The Los Angeles Rams had a chance to find their footing coming off of a loss to their NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers, instead they sputtered under the Monday Night Football lights and fell to the Bengals 16-19. LA is now 1-2 with the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles on deck.
Let’s get into the good and the bad—mostly on an individual level—because there’s plenty to discuss:
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB
In the second half Stafford threw an ill-advised interception intended for Van Jefferson to set the Cincinnati Bengals offense up in field goal range. Joe Burrow, who was managing a calf injury and seemed fairly hobbled, threw three times in Witherspoon’s direction with poor results: an offensive pass interference call against Tee Higgins, and two subsequent incompletions. The Bengals were hoping to pick on the veteran corner, but he passed the test.
That wasn’t even the most impressive feat Witherspoon had on the night. He had an incredible diving interception on Burrow with the Cincinnati offense in Rams territory to stave off a score and keep the offense’s comeback hopes alive (they just didn’t do much with the opportunity).
As unbelievable a pick as you’ll see. pic.twitter.com/uFQiIUEuoV— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 26, 2023
Puka Nacua, WR
Tutu Atwell, WR
Atwell was the primary focus of LA’s passing game on Monday night, as Stafford often looked his way deep downfield. Atwell had nine targets and converted that into four receptions for 50 yards and a late score. The speedster also had a 22 yard run on a reverse that was initially called a touchdown but reversed after a review.
Tutu Atwell first TD scorer (+1500) bettors pic.twitter.com/iZpRbvCuLg— SportsLine (@SportsLine) September 26, 2023
Nacua was active early but faded until late in the game. The steady rookie finished with five catches for 72 yards on seven targets. While it’s becoming normal for the young receiver to rack up the receiving stats, we can’t grow numb to the fact this is still very impressive for a player who was just selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft this spring.
Aaron Donald, DE
Donald has been relatively quiet through two games, but he made his presence felt often against the Bengals. The star defensive end finished with a sack and two tackles for loss. He was by far the most active pass rusher for Los Angeles on Monday night.
Ernest Jones, MLB
Jones had a team-leading nine tackles, but his most impressive individual plays won’t show up on the traditional box score. Raheem Morris deployed Jones as an inside blitzer frequently with great success, and this helped force multiple incompletions by Burrow on important passing downs. It was a savvy move against a hobbled passer who was probably unable to escape the pocket like he normally would.
Rams sent Ernest Jones on two different blitzes on second and third and long.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) September 26, 2023
Matthew Stafford, QB
After playing an impressive and clean game in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, Stafford has struggled over his last six quarters of play. It was evident that the veteran quarterback seemed off from the very first offensive series, though Sean McVay elected for a pass-heavy game plan instead of leaning on Kyren Williams and the run.
Stafford’s first interception came on an ill-advised sidearm throw back toward the middle of the field after he evaded a sack and had a defender bearing down on him. Sure, Jefferson should have worked back toward the line of scrimmage and maybe could have boxed out linebacker Logan Wilson, but it’s not a play you’d expect from a NFL veteran of 14-15 years. The second interception came on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage.
This is now Stafford’s second straight game with two interceptions, though one of his picks last week against the San Francisco 49ers was clearly the fault of RB Kyren Williams. The quarterback has already led the NFL in interceptions since relocating to Los Angeles (2021) and was well on his way last year before his season ended prematurely due to injury. It’s an ugly trend that is once again rearing its head.
Zach Thomas, LT
Tremayne Ancrhum, RG
Starting left tackle Alaric Jackson left the game with a thigh injury and did not return. Backup Zach Thomas, who is likely active on gamedays because he can play both guard and tackle, replaced Jackson. Joe Noteboom also left briefly at right guard but returned to action later in the game. Tremayne Anchrum filled in for Noteboom.
Thomas by no means played well, but the Rams did him no favors by leaving him one-on-one against one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, Trey Hendrickson. LA’s offense was one dimensional and the pass rush was teeing off, and there was not much help from backs or tight ends in pass protection. Sean McVay deserves as much criticism for this as Thomas. Stafford was also holding the ball often and looking downfield instead of pivoting to a short passing attack.
Anchrum is also continuing to prove why the Rams were so adamant that Noteboom had to be the starter at RG. Noteboom left last week against the 49ers before Anchrum failed to pick up a blitzer and allowed the line’s first sack of the season on Stafford. He filled in for a short period on Monday night and was flagged for putting his hand up a defender’s helmet in pass protection. He was out of position and was effectively holding to prevent Stafford from being hit.
Sean McVay, head coach
McVay drew plenty of criticism online for his heavy passing game plan. I don’t blame him for that as much. As bad as the Rams’ offensive line was getting whooped in pass protection, who’s to say that it would have been any better in the run game? I view the offensive issues more as an execution problem in this game, but McVay did his team no favors by failing to help out Thomas and trying to push the ball downfield. It seems there was an opening to maybe chip away at the deficit; instead, LA often tried to get it all back at once and it proved detrimental.
Rams' last series: 1st and 10 shot to Tutu Atwell, 3-n-out— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) September 26, 2023
Rams this series: 1st and 10 shot to Tutu Atwell...3-n-out
Trying to get it all back in one play, with a huge liability at left tackle. Not good!
Also, McVay’s decision to punt on fourth-and-medium down 10 points with less than six minutes left to play was downright cowardly. His offense ran a screen to Atwell on third down, but the first two plays on that series were downfield attempts. With Cincinnati’s pass rushers teeing off on Stafford, it didn’t seem McVay had much of a plan or counter punch on Monday night.
Punting down 10 with 6 mins left is soft.— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) September 26, 2023
Russ Yeast, DB
I’m not trying to scapegoat Yeast for the short-comings on defense, but he did not play his best game in Cincinnati. There were multiple players in the secondary that did not play well for most the night—including Cobie Durant and Derion Kendrick.
Still, Yeast took a bad angle on Joe Mixon’s red zone touchdown run and was out of position on a third down catch-and-run by Ja’Marr Chase. Yeast had been solid in the first two weeks, and he will have plenty of opportunities to turn things around moving forward.