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Winners & Losers: Rams run defense struggles mightily against Chargers

How much can preseason issues bleed into the regular season? It’s a big question for Raheem Morris’ defense.

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The first preseason game of the 2023 season is in the books for the Los Angeles Rams—they fall to the Los Angeles Chargers 34-17 after multiple long touchdowns across offense and special teams.

With that said, there was good and bad in the defeat. LA’s offense showed poise against a deep Chargers defense, though the defense sprung leaks in the run game time after time.

How much stock can you put into a preseason game full of primarily reserve players? It’s a fair question for DC Raheem Morris’ group after a concerning opener.

Who stood out on an individual level in this exhibition game?


Puka Nacua, WR

Nacua has made waves across offseason minicamp and picked up that momentum over the first weeks of training camp. If you’re a fan that is trying to remain cautiously optimistic on the rookie wide receiver, it’s probably getting more and more difficult by the day—especially after a strong NFL debut against the Chargers where the BYU product caught three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. The score came in traffic at the goal line where he held onto the ball through contact.

At this point the only question with Nacua is how large his role will be with the first team offense when they take the field in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. Can he push either Van Jefferson or Tutu Atwell for playing time?

Tre Tomlinson, CB

The Chargers targeted their first round receiver, Quentin Johnston, early and often in the game with little success until he caught a touchdown in the red zone. Tomlin matched up against Johnston despite being physically outmatched and fought to force away an incompletion on a long pass from backup Easton Stick. He also managed a tackle against RB Joshua Kelley and contributed in the run game.

While Derion Kendrick works his way back from a soft tissue injury, the Rams are hoping either Tomlinson or Robert Rochell can establish themselves as starting options along the boundary—and Tomlinson stood out in a positive way tonight.

Stetson Bennett, QB

It wasn’t all good for LA’s rookie quarterback tonight, but the positives outweighed the negatives in Bennett’s first game. His mobility gave him a big advantage over Brett Rypien, who seemed to be under pretty consistent duress. Bennett was sacked three times, some of them coming very deep in the pocket as if the QB was trying to do too much. While his scrambling ability is a big plus, it’s not helpful if he consistently puts the offense way behind the chains.

There’s room to grow for Bennett, but certainly you can see why the Rams were so excited to land the former Georgia Bulldog in a middle round of the NFL Draft this spring. It was also nice to see the QB settle down after some rough early moments after he first entered the game.

The bottom line is that Bennett is already a visible upgrade over the Rams’ previous backup signal callers in John Wolford and Bryce Perkins.

Veteran Receivers: Demarcus Robinson, Tyler Johnson

The Rams’ first target of the game went to Robinson for nine yards to set the tone. Johnson primarily worked with Bennett later in the game and ultimately accumulated five receptions for 70 yards, including a long catch and run to get LA in scoring position.

It’s difficult to imagine both of these players not making the initial 53-man roster, or if the Rams don’t have room perhaps another team could come calling with a trade proposal as the cutdown deadlines draw closer.

Warren McClendon, OT; Zach Thomas, OG

Alaric Jackson started at LT for the Rams, but McClendon came in later in the game. Thomas also played in relief of rookie Steve Avila. Both McClendon and Thomas impressed on the left side of the offensive line. McClendon has a better chance to make the roster as a fifth round pick, though Thomas could be a dark horse candidate as he should have flexibility at both tackle and guard.

Ethan Evans, P

On a night with a missed field goal and a big return touchdown allowed, Evans impressed while not much else worked on special teams. Overall, the Rams’ rookie punter amassed 308 yards on six punts for an average of 51.3 (long of 62). He pinned two balls inside the twenty but also had a punt bounce into the end zone for a touchback.

It was an encouraging debut for LA’s seventh round draft selection.

Keir Thomas, OLB

Thomas had been under the radar over training camp, but the second-year edge defender stood out on his way to 1.5 sacks on Saturday. While Bryon Young and the recently drafted OLB’s get all the attention, we can’t forget about Thomas and Daniel Hardy—who were probably the best two of the group against the Chargers.


Run Defense

There were too many issues in the ground game to point blame at any individual players—it was a total team collapse in this facet on Saturday night. The Rams must be hoping that this is not a sign of things to come for the regular season, though their defensive line and linebacking corps is mostly unproven. The edge rushers also failed to keep contain on a number of occasions and let ball carriers outside of them.

It could be a huge point of coaching this week, though hopefully the run defense improves over the final two exhibition games.

Logan Bruss, OT

Bruss had an awful debut last preseason as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and he had some ugly moments again versus the Chargers. Sure, he had a tough matchup on the right side in former fourth rounder Chris Rumph, but it’s not what you want to see from a player who’s fully embraced playing tackle at the pro level. He also had a false start penalty called against him.

The on-field production from Bruss has not been good through two preseason games. It’s still very early for him.

Tanner Brown, K

Brown missed his first field goal attempt from 46 yards but rebounded later with a make from 39 out. He also converted both of his extra point opportunities.

It remains to be seen whether the Rams will bring on a veteran as competition for the undrafted rookie, though it’s something worth keeping an eye on as cutdowns approach. Brown did not reward LA for their confidence in him up to this point, though maybe we chalk up the first kick to nerves.

Tremayne Anchrum, OG

Joe Noteboom did not dress for the game tonight, which probably suggests he’s locked up a starting job at either LT or RG. Alaric Jackson did play early at LT and Anchrum played into the third quarter at RG.

Does Noteboom getting a night off mean he’s now part of the first string offensive line? Is Anchrum the odd man out?

Zach Evans, RB

Cam Akers and Kyren Williams did not dress against the Chargers, so they have safely locked up first two rungs of the depth chart at running back. Ronnie Rivers got the starting nod in their absence.

Royce Freeman was the next back to get carries, and later he split time with Zach Evans—though it’s concerning that the talented rookie is apparently fifth on the depth chart.

Is this the team slow playing an individual that has some maturity issues dating back to high school or college, or has he just not shown enough to warrant opportunities over the more experienced but limited Rivers and Freeman?