At times it became hard to watch. It was NFL’s opening night in the nation’s entertainment capital, ceremonies began with all the pomp, circumstance and celebrity cameos befitting a reigning Super Bowl champion. But as the game unfolded, the Los Angeles Rams were the ones that looked star struck in a 31-10 beat-down loss to the Buffalo Bills.
L.A. was out-coached, out-schemed, out-played, out-hustled, and out-hearted. Buffalo used the standard approach that gives the Rams fits, they remained disciplined and bullied them into submission. Bills quarterback Josh Allen repeatedly played pitch-and-catch with open receivers underneath to move the sticks and set the Rams up to be beaten deep on play action. The Bills totaled 121 yards rushing and it could have been much more. 90 of those came in the second half.
When trying to analyze a loss like this, where so much went wrong, the best possible option is going back to a few basics and finding the inconsistencies and deviations from past successes. The five W’s, who; what; when; where; and why, have long been the go-to framework of investigation and introspection and can be appropriately applied to the Rams losing effort.
Two things were obvious with the run game, the offensive line certainly struggled and the coaching staff did not adjust, or seem to have any answers, to the Bills packing the box and daring the Rams to go over the top. The Rams will likely see many more two-high coverages in future games, trying to limit their big-play capabilities and forcing them to avert mistakes and convert on long, sustained drives.
Darrell Henderson ran hard and was able to slither through what few holes that were there. His physical play was a bright spot in an otherwise dark offensive performance. He logged 73 yards on 18 touches. Modest numbers, yes, but a solid contribution in a poor team offensive performance.
But what happened to Cam Akers? I believe the consensus opinion of Rams fans is that he is the Rams RB#1 and Henderson best serves in a complimentary role. Maybe it was just a matchup/scheme outlier, but his role needs scrutiny going forward. Akers only played 12 snaps and had zero yards on three carries. Is the “soft tissue” injury from training camp lingering? Or is it something worse? The question of his devastating Achilles tear and his meteoric return has to be asked.
Kyren Williams was injured on the first play of the game and Jake Funk, with 12 special teams reps, did not see action on offense.
did the outside zone run game go?
The Rams only ran this formation for three snaps in the first half. Two of those were the standard play action rollout counter plays and were completed for short gains, the third looked more like an mid/outside zone hybrid. The scenario was the same in the second half. L.A.’s blocking schemes seemed to mirror those used in preseason games. In his TV commentary of those preseason games, former Rams-great Andrew Whitworth said that these blocking schemes were the simplest the Rams had.
The Bills kept the box filled and the choked off the run lanes as the game progressed. L.A. only had 18 carries for 52 yards, a 2.9 yard clip, and 38 of those came in the first half. New Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen has a strong background in tight and mid zone run schemes and sure,— why not mix them in? But to go completely away from the teams historical bread-and-butter run scheme, and reformat the players drafted for that scheme, doesn’t quite jibe.
The Rams still major in wide zone as their main running play just like 2019. It's just not the basis of the offense anymore. Still need to be prepared for it. pic.twitter.com/d1oUt9uKoY— Mike (@bengals_sans) February 9, 2022
to make of the wide receiver room?
Cooper Kupp was nails, as usual. And is Bennett Skowronek really the second option at wide receiver? Skowronek had four catches on six targets, all underneath stuff, for 25 yards. Skow missed a few blocks, but alas, he was not alone in that category.
For all the preseason talk about the Matthew Stafford/Allen Robinson on-field bond, it did not come to fruition. Robinson had two targets, one catch and 12 yards. Tutu Atwell lined up on seven snaps, dropped a pass and wasn’t heard from afterwards. That’s a short leash. Brandon Powell received only three snaps, but had two touches. He ran one time for a couple yards, not out in space where is most dangerous, but rather inside the tackles from a tight formation. He also had one catch for 10 yards.
Until Van Jefferson returns from injury, the rotation is wide open. Stafford was obviously flustered by the pressure and the Rams may have to go to more bunched/stacked sets to help create some separation against some of their better opponents.
will the Rams go back to a more aggressive defense?
Game one looked like a replay from early last season, with the Rams utilizing a lot of two-deep umbrella coverages. The theory behind these schemes is to force the opposition into staying disciplined enough to create long drives without making mistakes. In the first half, L.A. was the beneficiary of three Buffalo turnovers and went into halftime tied at 10.
The problems with these formations arise when the pass rush can’t apply pressure and that top offenses/QB’s ARE proficient and disciplined enough to sustain drives. Bills QB Josh Allen did just that, working underneath, getting the passes out quickly, and then manipulating the secondary deep with play action. The deep coverage seemed flat-footed as receivers ran right past them.
In these bend-but-don’t-break type defenses, it is imperative for the defensive line to get their arms up to create vision difficulty and clog the the short passing lanes. The Rams interior pass rush wasn’t bad, it never is with Aaron Donald on the field and they did accrue two sacks. But the edges were very quiet, Leonard Floyd, Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis all need to provide future pressure support.
99th career sack for #99 - Aaron Donald gets his first sack of the season. pic.twitter.com/KOsJpbwRlu— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 9, 2022
wasn’t there any rotation on the defensive line?
By my count, only two first half snaps, were not supplied by starters Aaron Donald, Greg Gaines, and A’Shawn Robinson. That’s a lot of chasing an athletic QB. Sure, Donald is is an athletic monster and get gets paid a king’s ransom, but having defensive linemen playing 90+ percent of snaps is a recipe for disaster. Not just on an in-game basis, but as a season-long strategy.
Fatigue really showed itself in the second half. The Bills scored on their first three drives, totaling 206 yards, 72 on the ground, in 24 plays to pull away. The rotational players, Marquise Copeland, Jonah Williams, and Michael Hoecht logged 16 snaps amongst them. Only five of those total snaps came before mop up time late in the blowout. Rather than rotate in the backup down linemen, the Rams rotated Robinson (64% of snaps) out and replaced him with another secondary player, preferring two stand up ends and two down linemen.
Forget about this one and move on. Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are Super bowl contenders and a tough draw to start the season. They are a stellar combination of physicality and athleticism, a coaching staff with solid schemes and a front office staff that brings in what they need to get better.
Amid all of Thursday night’s misery, there were some early glimpses of L.A. possibly breaking out, but they repeatedly figured out a way to shoot themselves in the foot. Losing this game to a quality team does not portend doom. Hopefully, this loss not only shook the dust off a team that didn’t play any of their starters in preseason, but also awakens them to the fact that every team will be gunning for them.
This Rams team is very different from the past, both the offensive and defensive schemes, are morphing into a new creature. It takes live reps to get timing and intricacies down. They also need to get the little things cleaned up for next weeks home game with the Atlanta Falcons, those self inflicted wounds are the worst. After that will be a tough three game stretch versus playoff contenders, traveling to Arizona and San Francisco before coming home to host the Dallas Cowboys. No one said the road back to the Super Bowl would be without some ruts along the way.