After dominating the first 40 minutes, the Los Angeles Rams almost completely imploded and barely hung on to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 31-27 in Week 2 of the 2022 NFL season.
And guess what? It wasn’t a beat-down defense that struggled at the end. Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris’ defense held up their end. But in a span of less than 20 minutes, a special teams gaffe and three offensive turnovers let Atlanta come back from a 28-3 deficit. Optimism should abound with any victory, so let’s review how the individual units performed, shall we?
This is how the bend-but-don’t-break is supposed to work. Clamp down on third and fourth down, force turnovers and limit the opposition to field goals when they get inside the red zone. That’s how it went until late in the third quarter. Up to that point the Rams defense had given up 161 total yards, two third down conversions and three points.
With 6:23 left in the third quarter and leading 28-3, Matthew Stafford didn’t see a defender dropping into the passing lane and threw an interception that was returned to the red zone.
At 12:13 of the fourth quarter and trailing 31-10, the Falcons mounted their only extended drive of the second half, an eight-pay 72 yard drive that cut the score to 31-17.
Atlanta would block a punt for another score and get a last upset breath with a fumble recovery in Rams territory with less than five minutes left in the contest. The L.A. defense stood tall and closed out the game with Jalen Ramsey’s interception at the goal line.
The second half yardage given up by the Rams defense? 99 yards— 26 rushing and 73 passing. Over the whole game, the Falcons were four of 12 (33%) on third and fourth downs and L.A. cashed in three turnovers, a fumble and two interceptions, with another INT called back on a ticky-tack penalty.
Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, a threat to extend plays with his legs, was held in check. The Rams pass rush was not ferocious, but recorded two sacks, held their spacing pretty well and kept Mariota from moving the chains. It struck me that they used a similar model to how they would defend Russell Wilson when he was a Seattle Seahawk, create a cup around the pocket and push in from there.
Justin Hollins had a fine final series with three tackles, but was quiet for the first 55 minutes of the game. Actually, he and Terrell Lewis played equal snaps (30). Although Lewis didn’t make any splash plays, he was disruptive and subbed in at both edge positions.
Last week, I mentioned the defensive line rotation, or lack thereof. Versus Atlanta, backup Marquise Copeland had 13 snaps and really got pushed off the ball. It was bad, I think almost every snap. Jonah Williams had seven snaps later in the game, he seemed to hold his ground well. Again, the Rams rotation went mainly to two down linemen and two stand up edges rather than the 3-4 base of years gone by.
Both Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones cleaned up on the run game and kept the Falcons run game in check. Atlanta did get 90 yards rushing, but needed 27 totes to get it. This after running for over 200 yards in Week 1.
The secondary was mixed bag. Safeties Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller, and Nick Scott accumulated 14 tackles and didn’t allow anything deep. Durant has those ball skills, but has much to learn about covering pro talent, he didn’t go up against anybody in the MEAC Conference that has the moves, strength, and guile of NFL receivers. While Jalen Ramsey can frustrate you, he is stellar at splash plays and always seems to be around the ball.
When you are the caliber of Defensive back that Jalen Ramsey is, you are always under a magnifying glass of scrutiny. Despite the adversity, Ramsey made the biggest play the afternoon to seal the win for the Rams! Spectacular play on the ball! pic.twitter.com/RnS6Z7uik1— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) September 19, 2022
In a word, Uggh!
One punt—blocked and returned for a touch down. Long snapper Matt Orzech completely whiffed his block and the defender charged through untouched.
One kickoff return— 15 yards.
One punt return— -1 yard.
Six kickoffs— 5 touchbacks and one 27 yard return given up.
After two games, the Rams return game is ranked 28th in the league and even with the stellar Matt Gay, the kicking/punting game is 27th. Sorry, nothing more to add.
#Falcons were down 28-3 earlier.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 18, 2022
Trying to pull off a comeback in the 4th quarter.pic.twitter.com/PKsbV3k7WZ
If the season plays out to the first two weeks form, the Rams will have to be patient moving down the field. With the NFL trending towards more base two deep coverages to counter wide open offenses, longer drives and underneath passing are becoming the norm. The question becomes, “Can the pocket passing, gunslinger quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford make the transition to a shorter and more controlled attack?”
