The Los Angeles Rams advanced to the NFC Championship Game after a roller coaster finish at Raymond James Stadium on January 23. Their opponent awaiting them - the San Francisco 49ers. It was the rematch (again) the Rams wanted. A chance at unfinished business from Week 18. The team they had let into the playoffs. And the team they wanted to show its way out.
Going into Sunday night at SoFi, everyone knew this was going to be a dogfight game. And it lived up to its billing. The Rams struck blood first with a 16-yard touchdown to Cooper Kupp. But after failing to carry that momentum via defensive stops and a missed field goal, the 49ers retaliated with 17 unanswered points across the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
The Rams weathered the blows despite being down two scores going into the 4th quarter. Another Stafford to Kupp TD and a pair of Matt Gay field goals gave the Rams the lead 20-17 with under two minutes in regulation. With a win in their sights, LA’s defense came out to try and preserve the win. On 3rd & 13 at the SF 22, Aaron Donald got pressure on Garoppolo who tried to shovel a pass to Hasty in the flat. The high throw tipped off Hasty’s hands and into the arms of Travin Howard. The Rams kept the ball and ran out the clock; punching their ticket as NFC Champions and the right to play for Super Bowl 56!
GIVE ME A WOOOOOOOOOOO! X 3
In the overview below, I’ll cover the players and position group performances from the Conference Championship including these major topics (*bonus edition - more topics and coverage this week*):
- Matt Stafford - “Mr. Resilient”
- Cooper Kupp - CC performance + what will his final 2021-2022 game look like
- Unsung Hero of the Game - Kendall Blanton
- Offensive Line - “Let’s get physical….PHYSICAL.”
- A’Shawn Robinson - key to NFC Conference Championship (revisited*)
- Troy Reeder - serviceable at times but also a liability + why T-Howard & E. Jones should start at ILB
- Darious Williams and David Long Jr - keys 1A and 1B to Super Bowl win
- Coaching Staff: Master adjustors
- Preview: Total Roster Grades to this point + Super Bowl preview next week
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: 85.1 (+1.7), John Wolford: 40.2 (DNP)
Ah. The irony. The media has created this narrative that the Rams are “All-In” based on the trade of Matt Stafford. *Disclaimer* - the media has been saying this about the Rams since before the 2018 season. Here we are four years, and apparently the Rams are still all-in. Has anyone that is not a Rams fan or associated with Rams coverage not realized that the Rams have orchestrated a new thinking of roster construction. Use late 1st round picks to buy proven talent while in the course of their prime while developing undervalued 3rd/4th/5th+ round picks with coaches that are elite at player development. Genius. But again, the media doesn’t see that.
Stafford was unshakeable vs the 49ers. He completed 31/45 for 337 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT. He had two throws all night that were poor. His interception in the red zone that cost the Rams points on their first drive. And the second was his deep pass intended for Jefferson or OBJ that Tartt flat out dropped in the middle of the field. Despite being down 10 points in the 4th quarter, Stafford delivered time and time again. On 3rd down, he was 8/14, none of which was bigger than the 3rd & 3 to Kupp for 25 yards. Against a SF that brought consistent pressure - he was unfazed. This is who Matt Stafford is. He is Mr. Resilient. In his time in Detroit - he played through injury. At times, he single handedly lifted the Lions on his back to carry them to victory when the franchise was going nowhere. His wife - brain tumor in 2019 - same type of approach and demeanor as always.
McVay has used this word (resilience) a lot in 2021. More than he did from 2017-2020. It’s because of Matt Stafford. Jared Goff had qualities of being unfazed, but he was never completely and unequivocally resilient. Stafford is the definition: “able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”
All that is left at this point for Matt Stafford is “this one”. If he plays a clean game in the Super Bowl, the Rams should finish the night as World Champions. He’s shown the resilience in the Divisional Round and Conference Championship that he can get this far. Will he continue his playoff performance and be a Super Bowl Champion?
CC Grade: B+, Overall: A-, Trend: Very Slight Upward
Sony Michel: 63.8 (-1.0), Cam Akers: 43.9 (+0.0), Darrell Henderson: 68.7 (IR), Jake Funk: 53.6 (+0.0), Buddy Howell: 66.6 (DNP)
The Rams running backs found more tough sledding just like at Tampa Bay. Comparatively, it was better than their performance in Week 18.
Cam Akers led the backfield with 13 carries for 48 yards (3.7 avg/carry). Akers had to exit the game in the 2nd quarter because of a shoulder injury, but he managed to return and play through it.
