (-2.5), David Edwards: 67.5 (-0.8), Brian Allen: 80.1 (-1.0), Coleman Shelton: 57.6 (+1.0), Austin Corbett: 69.6 (-1.4), Bobby Evans: 48.2 (DNP), Rob Havenstein: 81.7 (-0.5), Alaric Jackson: 70.2 (DNP)
I thought PFF was very generous to this group. In pass protection, I thought Corbett and Havenstein got worked by Armstead and Bosa. In the run game, the interior OL was in the backfield on almost every run opportunity. Even when Shelton and Noteboom came in as extra OL, they were unable to generate any push. On one play, I saw Shelton 5 yards deep in the backfield. Noteboom found himself with the second worst offensive grade (48.5).
In pass protection, the group surrendered 22 pressures and 5 sacks on Stafford. The pressure felt similar to the way that Tennessee got after Stafford, but in this case, SF was sending 5 guys. Austin Corbett’s pass protection was almost non-existent with a grade of 13.1 - so essentially the Rams were using 4 lineman when passing.
With a lot of these OL playing for a new contract, I hope we see a grittier performance from this group vs. Arizona, particularly from Corbett & Havenstein. The right side of the OL is where the Rams prefer to run the ball and these two guys need to move bodies to give the Rams a balanced attack. I would like to see the Rams only use Joe Noteboom in the jumbo package. Instead of Shelton, why not use another TE in Blanton or Hopkins? That way play action in jumbo can be a threat to the defense if they sell too hard for the run. Just use Noteboom and Blanton on the right side of the line.
Week 18 Grade: D-, Overall: B, Trend: Moderate Downward
Aaron Donald: 93.6* (-0.5), A’Shawn Robinson: 72.5 (+0.6), Greg Gaines: 68.1 (-4.2), Bobby Brown III: 63.4 (DNP), Marquise Copeland: 69.4 (-0.4), Mike Hoecht: 46.7 (DNP), Jonah Williams: 66.3 (DNP), Sebastian Joseph-Day: 62.4 (IR)
There is no football player capable of what Aaron Donald does. That’s why it was shocking to see AD99 have such an atypical performance. He only had 2 pressures and he missed two tackles. I don’t think AD99’s performance was the reason the Rams lost, but I think when your #1 star is struggling to be himself - there is a trickle down effect onto the other defenders. ‘Lo and Behold - the Rams missed 19 tackles as a defense (their most in the 2021 season). Fox did do a great job in the pregame show of identifying the physicality of this game. It was mentioned that at some point, the Rams would need to be able to embrace and hit back, or they would succumb (again) to the 49ers. In the 3rd quarter, the Rams defenders’ desire to stick their nose in there wasn’t quite as eager as it was in the first half.
A’Shawn Robinson (56% snap share) had highs and lows in the matchup. He had a strip sack of Garoppolo in the 2nd quarter and on the next series, AShawn got pressure on Garoppolo to force a weak throw in the deep middle of the field; leading to an INT by Taylor Rapp. However, it wasn’t all praises for big #94 as he accounted for 4 missed tackles.
Greg Gaines (99% snap share) was outmatched in this one with his smaller stature. He missed a tackle and had zero pressures.
Copeland (11% snap share) was also largely ineffective.
The 49ers ground game turned 31 carries into 135 yards (4.4 avg/carry) and 1 TD. If you erase even just 4 or 5 of those 19 missed tackles, I think you cut into a large share of the 49ers efficiency in the ground game.
While the trend will dip here, I believe in Aaron Donald’s group. Knowing how bad he wants to win the next 4 weeks should ignite a new energy. Rams fans will need to see game-wrecker Donald in these playoffs to keep moving on.
Week 18 Grade: C-, Overall: B+, Trend: Slight Downward
Troy Reeder: 45.6 (+1.0), Ernest Jones: 58.6 (IR), Travin Howard: 69.8 (+0.3)
For a group that seemed dead in the water (knock on wood) after the Green Bay game, this group is hanging tough now. This game wasn’t lost because of the play by the inside linebackers. Troy Reeder (90% snap share) might have been one of the most effective players on the defense. He had 8 tackles (4 solo), 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 PD, and 2 QB hits. Travin Howard also had 8 tackles (6 solo) and had a pass deflection while in coverage on J. Hasty to end a 49ers drive in the first quarter.
Week 18 Grade: B-, Overall: B-, Trend: Neutral
Leonard Floyd: 70.4 (-4.5), Von Miller: 88.7 (+1.2), Justin Hollins: 69.8 (-0.5), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 79.1 (-5.7), Terrell Lewis: 50.3 (INA), Chris Garrett: 53.8 (INA), Justin Lawlar: 63.8 (INA)
Leonard Floyd has disappeared since the Rams acquired Von Miller. He has 2 sacks since Von Miller suited up for LA. I don’t know if he is being asked to do anything differently, but you’d think he would benefit from AD99 and V. Miller. Outside of the Arizona game, Floyd hasn’t capitalized.
Von Miller was the only significant force on defense against San Fran. He had 5 tackles (5 solo), 1 sack, 3 TFL, and 2 QB hits.
Justin Hollins (14% snap share) and Okoronwko (14% snap share) didn’t accumulate any tackles - not necessarily a good sign when combining for 20 combined snaps.
If the Rams want to play in the divisional round, NFC Championship, and Super Bowl - their pass rush will have to be the best of the playoff field. With AD99, Gaines, Von Miller, and Floyd - there is no excuse. So in Floyd’s case - he’s got to put it together for the group’s sake and to justify his off-season contract.
