The Rams were coming off a disheartening finish in Week 18 against the San Francisco 49ers; losing in overtime after holding a 17-0 lead late in the 2nd quarter. The Cardinals had finished their 2021 regular season in similar fashion; losing four of their previous five.
The Rams left no doubt in this one. In the first half, the Cardinals offense was shut down; punting 5 times (all 3 & outs) and throwing 2 interceptions (one a pick-6). A strong start was coupled with a strong finish; with Los Angeles offense scoring on its first three possessions to open the 2nd half. It was a complete performance by McVay’s roster. They now find themselves headed to the divisional round to face the defending Super Bowl Champions - the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In the overview below, I’ll cover the players and position group performances from the Wild Card game including these major topics (*bonus edition - more topics and coverage this week*):
- Matt Stafford: 1 down. But still more to prove…
- Cam Akers return to form & the RB room moving forward
- Explosive Plays for all receiving threats
- Rams OL - 2020 vs. 2021, #1 X-Factor versus Tampa Bay
- Inside Linebacker snap share dilemma?
- Welcome back Eric Weddle
- Coaching Candidates - O’Connell, Brown, Henderson, and Morris
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: 83.0 (+2.3), John Wolford: 40.2 (DNP)
Anytime your quarterback only attempts 17 pases in a game, it is probably going to result in a win. Stafford’s line in this one: 13/17, 202 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT. This ended up being an easy one for Stafford; getting the monkey off his back, winning his first playoff game in his 13 year career. The Rams relied on the ground game which allowed Stafford to play more of a game manager role.
Stafford was actually only off target on one his four incompletions. The attempt was on a 1st down play action pass to Kupp towards the Cardinals sideline. The other three attempts were drops by Akers, Kupp, and Higbee. Akers dropped a deep attempt. Akers appeared to expect the ball to be delivered more on an arc, rather than a line. Either way - a drop. Kupp dropped a short pass on 1st down in the 2nd half. Higbee dropped a 3rd down pass that killed a Rams drive to score points before halftime.
Stafford was successful because he took what the defense gave him. When the defense took away Kupp early, Stafford used his connection with OBJ and Tyler Higbee to move the ball. When downfield opportunities opened up, Stafford went there, with shots to OBJ, Jefferson, and Akers (drop).
w/ LT Andrew Whitworth out, #Ramshouse QB Matthew Stafford will need to make pre-snap reads at the LOS to account for the #GoBucs blitz schemes. @GregCosell shows him doing just that in this film from Week 17. #NFL@MattBowen41 | @LindseyThiry | @larrytouchdown pic.twitter.com/YZWH8S4EpI— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 22, 2022
The divisional round won’t be as straightforward for Stafford. Even though Stafford torched Tampa Bay in Week 3, this will be a different game. He will have to stay composed, despite having to do more. Tampa Bay will take away the run game and the game will be a little more physical and faster inside the pocket. My prediction for his Divisional Round: 23/36, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 fumble lost. While he’s won the elusive playoff game now, the Rams got this far last year.
WC Grade: A, Overall: B, Trend: Slight-to-Moderate Upward
Sony Michel: 65.0 (-0.8), Cam Akers: 54.9 (+3.7), Darrell Henderson: 68.7 (IR), Jake Funk: 53.6 (-5.3), Buddy Howell: 66.6 (IR)
And just like that - Cam Akers is back to being RB1. Akers played 53% of the snaps at running back; leading the group with 17 carries. Akers ran better than his line indicated (17 carries, 55 yards [3.2 avg]) with multiple penalties (3) wiping out 28 rushing yards and 14 receiving yards. He hit his lane with authority and just looked strong. And I have to highlight the Budda Baker hit. First and foremost, you hope Baker makes a full recovery. From a football perspective, Akers blew him up. It was a violent run, and he flat out destroyed the safety. Having him and Michel as a tandem will hopefully wear on linebackers and defensive backs.
Michel (40% snap share) was the leading rusher with 13 carries for 58 yards. The first play for LA was a 35 yard run by Michel. The pro was opening the game in physical fashion. The con was that Michel finished the night with 12 carries for 23 yards (<2.0/carry).