Sony Michel saw more touches because of Akers injury but failed to make great use of the uptick in snaps; running 10 times for 16 yards (1.6 avg/carry).
While the two did not have a major impact - they were big in pass protection; giving Stafford extra time in the pocket.
Akers doesn’t appear to be affected in any significant way by his injury and his usage in the Super Bowl should be substantial. While the Bengals run defense in the regular season was in the Top 10, their run defense in the playoffs has allowed the following each round:
Wild Card (vs Raiders): 14 carries, 103 yards (7.4 avg/carry)
Divisional (@Tennessee): 27 carries, 140 yards (5.2 avg/carry)
Conference Championship (@Kansas City): 24 carries, 139 yards (5.8 avg/carry)
McVay should note this and exploit it with his dynamic RB in Cam Akers.
CC Grade: C-, Overall: C, Trend: Slight Downward
Cooper Kupp: 92.8* (+0.2), Odell Beckham Jr: 73.9 (+2.6), Van Jefferson: 59.0 (-1.4), Bennett Skowronek: 56.3 (-1.4), L. Akers: 58.3 (N/A), Robert Woods: 75.7 (IR), Jacob Harris: 58.7 (IR), TuTu Atwell: 60.7 (IR)
I am becoming very low on material on how to write about the brilliance of Cooper Kupp. Kupp dominated to the tune of 11 rec (14 targets), 142 yards, 2 TDs. He was a better Matt Stafford pass away from having 3 TDs (2nd Rams drive).
This portion of Cooper Kupp will be rather brief and less than what he definitely deserves. But to sum up Cooper Kupp in the Conference Championship and the 2021 season so far, I would point to his reaction after the 3rd & 3 play that set up the Rams go ahead field goal. Kupp went into a flex and full display of emotion. It gives you chills thinking about it. At that moment I knew that Los Angeles was going to win the game.
At this point, either Cooper Kupp gets shut down (shockingly) by the Bengals in the Super Bowl or he continues his MVP-type season and playoff. What do I think he does for the encore? SB MVP honors.
Odell Beckham (86%) had his best night as a Ram. He complimented Kupp as the second option; hauling in 9 rec (11 targets) for 113 yards. The two just couldn’t be stopped. Quick note: the referees missed an egregious helmet to helmet/unnecessary roughness play on OBJ at the beginning of the game. Why was it so egregious? He got up pointing to the refs that he was hit in the head. Still no flag. However, the NFL concussion safety rep made him come off the field for the next play? Gee, I wonder why he had to come off - perhaps it was the hit by the defensive back… Anyways…
I love how they have been using OBJ in the pass game. The Rams have gotten the ball to OBJ on easy hitch routes and quick slants across the field. When the opposing defenses bite on those, the Rams find him deeper down field on crossers and wheel routes.
Van Jefferson (87% snap share) played a lot but didn’t do a lot while in. He drew a DPI call which helped sustain a drive. But he only managed 2 rec (5 targets) for 9 yards. For now, it seems like he’s a safety valve.
I think for a while Ben Skowronek (27% snap share) was beginning to fret that Rams fans would be at his doorstep. He dropped a deep pass from Stafford, failing to get his head around to make the catch for an easy touchdown. Instead, he tried to make the catch more over the head/shoulder which increased the difficulty significantly. One positive for Skowronek was his block on Cam Akers long run (14 yards). He came across the line as the lead blocker for Akers and stonewalled the defensive back.
CC Grade: A, Overall: A, Trend: Neutral
Tyler Higbee: 69.1 (+0.2), Kendall Blanton: 52.5 (+8.3), Brycen Hopkins: 51.6 (INA), Johnny Mundt: 64.7 (IR)
When Higbee came out because of an injury, it felt like the wind got knocked out of you. Higbee - 2 rec (3 targets) for 18 yards had been an early presence in the game. With Kupp and Higbee being targets in the middle of the field - Stafford lost one of his key weapons.
Have no fear. Kendall Blanton is here. The undrafted TE from 2019 continued his playoff heroics; catching 5 passes (5 targets) for 57 yards. This coming on the heels of his 2 catch game last week that included his first NFL touchdown. Blanton featured a little bit of Tyler Higbee run after the catch; making use of his size to give the Rams more yards from the initial catch point.
There’s no other way around it. Kendall Blanton stepped up to the moment and delivered when he was greatly needed. The flea flicker screen play to him was a complex, yet simple way to get him the ball. He took on contact against an athletic group of linebackers from San Francisco. Job well done.
