Week 18 was not a must win game for the Los Angeles Rams, but they would have positioned themselves much more favorably for the playoffs could they have defeated the San Francisco 49ers and secured the number two seed in the NFC. The difference between a victory and a 27-24 loss in overtime was hosting the quarterback-less New Orleans Saints and the 11-6 Arizona Cardinals. It’s completely possible that the Rams handle the Cardinals next week to right the ship, but for right now the tough loss to San Francisco stings.
Which individuals stepped up in Week 18, and who is responsible for letting this game slip through their grasp?
A’Shawn Robinson, DT
A’Shawn Robinson has been mostly quiet this season as he tends to get overshadowed by strong performers on the defensive line - Aaron Donald and Greg Gaines; however, Robinson’s play in the first half is a big reason why the Rams were able to jump out to a 17-0 lead. The defensive tackle made two key plays that gave the ball back to the offense and prevented the 49ers from building much momentum early on.
The first standout play was a sack where Robinson punched the ball out of Jimmy Garoppolo’s grasp. Although the Rams did not recover the fumble, it backed the 49ers up by more than 10 yards deep in their own territory - effectively ending the offensive possession.
The second impact play does not register on the stat sheet for Robinson, but he made a hit on Garoppolo as he was releasing the ball to force an interception by Taylor Rapp. While Rapp gets all the credit, the interception would not have been possible without the contact made by the lineman.
Tyler Higbee, TE
Veteran Tyler Higbee has played well since his return in Week 16 from the COVID-19 reserve, and he performed especially well on Sunday afternoon. Higbee has been effective working underneath and has made important catches in recent weeks to move the chains.
The tight-end finished with 6 receptions for 55 yards and 2 touchdowns. Higbee was a difference maker for LA in the red zone, and his second touchdown was an impressively athletic grab.
The TD celly by Tyler Higbee was so good McVay had to join pic.twitter.com/ePV3xVtwb1— The Volume (@TheVolumeSports) January 9, 2022
Jalen Ramsey, DB
The 49ers were driving halfway through the fourth quarter with an opportunity to take the lead, but Jalen Ramsey had something else in mind.
The star defensive back got a hand on Garoppolo’s pass to tip it into the air, and then he stayed with it to make the catch in the end zone. This was a momentum shifting turnover, as Cooper Kupp caught a touchdown on the following possession to take a seven-point lead. Ramsey was also physical in the run game, which is important against teams like San Francisco.
The offensive line did not have its best outing against San Francisco, especially in the second half where the unit struggled in both the pass and on the ground.
Sony Michel has been running hard for the Rams over the last month, but there was not much room for him against a stingy 49ers defensive line. It was good to see Cam Akers make an appearance, and he was fairly involved, though there wasn’t much of a difference when he was in the game as opposed to Michel.
Ultimately Los Angeles finished with 26 carries for 46 yards (1.8 average) by running backs and that failed to take much pressure off of Matthew Stafford. Additionally, when the Rams had a seven-point lead and had just stopped the 49ers offense, LA ran the ball three times in a row and failed to pick up a first down. This was not an ideal outcome as it gave the 49ers an opportunity to march down the field and tie the game to force overtime.
Sean McVay is no longer undefeated when leading at halftime. pic.twitter.com/JBDq2UqtCt— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 10, 2022
While the 49ers made halftime adjustments and re-committed to the ground game, Sean McVay’s offense only scored seven points in the final two quarters. When the offensive line was struggling in pass protection, it seemed Los Angeles was still trying to push the ball down the field when a better answer may have been a quick passing attack. There were minimal attempts to move the pocket to make things easier for Stafford, which resulted in the quarterback taking a beating and turning the ball over multiple times.
This Rams-49ers game reminds me of the Rams loss to the Pats in the Super Bowl, with McVay either refusing or unable to turn to a short, rhythm passing game. Everything is deep drops for his QB and the front four teeing off knowing exactly where he'll be.— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) January 9, 2022
Nick Scott, DB
Nick Scott is in at safety in replacement. But without Jordan Fuller on the field, the Rams are going to have to finish this defensive series without their defensive signal-caller out there.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 9, 2022
The reliable Jordan Fuller was injured in the fourth quarter, which left the team with Rapp, Terrell Burgess, and Nick Scott to protect the lead and close out the game. Unfortunately, Scott did not play well in the fourth quarter or in overtime when it mattered the most - and he was a big reason why the 49ers were able to convert multiple explosive plays.
Would it have been different with Jordan Fuller in there instead of Nick Scott?— SeattleRams (@seattlerams_nfl) January 10, 2022
Probably not.. But it will forever have me wondering. https://t.co/5rhYnoLjS8
Matthew Stafford, QB
When Stafford plays like he did in the first half, the Rams are among the best teams in football; however, they become vulnerable when he starts to do too much and puts the ball in harm’s way.
With the offensive line unable to provide him much protection, Stafford seemed to hold the ball too long and times and kept stepping up into the pocket right into defenders. Yes, the offensive line needs to perform better and give their signal caller more room to operate, but there are times where Stafford needs to let the game come to him more and take what the defense is giving him. An example of this is the interception intended for Odell Beckham, Jr. last week when Van Jefferson was open underneath.
Stafford closed out the regular season with a turnover in four straight games - and he had three games in a row with multiple turnovers. While he certainly has the upside to offset the negative plays, the frequency of turnovers significantly increased mid-season and they haven’t really gone away.
Stafford was brought in to elevate the Rams into a serious Super Bowl contending team, but too often in recent weeks Los Angeles has been forced into situations where they must overcome Stafford.