While the Los Angeles Rams offense sputtered, the defensive unit kept the game within striking distance until the very end of hard-fought 19-16 loss on the road to the Cincinnati Bengals. Although it wasn’t a dominating effort, they bent but didn’t break and the takeaways from the defense were mostly positive.
Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris showed a lot of different looks to make Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow uncomfortable. I counted eight different defensive formations, 37 in 4-2, nine in 4-1 and they changed that up by putting Ernest Jones on the line for a 5-0 on 10 plays. L.A. got into their traditional 5-2 nine times and pulled out the “will” linebacker for “dime” 5-1 on eight plays. It may have been a week late, but the Rams used both 6-0 and 6-1 formations on short yardage plays.
In coverages, the Rams changed out of their norms as well, using more Cover3 (three deep shell) than Match Quarters (four deep with some man option depending on reads). Usually it’s the other way around. L.A. also went with much more Cover1 than usual (man to man with a single high safety), likely because Cincinnati often went spread with four wideouts.
The Rams allowed scores on five of thirteen drives, here’s how they looked.
By now, teams know hat they have to do to move the the ball on the Rams. Take the extended handoffs into the flats, sit down in the soft areas of the zone pass coverage and run enough to keep things honest. The Bengals started that way, moving right down the field to the Rams 44, but two incompletions wrapped around a short run and the drive stalled. Cincy kicker (K) Evan McPherson hooked the 56 field goal wide. Bengals 0, Rams 0.
More of the same. Two plays, a short run and a pass put the Bengals at 3rd and one, but their offensive line makes back-to-back movement penalties and suddenly it’s 11 yards to make a first down. Safety (S) Quentin Lake, in as “dime” linebacker (LB) for Christian Rozeboom, locks up the tackle on a pass underneath to force another punt. Bengals 0, Rams 3.
The Stripes go on an 12 play, 6:27 drive. QB Burrow completes six straight passes underneath and into Rams territory. Rams cornerback (CB) DeCobie Durant, after getting fooled looking in the backfield, grabs on and commits a a holding penalty away from the play. Two incompletions, one a sniffed out screen and the other a bad throw, sandwiched a another short underneath completion stalled the drive. K McPherson knocked the resulting 49 yard field goal home. Bengals 3, Rams 3.
After the Rams took back the lead, the defense followed it up with a nice stand, holding Cincinnati to 11 yards on six plays. After a run for no gain, the Bengals attacked CB Derion Kendrick on three straight plays, two of which he broke up and the other went an 11 yard first down. Following the second breakup, defensive tackle (DT) Aaron Donald split the center and guard for a sack, forcing a 3rd and long. Good coverage forced QB Burrow to throw underneath, well short of the line to gain and another punt. Bengals 3, Rams 6.
The Rams offense went three-and-out, giving the ball right back. Punter (P) Ethan Evans got off a nice high punt and Cincy started at their own 11. The opening play saw wide receiver (WR) Ja’Marr Chase settle in underneath for a five yard pitch and catch that he turned into a 13 yard gain. a soft spot in the zone. A dropped pass and two bad misfire’s forced a punt. Bengals 3, Rams 6
On the first play of the Rams offensive drive, QB Matthew Stafford made a poor decision and threw an interception at the L.A 41, forcing the defense right back on the field. Again, they stepped up and forced a thee-and-out. There was some excitement to this one and on this drive it was Rams CB Ahkello Witherspoon turn to be attacked three straight plays. On 2nd and eight after a short run, QB Burrow threw complete deep down the sideline, 38 yards to goal line, but it was an obvious push off on CB Witherspoon by WR Tee Higgins and the play was called back for pass interference. Cincinnati went right back at CB Witherspoon on the next two plays, but he had good position and coverage, forcing the wild three-and-out. Bengals 3, Rams 6.
The Rams started deep in their own territory and after some questionable play calling, were not able to kill the last two minutes of the half. After a 10 yard punt return, the Bengals were in business at their own 40. A quick 10 yard out versus off coverage and a 25 yard seam pass into a soft spot in the umbrella coverage had Cincy at the L.A 25 in two plays. The Rams fought right back, CB Durant made a break-up on an out route and then DT Kobie Turner and edge (E) Byron Young combined for a sack. The NFL Gamebook gave the two rookies credit, but it was DT Donald looping up the middle that blew things up. After a spike to stop the clock four seconds, K McPherson again converted the field goal, this one from 53 yards. Bengals 6, Rams 6.
On their opening drive, the Bengals marched right down field for a touchdown, 75 yards on 10 plays. Running back (RB) Joe Mixon opened the drive with a 13 yard run and closed it out with a 14 yard TD tote. Boxed in between the runs, the Stripes took advantage on passes underneath, both outside and over the middle. The Rams were close to stopping the drive, forcing a 3rd and 10, but WR Chase made a great great catch on a ball thrown behind him to extend the drive. On the RB Mixon touchdown, DT BBrown didn’t close to the hole fast enough, LB Ernest Jones got meshed in the traffic, S Russ Yeast took a horrible angle and the other safety, Jordan Fuller never reacted to the fact that the play was a run. A total breakdown on the play. Bengals 13, Rams 9.
Another interception, albeit on a bad break, put the Rams defense back on the field after only 32 seconds. The saving grace was the play before the INT was field-flipping deep pass completion. The Bengals only completed one of six passes on the drive, but it was a counter bootleg off a fake wide zone run. CB Witherspoon didn’t hold his contain and WR Chase snuck behind him for 43 Yad gain. As I recall, it was one of Cincinnati’s three passes over 10 air yards. The L.A, defense stiffened but that one play was enough for another field goal try, this one from 48 yards that bounced off the right upright and through. Bengals 16, Rams 9.