Higbee’s injury appears to be an MCL sprain and his status for the Super Bowl is day-to-day. The Rams don’t know yet if he’ll be able to go, but they are trying to do everything in their power. My guess is that it’s likely a 40% shot…
CC Grade: B, Overall: B, Trend: Neutral
Andrew Whitworth: 85.7 (+0.4), Joe Noteboom: 78.6 (DNP), David Edwards: 67.3 (+0.2), Brian Allen: 76.2 (-1.1), Coleman Shelton: 59.3 (-0.3), Austin Corbett: 68.8 (+0.8), Bobby Evans: 48.2 (DNP), Rob Havenstein: 84.7 (+2.5), Alaric Jackson: 70.2 (DNP)
This time Joe Noteboom was the left tackle that was ruled out. Andrew Whitworth resumed his role as the starter. Outside of a sack by Ebukam, Whitworth was solid. His fellow bookend - Havenstein - was a tank. Havenstein graded out as the highest offensive player in the game; dominating the matchup against Nick Bosa. His 93.7 run blocking grade was a season-best. Not to mention his 90.1 overall grade being a career best. Havenstein has now gone against JJ Watt, Shaq Barrett, and Nick Bosa in these playoffs and has removed all of them from the equation of each game.
The three interior lineman (Edwards, Allen, and Corbett) stepped up BIG. After being bulldozed by Arik Armstead in Week 18, these guys locked up the SF defensive lineman - who failed to record a tackle in the contest. While the run blocking across the board has taken a dip over the last four weeks, this group continues to keep Stafford in good shape.
Need one more big game from the big boys up front…
CC Grade: B, Overall: B-, Trend: Slight Upward
Aaron Donald: 93.5* (-0.1), A’Shawn Robinson: 75.3 (+1.5), Greg Gaines: 67.4 (-2.1), Bobby Brown III: 64.5 (DNP), Marquise Copeland: 68.1 (+0.5), Mike Hoecht: 48.7 (DNP), Jonah Williams: 64.9 (DNP), Sebastian Joseph-Day: 62.4 (IR)
Aaron Donald wasn’t going to let there be a repeat of Week 18 when the defense came back onto the field with SF trying to tie/win the game with <1:45 left. He wasn’t going to let his quest for a ring be upended by San Francisco. He’s on a mission and he wants everyone to know. It was only fitting then that he was the catalyst of the game-ending play. Aaron Donald didn’t have a Donald-esque performance, but he sealed it.
Something tells me that AD99 is saving up for a grand finish. He has a favorable matchup against the Bengals. Zac Taylor will scheme to make him less of a factor, but AD99 will want redemption at Super Bowl glory. I think he gets to Burrow at least once. Question is - does he tally a multi-sack game?
Gaines (96% snap share) helped bottle up the middle with 3 tackles and 1 pressure. His grade vs SF was low because of the lack of overall pressure the Rams DL had, so I’m not dropping a grade here. Gaines vs SF’s offensive line is an unfavorable matchup, but Gaines at least kept it a stalemate; allowing other guys to win in the trenches.
Which leaves us with A’Shawn Robinson. I wrote last week: “I think A’Shawn Robinson is the key to the defensive line in this game, other than Aaron Donald (who yes has been quiet in the last 4 games vs. San Francisco). But A’Shawn will need to have a good performance here. By only playing 35% of the snaps in the divisional round, his body should be fresher going into this week. He normally plays anywhere from 40-55% of the defensive snaps. Against SF, he will play more. He’ll need to win more too. Shanhan won’t want AD99 to beat him, so A’Shawn will have his opportunities 1 on 1. Can he win them?”
How did it turn out? Well, A’Shawn Robinson (55% snap share) graded out as the highest graded defensive player for LA (79.1). He hit the snap share that I expected him to see against a run heavy team in SF. He won his one-on-one’s at the line of scrimmage. His 6 tackles (3 solo) and 1 pressure were a huge lift to the team. My favorite part of A’Shawn from Sunday night - his facial expression throughout the game, especially during Aaron Donald’s mid-game defensive speech. Robinson was LOCKED IN. It took AShawn awhile to find his footing with this defense because of an injury in 2020. It seems like he is fully acclimated and making a complete impact when he’s on the field.
Allow me to emphasize one final point: the 49ers only managed 20 carries for 50 yards (2.5 avg/carry). A’Shawn was the difference.
Copeland (14% snap share) failed to record any tackles in the game.