Stafford has been inconsistent at times, so far. He can still make all the throws with plenty of zip, but seems to be locking onto one receiver. It could very well be rustiness from a lack of training camp throws and timing, or maybe he is chafing under the saddle of shorter throws. There is no need to force the ball downfield, beating these shell defenses takes the patience and/or willingness to get the ball to playmakers on mid and short range routes and let them work in space. There will still be plenty openings to take shots deep. Staff’s stats, according to Pro Football Reference, have also inconsistent, he is near the top in completion percentage (4th at 72.7) and touchdowns (8th at 4), but is near the bottom in interceptions (32nd at 5), yards gained per pass attempt (31st at 4.8), and yardage per completion (29th at 9.1).
We always thought Russell Wilson having "high CPOE low EPA" was a Russell Wilson trait, but,,,,,, pic.twitter.com/HUyTHYlj00— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 19, 2022
But I don’t want to be too negative, there was a lot to like in the win over the Falcons. Overall, L.A. rolled up 365 total yards, scored on five of nine possessions including four touchdowns and a field goal in five red zone trips, and had a solid 60% third down conversion rate. And no, I did not subtract the Brandon Powell clock-killing 28 yard loss.
More importantly, McVay and Stafford got Allen Robinson involved, a couple of promising new/hardly-used formations were written in, and the offensive line was able to bounce back from both injuries and a putrid Week 1 performance.
Since being paired with Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp tends to takes up all the air in the passing game, but Robinson gave a nice tease of what he can bring to the Rams. He was able to create separation and found creases in the zone coverages. In a modest five targets, he corralled four passes for 53 yards, a touchdown, and three first downs.
Of L.A.’s 63 offensive plays, 19 (30.16%) were from the I formation, a new wrinkle in the Rams scheme. They have indeed used the formation in the past, but never to this extent. Bennett Skowronek took the lion’s share of the fullback reps and Brycen Hopkins also handled a couple. Skow is certainly not the prototypical blocking back but fared pretty well and offers some versatility as a playmaker out of the backfield.
On a handful of snaps, the Rams flanked QB Stafford with a running back and wide receiver (mostly Kupp) on opposite sides, another seldom used formation. They mostly threw out of this set, but certainly, McVay has a varied program out of this lineup.
Cooper Kupp finds the end zone on a 10-yd reception on a flat route out of the backfield, his 2nd career TD from running back alignment.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 18, 2022
Kupp leads all WRs in receiving yards (98) & TDs (2) from backfield alignment since the start of the 2021 season.#ATLvsLAR | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/9QTbs5NhIL
Breaking down the offensive line is little complicated. Yes, the pass blocking was infinitely better, Stafford was only sacked once and and that came when he was chased out of bounds on a failed bootleg pass. And yes, they overcame an interior reshuffle, with Coleman Shelton from guard to center and Tremayne Anchrum into that void at guard, plus losing Anchrum to a broken leg. But the run game still left something to be desired, even with an extra blocking fullback on almost a third of plays.
The Rams did run consistently behind Rob Havenstein on the right side and pounded out 91 yards on 25 carries. Just like Week 1, the outside zone blocking scheme was almost invisible, used only on counter bootleg passes and with a minimum of success.
AJ Jackson subbed in on the first series and played well at guard in Anchrum’s stead. Profiling him, at guard, rather than tackle, would be a role better suited to his skillset and could become his NFL future—he’s off to a good start and is penciled in as a starter for at least three weeks. Sean McVay spoke about Jackson and his fellow linemen on his post-game video conference,
“He did really well. I think there are some things we can clean up, but I thought the offensive line, as a whole, did a great job. (I) really loved the response that we were looking for from them...I thought they (pass) protected really well...AJ did a great job at that right guard spot... he and Havenstein had a great rapport...it was really impressive that a guy that didn’t take a single rep at guard this past week to come in and play the whole game at such a high clip.”
Arthur Smith is a talented play caller. I don’t know if he will be a successful head coach, but he will certainly find work as an offensive coordinator if he doesn’t last in Atlanta. The Rams defense did a fine job but the Falcons are the type of lower tier team that seems to always find a way to lose.
The next two weeks will be a step up in class, with road games against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams have had recent success navigating the L.A.’s bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Rams cannot afford to fall too far behind division foes. After those tough outings, its back home to host the Dallas Cowboys. Even without their star quarterback, the Dallas Cowboys have enough talent to win.
Over this short stretch, injuries will test the Rams roster depth and there’s still a lot of work too be done on self-inflicted wounds. As much as they dominated the lower-tier Falcons, they still almost completely imploded and just hung on to win. Arizona and San Francisco will not be so forgiving.