Akers caught one of his two targets for 40 yards. The target was a trick play with Odell Beckham throwing a pass to him off a lateral. Akers receiving versatility is key here. Michel isn’t as elusive as Akers is, and Akers allows the Rams to spread out and spread it around with greater ease. If teams double Kupp, they will then have to figure out how to guard Higbee, Akers, OBJ, and Jefferson one on one across the board. The Rams might take those chances.
WC Grade: B, Overall: B, Trend: Slight Upward
Cooper Kupp: 92.4* (+0.1), Odell Beckham Jr: 70.9 (+3.1), Van Jefferson: 60.1 (+0.3), Bennett Skowronek: 57.7 (+0.5), L. Akers: 58.3 (N/A), Robert Woods: 75.7 (IR), Jacob Harris: 58.7 (IR), TuTu Atwell: 60.7 (IR)
If people had looked at the box score that Kupp only had 1 catch for 5 yards after the first half of play, they would have instantly thought that the Rams were in trouble. Nope. The Rams just didn’t need the 2021 Triple Crown Winner to produce a huge box score line. Yet, he still found the endzone to start the 2nd half, and accumulated a healthy YAC; taking a few more ankles along the way. Stafford and Kupp didn’t connect on any downfield passes, but that didn’t stop Kupp from creating them with his feet. He scampered for 29 yards on a 3rd & 3 from their own 18.
Odell Beckham (67% snap share) caught all 4 receptions (4 targets) for 54 yards, 1 TD. OBJ caught Stafford’s 4 yard goalline fade to get the Rams on the board. Odell’s explosive came on a wheel play where the Cardinals blew coverage and OBJ made it down to the ARI 2, narrowly missing his 2nd TD. OBJ had a 20+ yard reception called back because of an offensive line holding call. Again, when you focus on Kupp - this will leave others open more often than not. Odell didn’t stop there, Odell threw a 40 yard pass to Cam Akers; involving himself in another explosive play.
Van Jefferson (65% snap share) was targeted once, but he made it count with a 41 yard grab (explosive #5 for LA). Van hasn’t quite turned the corner in his NFL career. He’s still growing into his role with LA. His role seems to be a: 1-4 rec, 20-40 yard/game contribution. Jefferson just needs to answer the call when his number is dialed up by Stafford/Mcvay.
Ben Skowronek (12% snap share) was not targeted and came out of the game with a back injury.
WC Grade: B+, Overall: A-, Trend: Neutral
Tyler Higbee: 67.3 (+0.1), Kendall Blanton: 38.4 (-0.2), Brycen Hopkins: 51.6 (-0.8), Johnny Mundt: 64.7 (IR)
Higbee was the only TE that significantly contributed. He added 3 rec (4 target) for 46 yards. The MNF broadcast did a good job of highlighting how the Rams like to use Kupp and Higbee on combination routes. The Rams will also line the two up on the same side to run rub routes off one another.
Higbee continues to make himself one of the three main options in the passing game. He’ll have his work cut out for him against TB’s rangy LBs in D. White and Lavonte David.
Not a bad drive for Tyler Higbee and the Rams' blockers pic.twitter.com/Qj0WCaNyOa— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 22, 2022
Blanton (20% snap share) and Hopkins (18% snap share) were not targeted.
WC Grade: B-, Overall: B-, Trend: Neutral
Andrew Whitworth: 85.3 (-0.8), Joe Noteboom: 78.1 (+2.3), David Edwards: 69.4 (+1.9), Brian Allen: 78.9 (-1.2), Coleman Shelton: 59.6 (+2.0), Austin Corbett: 69.3 (-0.3), Bobby Evans: 48.2 (DNP), Rob Havenstein: 81.3 (-0.4), Alaric Jackson: 70.2 (DNP)
As for the game against the Cardinals, the OL wasn’t really challenged. The Rams took care of an inferior group. There are parts to clean up in run blocking, as David Edwards had two holding calls and was beat on a few runs. In passing situations, the interior has been the weaker part of the line, but Edwards was strong Monday Night.