Week 18 Grade: C, Overall: B+, Trend: Slight Downward
Jalen Ramsey: 84.5* (-0.3), Darious Williams: 65.1 (+0.7), David Long Jr.: 58.8 (-1.4), Dont’e Deayon: 67.4 (-4.0), Robert Rochell: 61.9 (IR), Kareem Orr: 28.1 (DNP)
The Rams secondary couldn’t hold up in crunch time moments. To end the 2nd quarter, Garoppolo and company were able to go 61 yards on 6 plays in 0:38; using two timeouts. Darious Williams surrendered two completions on that drive and David Long Jr gave up the big play - a 26 yard completion in the deep middle field to Aiyuk.
To end the 4th quarter, the 49ers drove 88 yards on 5 plays in 1:01. Jalen Ramsey gave up a 43 yard gain to Deebo Samuel.
Outside of Jalen’s acrobatic INT, this group was flat and underestimated the 49ers WR unit after the catch. Jalen was out of position on Deebo’s big gain and got caught in no man’s land on Deebo’s TD pass.
Dont’e Deayon (41% snap share) and David Long Jr (20% snap share) were brutal to watch. Deayon gave up 4 rec (5 targets) for 88 yards and he missed two tackles. David Long Jr gave up a 26 yard gain and was completely out of containment and position on Deebo’s rushing touchdown.
Week 18 Grade: C-, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Downward
Jordan Fuller: 74.3 (+0.8), Taylor Rapp: 65.5 (-0.6), Terrell Burgess: 54.8 (-0.5), Nick Scott: 47.5 (-4.1), JuJu Hughes: 35.5 (Claimed by DET)
This is where the loss vs SF became more than a loss. Jordan Fuller injured his ankle and is out for the entire playoffs. Taylor Rapp sustained a concussion and is trending towards not being available against Arizona.
Rapp had an INT and Jordan Fuller was playing well, but even when they were still in the game, the 49ers had made their first comeback. Scott (50% snap share) and Burgess (24% snap share) became the safeties at the end of the 4th quarter and overtime and the ability to defend the explosive plays became tougher. The middle of the field was routinely attacked. Scott was the culprit of the 49ers game-tying score as he failed to come down and defend Jauan Jennings as the second crosser.
As a response to the injuries and concern of relying on Scott and Burgess as the main safeties for Monday night, the Rams signed Eric Weddle (out of retirement). It was a shocking move as Weddle last played in 2019 (for Los Angeles). His 2019 was average but it was also the end of Wade Phillips tenure as the defensive coordinator when the defense was beginning to regress.
Week 18 Grade: C-, Overall: C, Trend: Slight Downward
Johnny Hekker: 64.8 (-1.2), Matt Gay: 80.5 (+1.0)
Matt Gay nailed his only FG attempt from 43 yards.
Johnny Hekker punted four times for an average of 49.5 yards; landing two punts inside the 20. He added a 59 yarder as his longest.
Brandon Powell was an underrated player in this one. He had another huge return for the Rams - a 31 yarder. He also added a 9 yard return. The Rams return coverage did a fantastic job of stonewalling the SF gunners coming down field. I believe it was Jake Funk who teamed up with another Ram. It allowed Powell to quickly make a cut and get to the edge.
The Rams kick return coverage held Hasty to 1 return for 11 yards.
Week 18 Grade: B+, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Upward
MCVAY AND CO.
Man, this is a tough one for McVay and Company. McVay watched as his winning streak after halftime was snapped and is no longer unbeaten. A lot of people are questioning the 3rd & 1 call at the end of the 2nd quarter and McVay’s play calling being so conservative at the end of the 4th quarter by running it three straight times. I don’t think critics can make both claims. If they question the three straight runs to make SF burn their timeouts because “the Rams had not run the ball effectively to that point” and needed to go for the win on 3rd down. I don’t like the first part of that argument. The Rams did not run the ball effectively the entire game. So McVay’s play call on 3rd & 1 in the 2nd quarter is fair. If the Rams ran the ball there, it’s also likely that they wouldn’t have converted. But I can agree that on 3rd & 7 at their own 43, McVay should have called play action or some sort of unique play design that would allow Stafford to take a short loss if he has no options open. Taking a short sack would not have affect field position in a significant way. Now, apparently McVay didn’t feel comfortable changing the launch point because of Stafford’s foot/toe getting injured in the early 4th quarter. I’m not sure I like McVay’s excuse there. Stafford wouldn’t use that as excuse for himself. Go win the game. If Stafford needs to fall down to avoid a significant hit, I’m sure he can do that.
McVay’s biggest issue moving forward now is if he can corral Stafford enough so that his quarterback doesn’t give the opposing team more opportunities when the stakes are higher. I’d like to see McVay move the pocket more, utilize RB/WR/TE screens to slow pass rush, and for Stafford to work underneath crossers and quick slants to Higbee/Kupp/OBJ. That plan should bring defenses down and open up the kill shot later in the game when necessary.
Raheem Morris had put together a fantastic showing in the first half. But his unit couldn’t continue to match SF’s physicality going into the second half. 19 missed tackles looms large for the defense. And the inability to slow down the run game again made fans want to pull their hair out.
DeCamillis is probably the only coach who walked away from the game thinking his group performed well
Week 18 Grade: McVay: C+ / Morris: C / DeCamillis: A-, Overall: B, Trend: Slight Downward