CC Grade: B+, Overall: A-, Trend: Neutral
Troy Reeder: 42.6 (-4.1), Ernest Jones: 58.6 (+0.6), Travin Howard: 82.6 (+1.1), Christian Rozeboom: 63.9 (N/A)
Troy Reeder is such a polarizing player to the Rams fanbase. At times, he is the undrafted free agent that creates value via sacks, INTs, and impact plays. Yet on the other end, he also is the starting linebacker on a SB-bound team that is a major liability as a tackler and pass coverage inside linebacker. I don’t think I can sum up Reeder any more than that. Against SF, he was almost the reason for the defense giving up a lead too big to overcome. He missed four tackles and allowed 6 receptions (7 targets) for 87 yards. Deebo’s touchdown was a product of Reeder missing by overpursuing on the play. Reeder (96% snap share) was also run over by Elijah Mitchell when the Rams were behind. I understand Reeder has been the green-dot player recently, since Fuller’s injury. The problem is that he has done his duty to the highest capability, and it’s time to rely on Travin Howard and Ernest Jones to bring it home for the defense. Howard and Jones provide more dynamic ability at the second layer for the defense. With Burrow likely to throw to his three wideouts, the Rams will need elite coverage in the middle of the field. With two weeks of additional healing to his ankle, Ernest Jones should have a larger snap count in the Super Bowl.
As for the game against SF, Travin Howard (47% snap share) provided 2 tackles (1 solo), 1 TFL, 1 PD, and the game sealing INT.
Jones (43% snap share) recorded 2 tackles.
Howard’s INT prevented the Rams inside linebacker grade from being a failing grade.
CC Grade: D+, Overall: C, Trend: Slight Downward
Leonard Floyd: 70.7 (+0.2), Von Miller: 90.4* (-0.1), Justin Hollins: 65.9 (-0.3), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 79.5 (+1.2), Terrell Lewis: 50.3 (INA), Chris Garrett: 53.8 (INA), Justin Lawlar: 63.8 (INA)
The edge group didn’t have the time to make an impact because of the quick designs by Shanhan to get the ball out of Garoppolo’s hand. However, when the 49ers needed 8 or more yards, Garoppolo didn’t stand a chance. Von Miller was the only edge rusher to register a QB hit on Jimmy G, but Okoronkwo was the first to get pressure on the panicky QB.
Leonard Floyd (90% snap share) actually was the initial pressure on Jimmy G on the 3rd & 13 play that led to an INT. Floyd got pressure up the middle and then Aaron Donald cleaned up the rest.
Justin Hollins (14% snap share) had 1 combined tackle.
Okoronwko (24% snap share) had 2 tackles (1 solo).
This group’s tackling was more clean than Week 18. Now, it can reset its gears and look to get quick pressure on Burrow to make his time in the pocket anything but easy for 4 quarters.
CC Grade: B-, Overall: B, Trend: Very Slight Downward-to-Neutral
Jalen Ramsey: 85.2* (+0.8), Darious Williams: 59.5 (+0.5), David Long Jr.: 60.1 (+0.2), Dont’e Deayon: 68.0 (DNP), Robert Rochell: 61.9 (IR), Grant Haley: 64.0 (DNP), Kareem Orr: 28.1 (DNP)
The 49ers didn’t dare test Ramsey in this one. Garoppolo was fortunate that Ramsey didn’t record an INT; dropping one on the 49ers side of the field. He finished with two pass deflections.
Darious Williams (100% snap share) had a pass deflection but could still be stickier in coverage. He was lucky that Aiyuk didn’t keep his feet in bounds on a fly route. David Long Jr (47% snap share) did not add a stat for the box score.
The Rams will likely have more of their cornerbacks in play in the Super Bowl, with the Bengals running 11 personnel. This makes Darious Williams and David Long Jr the keys to victory. Ramsey will likely follow the hot hand. And the Bengals have already commented they won’t hesitate to throw his way. Let them. If they beat Ramsey, then the Rams didn’t game plan well. And Ramsey didn’t do what he is paid to do. But I think this comes down to how well Darious Williams and David Long Jr play in man coverage (when called) and how well they play in their deep shell coverage. The two corners 2021 season + playoffs below:
Darious Williams (PFF Rank: 79/120): 57 completions on 92 targets, 610 yards, 4 TD allowed
David Long Jr (PFF Rank: 76/120): 28 completions on 46 targets, 374 yards allowed, 1 TD allowed
I think Darious Williams is going to get challenged by Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow. Whether it’s Chase or Higgins, the football is likely to come his way. Got to make plays. Got to tackle.