To start the 4th quarter, Cincinnati begins to grind clock a bit. On this nine play drive, RB Mixon had five carries for 18 yards, one of which was 4th down conversion, and a swing pass that went incomplete. On the 3rd and eight preceding the 4th down conversion, poor tackling by CB’s Durant and Kendrick allowed a check down pass that was caught four yards behind the line of scrimmage turn 4th down into a very short yardage play. It was all rendered moot when CB Witherspoon made a stellar interception at the Rams 20 to stall the drive. He had sticky coverage on an in breaking pattern, undercut it with timing, and out-muscled the receiver. Bengals 16, Rams 9.
A nice Bengal punt return puts them in business on the Rams 40. The defense steps up and forces a three-and-out and five net yards, but it enough for the Bengals to convert a 54 yard field goal. Bengals 19, Rams 9.
With 6:02 left in the game, the Bengals took the conservative route. Three runs were sandwiched around a delay of game penalty for three-and-out that ate up about 2 1⁄2 minutes of clock and culminated in a punt. Bengals 19, Rams 9.
The Rams came back to make it exciting, but took too much time off the clock. With only one L.A. timeout left and 1:03 left, the Stripes kneel down in victory formation. Bengals 19, Rams 16.
Instead of just moving Aaron Donald up and down the line of scrimmage, the Rams are trending towards more stunts/loops/twists with AD (and as a team), and he was back to normal, consistently creating havoc. Kobie Turner is playing bigger than his size and has passed up BBrown, who had another quiet game. Jonah Williams wasn’t as noticeable as he was in the first two games, but continues to play the block eater/run plugger role. Larell Murchison got more snaps this week an d did not come up with any flash plays.
Byron Young continues his growth, I like that Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris Morris lined him up on alternate sides of the field, not limiting him to having to beat the opponents best blocker (left tackle) every time. DC Morris has Hoecht moving around the formations, lining up this week on the edge, out on the slot receiver, and as an off-ball middle linebacker. Hoecht is always in a state of constant motion and hustle, he looked better this week, but is just not making plays. Zach VanValkenburg spotted both Young and Hoecht on 12 plays, nothing outstanding or glaring mistakes. I'm not sure he couldn’t double that number to help keep the two starters a little fresher. Both Hoecht and Young played 92% of snaps, that’s a lot of plays for that are constantly chasing, hand fighting, and banging heads.
Both Ernest Jones and Christian Rozeboom were used aggressively in the blitz game and it may well have helped the overall pressure, but neither got home or particularly close. Although they both tackled better and played well (don’t remember any bad plays) they are not particularly nifty in space and coverage. A lot of their work was reacting to short passes and cleaning it up.
Between the Bengals offensive gameplan and the Rams defensive calls, Russ Yeast and Jordan Fuller spent much of their night deep. The two notched 10 tackles between them, but looking at them realistically, they weren’t involved in any sticky coverage, just most corralling receivers after the catch. I thought both looked bad on the Mixon touchdown run, but other that were fine. Quentin Lake subbed in for Rozeboom when the Rams went “dime”and Other than a tough pass interference call wasn’t particularly noticeable.
The Bengals threw 49 passes, mostly short and complted only 53%. All three corners, Derion Kendrick, DeCobie Durant and Ahkello Witherspoon had decent coverage games with a couple of caveats. Cincy took few deep shots, I counted only three passes of more than 10 air yards for the game. But on one of those, Ja’Marr Chase juked Kendrick and had him beat down the sideline. The pass was way off, but it doesn’t change the fact that in each of the Rams first three games, receivers have gotten behind Kendrick. Durant had the silly grab away from the play, it was needless. He is going to have to be more physical with his tackling, diving at runner’s feet without driving through the legs is not going to fly in the NFL.
Overall, it was a good defensive performance. The Rams are making it work on hustle and effort. The group is is not going to win games by being smothering or on big-play turnovers. They can however, when the offense holds up its end, get enough stops to win.
There are facets of the defense that just are not going to change. The soft umbrella coverages will continue unless the opposition goes four and five wide and even then, they are apt to use some hybrid like Cover 6 (splitting the field into Cover4 on one side and Cover2 on the other) instead of a lot of man to man.
The tackling needs to continue to get better, the NFL didn’t charge them with many missed tackles, but again, I counted over 10 times where the first Ram to get to the runner either slid off, only got an arm on the runner, or missed all together.
Quarterback pressure is the driving force behind a successful zone pass defense. L.A. has shown some incremental improvement in that area, but isn’t likely to make some sudden jump in production unless the offense can get them leads, so they can pin their ears back and go. DC Morris may have to go exotic and/or aggressive on blitzes and stunts.
So the Rams sit at 1-2. Losing two close games to teams that last year, played in their respective Conference Championships. With the Rams talent level, close games will be the reality moving forward. Every game is going to be a dog fight. Four weeks ago, even the most optimistic fans conceded this tough season-opening five games would be uphill sledding.
The L.A. defense has went toe-to-toe with the NFL’s #3 (San Francisco 49ers) and #4 (Seattle Seahawks) scoring offenses. Even with Burrow hobbled, the Bengals are a very talented team and are going to win a lot of games in 2023. There is reason for continued optimism.
Nobody likes to lose and moral victories are still counted in the loss column. It would have been great to steal one on the road, but the defense doesn’t shoulder the blame for this loss.