Shifting gears, I want to compare where the OL was at in 2020 versus where the OL is at this point in 2021. And lastly, I want to highlight who is the biggest X-Factor against Tampa Bay.
In 2020, the offensive line was: Whitworth, D. Edwards, Blythe, Corbett, and Havenstein. Whitworth was injured before returning to the wild card game. Edwards was injured against Seattle in the wild card game and Bobby Evans was forced to slide into the LG spot vs. Green Bay. Evans, Blythe, & Corbett were then crushed by Green Bay’s pass rush in the divisional round. Kenny Clark, Green Bay’s iDL had 1.5 sacks and Goff was sacked 4 times altogether. In coming back to the present, the Rams OL consists of Whitworth, Edwards, Allen, Corbett, and Havenstein. However, because of an injury in the wild card game against ARI, Whitworth has been ruled out. Noteboom figures to slide into his spot at left tackle. With the Rams having 4 of their 5 starting lineman and the 5th being an established reserve, I’m more confident in the Rams OL than last year.
With that being said, the Rams will be facing a stronger TB DL than in Week 3. First of all, JPP will be returning for the Bucs, whom they didn’t have in Week 3. Noteboom will likely have the JPP assignment, whom he faced in Week 10 of 2020. Edwards/Allen/Corbett will then be responsible for Vea & Suh. Allen is the key to the line. I don’t think he is the weakest. I just think he’ll need to perform well with TB’s stunts and doubling on Vea. The positive: Vea only plays about 56% of defensive snaps. This will be a little bit different than the Rams facing TEN or SF, where Jeffery Simmons (85% snap share) and Arik Armstead (76% snap share) are constantly in the game applying pressure on the interior. Allen’s size against those guys just ends up struggling in the end. But with Vea playing less, I think Allen can hold up against a bigger body. Nonetheless, I consider it the biggest X-Factor in the Rams/Bucs showdown. If Allen plays like he did in Week 3, the Rams should win.
WC Grade: C+, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Downward
Aaron Donald: 93.8* (+0.2), A’Shawn Robinson: 74.3 (+1.8), Greg Gaines: 70.7 (+2.6), Bobby Brown III: 64.5 (+1.1), Marquise Copeland: 67.7 (-1.7), Mike Hoecht: 48.7 (+2.0), Jonah Williams: 64.9 (DNP), Sebastian Joseph-Day: 62.4 (IR)
If there’s one advantage going into the divisional round after the blowout win over Arizona, it’s that Aaron Donald only had to play 75% of the snaps, his fewest since Week 8. Donald shared a 0.5 sack with Gaines (82% snap share). The Rams will rely on their franchise star as they try to advance.
Aaron Donald's career so far:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 14, 2022
2014: DROY, Pro Bowl
2015: All Pro, Pro Bowl
2016: All Pro, Pro Bowl
2017: All Pro, Pro Bowl, DPOY
2018: Unanimous All Pro, Pro Bowl, DPOY
2019: All Pro, Pro Bowl
2020: Unanimous All Pro, Pro Bowl, DPOY
2021: Unanimous All Pro, Pro Bowl
A’Shawn Robinson (57% snap share) has been playing really good football down the stretch. He led the team in tackles (7) against Arizona & in his last 3 games he has 19 tackles (9 solo). Pretty good stuff for the big DE.
Greg Gaines finally got back to pressuring the quarterbacks as he posted an 87.0 grade against the Cardinals.
Copeland (27% snap share) had a memorable night - recording his first interception.
Hoecht (4% snap share) finally got back to the field, and he recorded 2 tackles (1 solo).
The Rams DL held the Cards rushing attack to 61 yards on 18 carries (3.4 avg) with 1 TD. As for the pash rush, the DL got after Kyler Murray as he was uncomfortable all night.
