SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Matthew Stafford took a shotgun snap, dropped back to pass and flicked a quick screen toward Cooper Kupp in the right flat. When San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga jumped the route, corralled the ball in stride after a couple of bobbles and raced 52 yards for a touchdown, the Los Angeles Rams were experiencing a Monday Night Meltdown of the ghastliest order.
Who could have seen it coming?
Well — in reference to the pass intended for Kupp — pretty much everyone.
Less than eight months removed from winning the Super Bowl on their home field, Sean McVay’s Rams have become more predictable than “House of the Dragon.” In Monday’s 24-9 defeat against the 49ers, who’d looked so lifeless eight nights earlier in Denver, the Rams threw the ball 48 times. Nineteen of those throws went in the direction of Kupp, who caught 14 passes for 122 yards. Another 14 were intended for tight end Tyler Higbee (10 catches, 73 yards).
Hufanga, with 6:27 remaining in a one-score game, might have been guessing when he broke in Kupp’s direction, but at that point it was a very educated guess. Kupp is a great player and Higbee has developed into one of the league’s better tight ends, but fixating on two targets roughly two-thirds of the time the ball is thrown isn’t a recipe for success. And given that Stafford was sacked seven times, it’s likely that Kupp’s targets would have reached 20-something territory had the Rams’ beleaguered offensive line been better able to protect the QB.
When fans near the tunnel scream for Stafford to throw them his wristbands after games, they should brace themselves for the distinct possibility that he’ll toss those Kupp’s way, too.
What’s going on here? Do Stafford and McVay have Kupp on their fantasy teams? Do the Rams not have other potential pass-catchers on their roster?
Well, they have one guy who’s supposed to catch a lot of balls: wide receiver Allen Robinson, who was signed by the team to a three-year, $46.5 million free-agent contract last March. In four games, Robinson has nine receptions for 95 yards. By comparison, Ben Skowronek — a 2021 seventh-round pick who makes less than $1 million per season — has 12 catches for 140 yards.
Robinson’s failure to get open on some routes has played a part in his status as a virtual afterthought. Yet McVay’s job is to help scheme him open, and clearly the coach isn’t doing enough to make that happen. Stafford obviously is at fault, too, given that he has successfully delivered nearly as many balls to opposing defenders (his six interceptions are the most in the NFL through four weeks) as he has to his nominal No. 2 receiver.
The Rams, who rank dead last in the NFL with 16 explosive plays (runs of 10 or more yards or receptions of 20 or more yards), clearly need to fix this if they want to make another run at the Super Bowl, or even sniff one. They could theoretically get some juice from the return of third-year receiver Van Jefferson, who had two offseason knee surgeries and is eligible to come off injured reserve after the Rams’ Week 7 bye.
Speaking of knee surgeries, L.A. would get a huge lift from the potential return of Odell Beckham Jr., who played a major role in the Rams’ postseason success before his ACL gave out four minutes before halftime of their Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Beckham, a free agent, is biding his time while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. McVay has said the team wants him back, but if it comes down to a bidding war, the Rams may have a hard time landing him.
In the meantime, the Rams — who, at 2-2, are mired in a four-way NFC West gridlock — have to find their way despite a shaky offensive line undone by injuries and the retirement of left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
There’s another notable absence that isn’t talked about as much.
Veteran wide receiver Robert Woods, who joined the Rams shortly after McVay’s arrival in 2017, was gifted to the Tennessee Titans last March for a sixth-round draft pick after the team essentially chose Robinson over him. Woods, who tore his ACL in practice the day after Beckham was signed last November, played a pivotal part in the Rams’ attack that wasn’t always obvious to outside observers.
Woods’ shiftiness, aptitude for blocking and attention to detail helped him serve as the perfect complement to Kupp. Robinson is not as strong as Woods in those areas, and he doesn’t have the pure speed that former Rams deep threat Brandin Cooks possessed.
That said, Robinson obviously has a skill set: During the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he caught a combined 200 passes for 2,397 yards while playing for the Chicago Bears — a franchise not known for stellar quarterback play. It’s up to McVay and Stafford to figure out how to access and nurture those skills.
Their first order of business is to diversify an attack that isn’t fooling anybody. After Monday’s game, Hufanga was asked to describe what he saw before his interception and replied, “Screens are like … you can smell a rat when it comes to those things. Very quick to the flat; they had been doing it all night trying to get it to Kupp. Honestly, I think I read it too fast almost.”
If the Rams offense remains in this current state, he won’t be the last to do so.