David Long Jr will likely see Tyler Boyd in the slot.
This is easily the most talented group the Rams secondary has faced. I think it makes it the #1 battle of position groups in the Super Bowl. DWill and DLo are 1A and 1B keys to the Super Bowl.
CC Grade: C+, Overall: B-, Trend: Neutral
Taylor Rapp: 65.5 (DNP), Terrell Burgess: 64.0 (DNP), Nick Scott: 59.3 (-1.0), Eric Weddle: 69.4 (-0.3), Jordan Fuller: 74.3 (IR)
It’s been a turnstile as of late at the safety position. Jordan Fuller, Taylor Rapp, and Terrell Burgess all started at one point in the last 4 weeks. Against SF, none of them. The Rams have relied completely on Nick Scott and Eric Weddle. Nick Scott has taken the promotion with style and impact. He has made his presence felt in every game. Against ARI, he popped AJ Green to force an incompletion. Against TB, he picked off Brady on an acrobatic play along the sideline. And most recently, he annihilated Deebo Samuel on a route across the middle. Scott is gaining a reputation as a thumper for the Rams, which is kind of cool to see as a 7th round pick. Scott made 5 tackles (0 missed tackles), but I do think he was the responsible “zone” for the Kittle touchdown. It was thrown to his and DWill’s side.
Eric Weddle went from retirement to 100% snap share in a matter of three weeks. Pretty cool to lead the team in tackles - 9 (5 solo) in the NFC Championship. Thank you for pickup basketball. Weddle’s big play - a tackle for loss on a 49ers second and short play that ultimately kickstarted the final punch by the Rams defense.
CC Grade: B, Overall: B-, Trend: Neutral
Johnny Hekker: 65.0 (+0.3), Matt Gay: 81.9 (+0.0)
Johnny Hekker had one punt - but he made it count; dropping a 58 yard bomb, for a net of 49 yards.
There is some concern for Matt Gay in my eyes. His 55 yard miss is a tough kick, but the kick was not only wide right, but it was also short. For a guy with a big leg (and who has made that kick in that stadium before), he has struggled somewhat in the last two weeks. I really hope there isn’t an injury present. But at the end of the day, he has made kicks at the end of the game when need be. A 40 yard FG to tie the game and a 30 yard FG for the game winner.
Brandon Powell did not have a punt return opportunity, but returned one kick return for 24 yards.
The highlight of the special teams was actually in kickoff coverage; holding Deebo to 2 returns for 26 yards (13.0 avg/return). Job Well Done!
CC Grade: C+, Overall: B-, Trend: Very Slight Downward
MCVAY AND CO.
This will rank as one of McVay’s best games as a pure coach. Once again; facing a double digit deficit in the NFC Championship - his team doesn’t flinch and they find a way to claw to victory. McVay’s offense had a great game plan (only drops by Kupp and Skowronek and a Stafford INT) held the offense back from scoring earlier. He didn’t allow injuries to Higbee to pidgeon-hole the offense - he got Kendall Blanton involved with plays like a flea-flicker TE screen. Yup, that’s a thing now. He adjusted throughout. The pressure the SF DL got in Week 18 - he negated it early with play action, screens, and quick passes.
Raheem Morris. For all the flack you have taken from Rams fans on TST and Bleacher Report - I apologize for their behalf. It has not been warranted. The Rams ran a single high safety significantly more in the Conference Championship than they had all season. Morris packed the box and forced the 49ers to try to run. It worked and it made Shanahan shift his run/pass balance to more pass heavy. And for what it’s worth, Raheem’s gameplan in Week 18 was great too. The Rams just didn’t tackle.
DeCamillis - he’s fought for every game. And it has been pretty neat seeing a Special Teams fight for his players to give more and adjusting with his personnel. He’s got them playing great ball from tackling, to coverage, and with their discipline.
McVay’s two botched challenges and timeout usage were definitely the head scratchers that weighed down his grade, but as for getting his team past the demons of the 49ers - mission accomplished. But the job’s not done yet. One more to go.
CC Grade: McVay: B- / Morris: A- / DeCamillis: B, Overall: B+, Trend: Neutral
RamNation let’s get it!
Next week, before the Super Bowl, I will be writing a shorter piece that covers each position group’s total grades from the prior 21 weeks along with my final thoughts before the Super Bowl. Stay tuned!