When Cooper Kupp made his season debut for the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, most expected rookie sensation Puka Nacua would be pushed aside. While that hasn’t been the case for Nacua, it’s become a glaring problem for third-year receiver Tutu Atwell.
Entering the 2023 campaign, Atwell had just 18 catches for 298 yards and a lone touchdown to his name in 21 games played. The Louisville product has broken out and in a way, has proven his haters wrong this season. Yet, more work has to be done to get him more involved.
What has Tutu Atwell done well?
Part of what has led to Tutu Atwell’s breakout on the field has been his development beyond what’s seen in the box score.
I would like to draw your attention to two clips to demonstrate what I’m talking about. These clips come from TST’s own Blaine Grisak, so be sure to check out his latest article from earlier today.
The first clip is from LA’s 29-23 overtime win over the Colts. On the play, Atwell draws just enough attention from three defensive backs, leaving Nacua open underneath for the game-winning score.
WALK-OFF PUKA!— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 4, 2023
A play where everything is working in harmony.
Kyren Williams with a stellar block in pass pro.
OL holds up well.
Blown coverage, but TuTu Atwell clears the middle of the field.
Touchdown Puka! pic.twitter.com/M6jupmW1N4
My thinking on this play is that #32 was giving added help over the top in case Tutu burned them deep. Once he realized Matthew Stafford wasn’t throwing a quick strike home run ball to Atwell, it was too late. This was no doubt a blown coverage but it’s important to note that Atwell cleared the field which allowed Puka to score.
On the second clip, Puka was again assisted by Atwell on a 36-yard catch prior to the two minute warning against Pittsburgh. Nacua relied on Tutu’s key block that enabled the rookie to get extra yards along the sideline and set the Rams up on their side of the field.
Rams WR TuTu Atwell only has two catches over the last two weeks. However, it's things he's doing "off ball" that are really impressive.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 24, 2023
Had a block last week to spring a big Kyren Williams run. His block downfield here springs open a big play for Puka Nacua along the sideline. pic.twitter.com/ngblcWBI3A
Here is another angle of the play:
Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic broke down this particular under-the radar play from Atwell and described his impact away from the ball.
“During rookie receiver Puka Nacua’s third down, 36-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter Sunday, Atwell threw a sideline block on cornerback Joey Porter Jr. that helped spring Nacua loose for more of a gain. Atwell flipped his hips around as he saw Nacua running up the sideline in order to block with his hands and frame, instead of “boxing out” where Porter could potentially have gotten through less contact.” via The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue
Again, these are plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet but that shouldn’t take away from their importance. Atwell has matured as a player when the ball isn’t in his hands and that has made him a more polished player under McVay.
Working through the fundamentals is the first step towards developing a well-rounded player. Tutu is getting there but he remains a work in progress.
Tutu Atwell: A tale of two seasons
I would categorize Atwell’s ‘23 efforts as a tale of two seasons or eras that I have cleverly devised as:
BC (Before Coop) & CE (Coop Era)
BC obviously would be the four games prior to Kupp’s season debut while CE includes his Week 5 debut and the two games that followed. I probably didn’t need to explain that at all but it’s there as a reference point just in case anyone got lost. The contrast between the two eras is striking.
BC - 35 targets, 22 receptions for 270 yards and one touchdown
CE - 8 targets, four receptions for 70 yards and two touchdowns
Tutu was targeted eight times alone in the season opener against the Seahawks. Yes, he has more touchdowns after Kupp’s return than before. However, one went for 31 yards while the other was a three-yard snag.
Atwell has just two receptions the last two weeks versus the Cardinals and Steelers. His production has stumbled off the peak of Mount Everest and into a bottomless void the size of the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, it’s dropped off considerably.
#Rams have struggled to get Tutu Atwell a good workload in the offense. They’ve become the Kupp and Puka show. Here are the targets since Kupp came back:— JAKE ELLENBOGEN (@JKBOGEN) October 24, 2023
Kupp + Puka: 28 targets
Higbee: 9 targets
Atwell: 8 targets
Gotta get Atwell more… pic.twitter.com/Y1O4WOSrDX
#Rams WR target shares since Cooper Kupp returned three games ago:— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) October 23, 2023
Puka Nacua: 33%
Cooper Kupp: 28%
Tutu Atwell: 9%
Back in April, I listed out three ways the Rams could return to their “golden era” of football. One way LA could get there was by relying on youth like Cam Akers and Tutu to lead the way. Since Akers is on the Vikings now, Atwell truly is my last hope. Anyways, this is part of what I said about the third-year pass catcher:
“He might be a knockoff Tavon Austin yet this is the season to prove himself. Will McVay finally cut him loose? Hard to tell. I doubt it but you never know. I am quite tired of seeing him routinely being labeled a bust.
This is a bold wish but I’d like to see Atwell approach 500 yards receiving and at least five total touchdowns. Based on his small sample size, he has game changing speed. What he needs is more opportunities and McVay has to give him a shot to earn it.”
Last year, McVay acknowledged that he hadn’t been doing a great job utilizing Atwell in his offense. He has or was doing much better, seemingly keeping his word in getting the explosive receiver more involved early in the year. However, Tutu’s production has taken a nosedive since Kupp returned and I find it inexcusable.
Atwell rightfully came into this season as the third wide receiver on the depth chart because he earned it. The same way he earned becoming the default WR2 with Kupp out and Van Jefferson disappearing out of thin air.
Tutu is a home run waiting to happen and yet he’s been placed on the backburner ever since the Eagles game. Inexcusable!
The youngster has very clearly taken a step forward compared to his first two overhyped seasons. What I would ask McVay is very simple:
Why draft an offensive weapon if you don’t intend to feature him more?
C’mon man, don’t become the Hollywood version of Arthur Smith. That would be a shameful and Razzie-worthy performance on your behalf.
I still believe in Tutu Atwell, but I’m waiting for the day until Sean McVay does the same.