He went to Jared
After the first of Stafford’s two fourth-quarter turnovers Monday night, former Niners (and Seattle Seahawks and kinda Tampa Bay Buccaneers) cornerback Richard Sherman — now with Amazon Prime and The Volume — tweeted, “Cannot tell me Stafford is playing better than Goff right now” and urged skeptics to check the numbers. That riled up a lot of Rams fans who had scapegoated Jared Goff since his (and the Rams’) underwhelming performance in a Super Bowl LIII defeat to the Patriots and heralded Stafford as a savior after the Rams’ blockbuster trade for the longtime Lions QB after the 2020 season.
Given that Stafford quarterbacked the Rams to the Super Bowl last year, the trade (which sent two first-round picks, a third-round selection and Goff to Detroit) was, by definition, a home run.
The thing is, Sherman is not wrong.
Goff, who took the high road before and after the Rams’ triumph last February, is quietly having a prolific 2022 campaign, though it hasn’t been enough to overcome the league’s worst defense.
The Lions (1-3) are averaging 35.0 points per game — a number which, if it held for the entire season, would tie them for third in league history. The only problem is, they’re allowing 35.3 points per game; only five teams have fared worse over a full NFL campaign.
Coming off a 48-45 defeat to Seattle, Goff — despite the absence of No. 1 receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, enticing first-round pick Jameson Williams and top running back D’Andre Swift — completed 26 of 39 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. On the season, he’s completing 60.9% of his passes for 1,126 yards, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating is 99.9.
Stafford, meanwhile, has an 81.4 rating, having completed 70.7% of his passes for 1,015 yards, with four touchdowns and six interceptions. The turnovers have been a problem since the second half of last season. Stafford threw 13 interceptions in the Rams’ final nine regular season games — and three in their final two postseason games, including a pair to the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. Had then-Niners safety Jaquiski Tartt held onto a Stafford meatball in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, we’d likely be having a much different conversation about all of this.
Tartt dropped the ball, however, and Stafford hoisted a Lombardi and got trashed at a parade, and the Rams certainly aren’t complaining about any of it. As for Goff? I touched base with him on the phone Tuesday, and the quarterback feels like he’s in a good place, excited by the Lions’ potential and by the strategic acumen of new offensive coordinator and play-caller Ben Johnson.
“He’s done a good job getting everybody ready to play every week,” Goff said. “The plan is very clear, and very concise. There isn’t any grey area, really. It’s just up to us to go out and execute.
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of mistakes. We’ve had a lot of really dumb penalties, and dumb plays on my part, decisions on plays down the field I’d like to take back. To be honest, our play hasn’t been up to our expectations yet. I think we can get there.”
Why can’t Drew Lock get on the field for the Seahawks? It has something to do with this: Geno Smith — the mostly forgotten veteran who won the competition to replace Russell Wilson — is completing 77.3% of his passes.
That’s not a typo; his 77.3-percent rate is the best over the season’s first four games for any quarterback in NFL history, and it’s the fourth-best for a QB during any four-game stretch.
Lots of people saw this coming. Suuurreeee they did.
After Seattle’s victory over Wilson and the Broncos in the Monday Night Football opener, Smith told ESPN’s Lisa Salters, “They wrote me off. I ain’t write back, though.” When I brought that up to 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw, he laughed and said, “I wonder who he was talking to. Was he talking to his team? Because his own team tried to write him off.”
The 49ers defense is allowing 3.81 yards per play. If that figure were to stand up for the entire season, it would be the NFL’s stingiest since 1977. On Sunday, San Francisco faces the Carolina Panthers, who rank dead last in the league in offense. I’ll be there in Charlotte, ready for the clash we’ve all been demanding.
What could go right?
That’s lovely that Bill Belichcik is seizing the moral high ground on protecting players from concussions, saying he has removed players from games when they don’t seem to be functioning properly, even if they’ve been medically cleared. How noble — and yet, I can’t be the only one who still believes a certain New England Patriots wide receiver played the last 11 minutes of Super Bowl XLIX while concussed?
We all know Bill would never abuse the rules to try to win a game, right? Also, my old friend Ted Johnson levied some serious charges against his former coach in 2007, saying Belichick had gone against the advice of the team’s top trainer and forced Johnson to endure hard practice collisions while recovering from a concussion.
On a more heartwarming note, it seems that when my family members and I got caught up in Croatia’s stirring run to the 2018 World Cup final, the Belichick household was even more revved up.
Luka Modric forever.