The Los Angeles Rams are now winners of three straight after beating the Cleveland Browns 36-19. The win moves the Rams back to .500 and in the thick of the NFC Playoff race. Matthew Stafford and the Rams offense remained efficient against a tough Browns defense. Meanwhile the Rams defense did just enough to get the win. Here are our ten takeaways.
1. Defense Opening Drive Woes
There’s something to be said about offenses coming in with a script that’s supposed to work and have success. At the same time, the Rams have allowed an opening drive touchdown in each of their last three games. That’s consistent with the rest of the season. Los Angeles has allowed an opening drive touchdown in six of their 12 games in 2023. They’ve given up points or the opportunity to get points in three others.
Again, offenses usually script the first 15 plays of the game and those plays come directly from game planning during the week. Still, the defense had a chance to get off the field on a 3rd-and-14 and didn’t. While the scripted plays are supposed to work, the defense also needs to be better to start the game. After the opening drive, they’ve been settled into games nicely. With that said, they need to find a way to start games better.
2. Matthew Stafford’s Audible is a Reminder Why He’s Their QB
It’s not often it today’s NFL that you see a quarterback make a check or audible out of a play at the line of scrimmage. However, Stafford doing just that played a big role in the Rams taking control early in the game. On 2nd-and-1, Stafford saw the middle of the field wide open and checked out of the original play-call. The Rams quarterback stepped into shotgun and then split the Browns defense with Puka Nacua coming across the middle. Said Stafford after the game,
“That was something actually that we had talked about, (Head coach) Sean (McVay) and I had talked about. I kind of wanted to try to get to something like that if I could feel that one coming and was able to bounce out back into the shotgun. Obviously, (WR) Puka (Nacua) did a great job of kind of late hands(ing) that thing, not letting the linebacker know the ball was coming and then finishing it off with the touchdown was huge, big momentum play.”
Moments like those are why the Rams have Stafford as their quarterback. Sean McVay is able to trust him to make those calls at the line of scrimmage. These are the type of game-changing plays that make Stafford different.
3. Is Puka Nacua the Rams’ Number One Wide Receiver?
As has been the case seemingly every week this season, Rams rookie wide receiver Puka Nacau broke another record. On Sunday, he broke the Rams’ franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie in a season. He also eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark which is also a special accomplishment.
Puka Nacua is averaging 2.53 yards per route run this season which leads all rookies (min. 50 targets).— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) December 4, 2023
The only rookies WRs with more since PFF started tracking that data in 2006 are:
2020 Justin Jefferson: 2.66
2019 AJ Brown: 2.67
2014 OBJ: 2.75
The Rams offense runs through Nacua. It was his 70-yard touchdown reception that gave the team early control. With the game tied at 13, Nacua took a jet sweep 31-yards. The offense scored a touchdown six plays later. Whenever the Rams offense has needed a play this season, it has typically been Nacua that makes it.
4. Kobie Turner Continues to Play With More Confidence
There’s little doubt that the Rams continue to get great production from their rookie class. One of those players is Kobie Turner. Turner had his second consecutive game with four or more pressures and more than one sack. He gets some favorable matchups with Aaron Donald on the defensive line, but he’s taking advantage of those opportunities. Said McVay,
“I think Kobie’s a really inquisitive guy. He’s mature beyond his years. Whether you talk about Kobie Turner, Byron Young, Steve Avila, a lot of these guys are really mature beyond their years and they’re doing a great job of accelerating their progress. But when you’ve got guys that can really show you the ropes, there’s nobody better than Aaron Donald to be able to model the way. And his consistency, the way that he goes about it, I’ve been so fortunate and blessed to be able to coach a player like him and really a lot of our veteran leaders that have poured into these guys.”
Turner ranks third in the NFL this season among rookie defensive linemen with 23 total pressures. His 5.5 sacks also leads all rookies. The Rams got a steal with Turner and he continues to get better. While his flashy plays have come as a pass rusher, he’s also had an impact in the run game.
5. Sean McVay Made Key Adjustments
There are times when Sean McVay gets criticized for his lack of adjustments. Some of those criticisms are warranted. However, he made some key adjustments for the Browns game that had a pretty big impact. For starters, Matthew Stafford was getting the ball out quickly. The Rams quarterback’s average time to throw was 2.42 seconds which was the fourth fastest for the week. In fact, 21 of his 37 dropbacks or 56.8 percent came under 2.5 seconds.
Outside of quicker throws, McVay also utilized Kyren Williams and his tight ends to chip Myles Garrett in order to help Alaric Jackson quite often. Garrett was hurt, but he only had two pressures the entire game. McVay calling a quick passing game and helping his left tackle played a big role in that.
6. Rams Offense is Finally Coming Together and It’s Great
The Rams offense was statistically one of the best units in the NFL in the early portion of the season. However, there were times when they lacked rhythm and the offense as a whole looked out of sync.
Since the bye week and during the Rams’ three-game win streak, they rank fifth in offense EPA per play and fourth in overall offensive success rate. The big difference is how the run and pass game have come together rather than act as two separate entities. Kyren Williams has been the engine in the run game and everything else has benefitted.
7. John Johnson III’s Interception Changed the Momentum
Following the 2020 season, John Johnson III left the Rams for the Cleveland Browns. He deserved to get paid and the Rams simply don’t pay safeties. Coming into the season, the Browns cut Johnson III after a down year and the Rams were able to sign him to a cheap, low-risk deal.
So far this season, Johnson has been quiet and he’s not the same player that he was back in 2020. However, it was almost storybook that it was his interception that completely changed the momentum in the game. The Browns had gone on back-to-back near seven-minute scoring drives and trailed 20-19 with a chance to take the lead. Johnson’s interception put an end to that and gave the Rams firm control late in the fourth quarter.
8. The Rams are Playing Complementary Football
Going off of that, the Rams are playing complementary football and it is wonderful. The Johnson interception turned into six points for the offense. Special teams got involved as Ethan Evans had a punt downed at the two-yard line and the defense followed it up with a three-and-out.
All three units for the Rams are playing for each other. Even after Lucas Havrisik’s missed field goal, the defense got off the field despite the Browns having good field position. The Rams have lacked complementary football at times this season, but are playing that way now and you can see everything come together.
9. Kyren Williams is a Closer at Running Back
Over the past three or four years, the Los Angeles offense has lacked a closer at the running back position. Cam Akers had moments, but was never consistently the guy that could close out games. Kyren Williams has shown that he can be that guy.
Williams set up a touchdown to Cooper Kupp and then scored to put the Rams up 34-19. In the fourth quarter this season, the Rams run game ranks fourth in success rate. The best way to close out teams late in games is by running the ball and Williams has shown he can be relied on in those situations.
10. Rams are Back in the Thick of NFC Playoff Race
Sitting at 6-6 the Rams are right in the thick of the NFC Playoff race. While the Green Bay Packers win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football wasn’t ideal, the Rams are technically still in control of their own destiny. If the Rams can remain ahead of the Packers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints, they’ll be in good shape.
The Rams have come a lot way from being 3-6 and seemingly fighting for a top-10 pick. Los Angeles is playing meaningful football in December which is a lot different than where they were at a year ago or at points pre-Sean McVay. If the Rams win the games that they should, it’s very possible that they are back in the playoffs in a season that was supposed to be about re-building.