WC Grade: A, Overall: A-, Trend: Slight Upward
Troy Reeder: 46.2 (+0.6), Ernest Jones: 58.6 (IR), Travin Howard: 80.4 (+10.6), Christian Rozeboom: 63.9 (N/A)
I can’t help but laugh at the fact that the Rams inside linebackers are just continuing to put together an impressive resume. Yes, I recognize that Reeder has some pass coverage limitations. But the Rams are starting to finally couple Reeder with a linebacker that can fill that role - Ernest Jones and Travin Howard. Jones had to get up to speed with this being his rookie year. Howard has fought injuries throughout his career and is finally breaking through.
The Rams are finding themselves with a group where each deserves to be on the field when healthy. Before people throw Reeder’s name under the bus, the LB has shown significant progress. I received from a source that Reeder was a high school lacrosse player and made his way to the football field late. The fact that he is on the field for a Top 10 defense in the NFL is no small task. Reeder is also probably the best ILB that the Rams have on the team. Jones will likely surpass him, but Travin Howard’s strength lies in pass coverage.
Reeder (88% snap share) made his mark on Monday Night; with a pressure and QB hit on Murray in the ARI endzone to force a wild throw from Murray; leading to a pick-6 by David Long Jr.
Travin Howard (54% snap share) provided fantastic pass coverage for the Rams. His area of coverage was targeted 8 times and he only allowed 3 receptions for 25 yards, and collected 2 pass deflections. One of the PDs was a deep pass breakup; showing off his coverage range.
Brady will likely still target Gronkowski in the middle of the field against Reeder and Travin Howard, so this group still has its work cut out for them.
Christian Rozeboom (4% snap share) got his first defensive snaps as a Ram. He made no tackles.
WC Grade: A, Overall: B, Trend: Slight Upward
Leonard Floyd: 71.8 (+1.4), Von Miller: 89.2 (+0.5), Justin Hollins: 67.2 (-2.6), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 74.4 (-4.7), Terrell Lewis: 50.3 (INA), Chris Garrett: 53.8 (INA), Justin Lawlar: 63.8 (INA)
What an acquisition by Les Snead. Von Miller has been absolutely what Los Angeles needed down the stretch. In his 5th straight game, Von Miller brought down the opposing quarterback. It was Miller’s 3rd straight game with 3 TFL. He only played in 59% of the snaps on defense; saving his tank for the divisional round.
Leonard Floyd (71% snap share) played well despite not collecting a sack, TFL, etc. It snapped a 3 game spiral for the Edge rusher.
Justin Hollins (43% snap share) and Okoronwko (36% snap share) saw more time in the game due to the blowout. Hollins performance was lackluster; failing to accumulate a tackle and 0 pressures on 15 pass plays.
WC Grade: B, Overall: B+, Trend: Neutral
Jalen Ramsey: 85.2* (+0.7), Darious Williams: 64.4 (-0.7), David Long Jr.: 58.4 (-0.4), Dont’e Deayon: 68.0 (+0.6), Robert Rochell: 61.9 (IR), Grant Haley: 64.0 (N/A), Kareem Orr: 28.1 (DNP)
Kyler didn’t want to test Ramsey in Round 3, a wise decision though it didn’t help either. Ramsey only allowed 2 receptions for a total of 14 yards. AJ Green was a non-factor going up against the All-Pro cornerback.
The other cornerbacks were also pretty stout in coverage, not giving Kyler his first option at all throughout the first half. After an ankle injury slowed him early in the season, Darious Williams has been playing better football down the stretch. He doesn’t have an INT to show for it, but his tackling and coverage have both improved.
Dont’e Deayon (55% snap share) and David Long Jr (34% snap share) bounced back after poor performances against San Francisco. Both had a pass deflection, but DL was the one that had the big play for the secondary. Backed up against their own endzone, Murray threw an errant pass while being taken down by Troy Reeder. The floating pass wobbled 3 yards and David Long Jr made a shin high catch; finding himself in the endzone instantaneously.
Grant Haley (12% snap share) saw his first action as a Ram, but failed to make any tackles or pass breakups.
WC Grade: B, Overall: B, Trend: Slight Upward
Taylor Rapp: 65.5 (DNP), Terrell Burgess: 62.4 (+7.6), Nick Scott: 49.3 (+1.8), Eric Weddle: 64.2, Jordan Fuller: 74.3 (IR)
The Rams scrambled after learning Jordan Fuller was out for the playoffs and Taylor Rapp was in concussion protocol. Their move: signing Eric Weddle out of retirement. He played as expected by R. Morris, a healthy 34% of the defensive snaps. The Rams will need Weddle’s veteran leadership for a young secondary in more pass sets against Brady. Hopefully another week of familiarity in this defensive scheme pays dividends.
Terrell Burgess (66% snap share) was a fun name to see in the starting lineup to see a fair assessment of his ability on this defense. He had 5 tackles (4 solo) and was constantly around the ball, even if he wasn’t in on the tackle.
Nick Scott (100% snap share) only had 1 tackle, but had a huge hit on AJ Green to force a pass incompletion. The following play ended up being the pick-6 by David Long Jr.
WC Grade: B-, Overall: C+, Trend: Very Slight Upward
Johnny Hekker: 65.8 (+1.0), Matt Gay: 82.2 (+1.7)
Matt Gay made his field goals from 37 yards and 46 yards out.
Johnny Hekker, an underrated star of the night, crushed 5 punts; landing all 5 inside the 20. The Cardinals had to start those drives from the following spots on their end of the field: 9, 1, 10, 13, and 9. After an up and down season, Hekker did his part for the special teams unit.
Brandon Powell continues to impress me as a punt return; returning two punts for an average of 9.5 yards/return. His ability to field the punt and make a quick decision to get up field is probably overlooked by the fanbase. So many past returners (Natson, P. Cooper, Koski, etc) have lacked that confidence and committedness to pick a lane and go. While Powell will get the majority of the credit, the punt return team should be complimented for their blocking assignments and ability to stun gunners coming downfield.
Outside of one bad kick return (7 yards), the Rams special teams was spotless.
WC Grade: A, Overall: B, Trend: Slight Upward
MCVAY AND CO.
McVay’s game plan emulated that of the 2018 divisional round against the Cowboys. A heavy run balance between his RBs, while his QB protected the ball and helped the team advance further in the playoffs. It was a great script by the 5th year HC.
Raheem Morris put together one of the most impressive shutdown performances (historically) in the playoffs. Raheem’s unit held Kyler Murray to under 50 yards passing in the first half. They shut down the run game. And they collected two turnovers to completely shift the game.
After a horrific start in the season, DeCamillis has held in there and has found his unit playing well at the right time. Matt Gay has been a rock for him at kicker. Hekker provides veteran leadership in the punting game. And Brandon Powell (a mid-season acquisition) has brought life to the return game.
Going into the divisional round, the Rams coaches are starting to garner significant interest around the league. Surprise, surprise. Kevin O’Connell, Thomas Brown, Raheem Morris, and Eric Henderson are all considerations by other teams. It seems likely that O’Connell and Morris will be gone. It really would be interesting to see if the Rams can retain Brown by offering him a role as an offensive coordinator, if he doesn’t land the MIA job. Henderson, apparently has passed on the role as DC for Florida University, and AD99 is lobbying for his return. If Raheem gets poached by Minnesota or another team; Henderson could find himself as an internal DC candidate. With all the noise about coaching hires, I hope these deserving candidates still keep focused with the job at hand. With McVay calling the plays for the offense, I’m not as worried about O’Connell interviewing. But I do hope that Raheem Morris isn’t sidetracked.
With Tampa Bay as the next matchup, McVay will look to replicate Week 3’s performance against the defending champs. I expect the team to face more adversity in this game than they did versus Arizona. For one, the team will be going into hostile territory. Secondly, the team will have to travel cross-country to Tampa. And third, the team will face the most-decorated player in the NFL - Tom Brady. Even without Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Ronald Jones, and potentially some offensive linemen - this is still a player that is the best competitor in the game. He won’t be defeated until there is 0:00 on the clock. I believe the Rams can advance. They have the personnel. The depth is contributing more than in 2020. Let’s get it RamNation.
WC Grade: McVay: A / Morris: A+ / DeCamillis: A, Overall: B+, Trend: Slight Upward