Two things can be true. It absolutely sucks that the Rams lost their ninth regular season game to the rival Niners, (there was that playoff game in between) but the way in which they lost can bode well for the future.
The Niners are one of a handful of teams that are pegged to go on a deep playoff run and possibly (vomit) win the Super Bowl so when matched up with a team whose expectations were lower than the box office grosses for “Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken”, it stood to reason that they’d easily cover their seven-point spread.
Sure, the Rams had a little juice coming off a smackdown of the Seahawks but it’s the NINERS. A team whose coach is referred to by one name like he was Seal or McLovin. That’s not what ended up happening as it took Sean McVay kicking a field goal to make a back door cover happen. So sure, the Rams lost 30-23 but the game was even closer than that. Again, it always sucks to lose but there were some good things to come out of Rams vs. 49ers- Round 1.
Biggest Takeaways From Rams Vs. 49ers
Puka and Tutu Are For Real
Puka Nacua became the toast of week one because no one knew who the hell he was and yet led both the Rams and Seahawks in receptions and yards. Typically when this happens and someone gets snatched off the waiver wire like a Turbo Man doll on Christmas Eve, the player in question has four catches and 17 yards.
Not Puka, instead he and his damaged oblique caught 15 catches for 147 yards against the vaunted Niners D. He broke the record for yards and receptions by a rookie in their first two games and leads the league in catches. He’s only behind Justin Jefferson in yards. Not bad for a fifth-round rookie Michael Lombardi couldn’t be bothered to research before the season. Furthermore, he endeared himself to fans by being a damn good blocker sealing off-edge rushers so Kyren Williams (more on him later) can go up the middle.
Tutu Atwell also had 7 catches for 77 yards which isn’t as good as his performance in week one but it’s still impressive considering the tight windows and punishment. They easily had the most receiving yards with Tyler Higbee‘s 12 receiving yards being the third most.
The big shocker in all of this is how Puka and Tutu have overtaken Van Jefferson who was slotted to EAT with Cooper Kupp on IR and yet, he’s even more irrelevant on the offense than he’s ever been. Ben Skowronek was more productive than Van and was only targeted twice. Nobody had that on their bingo cards. Not even IllumiRami oracles Jourdan Rodrigue, Jake Ellenbogen, and Ryan Dyrud. When Kupp comes back (week 5ish) the Rams will have their best-receiving trio in years. If the running game can continue to get better, the offensive rebuild is streets ahead of schedule.
Kyren Williams is the Feature Back Now
Coming into the season Cam Akers was pegged to have a big comeback season. It made sense right? He finished the 2022 season on a high note and it seemed at least that whatever beef he and McVay had was squashed or at the very least ignored. He’s in a contract year and no one else in the backfield has demonstrated that they could usurp meaningful carries from Akers.
Then, week one happened and second-year Kyren Williams became a touchdown vulture and took two scores from Akers (he’d get one at the end). He was splitting carries with Akers and it looked like the Rams were building a one-two punch. Not the case! On game day, it was announced that Akers was a healthy scratch for reasons unknown.
It turns out that Akers crawled right back into McVay’s doghouse for the final time. This might seem like a redux of all the drama from last year except that Kyren Williams slipped in so seamlessly that fans already have mentally dropped him off at LAX. He not only had 14 carries for 52 yards and a TD but also had 6 catches for 48 yards. If not for one major error (more on that later) he would’ve had an incredible coming-out party.
The stats are great but like Puka and Tutu, it’s about seeing it. He fought for every yard he got and was even effective in pass protection. The Rams now have a running back they can lean on and if they can integrate Ronnie Rivers more they’ll have the one-two punch they’ve been chasing since having to part with Todd Gurley.
The Offensive Line is For Real
Much like the above, last week was hard to gauge because it’s Week 1. The Niners were a much bigger test for the Rams and the line passed the test. They only allowed one sack and didn’t start allowing pressures until Joe Noteboom left the game with a shoulder injury. The Niners had to increase their number of rushers as the game went on because the offense was absolutely humming.
Even when they got to Matthew Stafford he was able to evade rushers and extend plays. The Rams led the game in passing yards 297 to 206, 28 first downs to 21, converted 50% of their third downs, and only punted twice. They controlled the clock 33:11-26:49. Until the fourth quarter, the Rams controlled the trenches and ran more plays. Again, that starts upfront and they neutralized Nick Bosa. Also, Steve Avila is an absolute MAULER!
The Defense is Getting Better
Despite the fact that Pittsburgh has a much better defense, the Rams were better at slowing down KYLE’s offense. Yes, Christian McCaffrey still notched 116 yards and a touchdown, yes Deebo Samuel was able to take advantage of the open field, and yes Brock Purdy played a clean game, but they had to work for all of it.
The Rams secondary did a decent job keeping the Niners receivers from getting over 100 yards and kept them out of the end zone. They contained George Kittle, and they forced the Niners to punt four times. They made stops on third down which seemed inconceivable a year ago.
Ernest Jones once again led the team in tackle, rookie Byron Young registered a sack, and the defense showed a lot more diversity in its coverages, using 3-4 44% of the time. Unfortunately, their youth and inexperience bit them in the end. They allowed a touchdown at the end of the first half due to Derion Kendrick getting two awful penalties and their defensive line couldn’t win the battle at the goal line.
Deebo’s touchdown was a product of many a missed tackle by the Rams and McCaffrey’s 52-yard run was a result of Michael Hoecht and others missing tackles as well. That said, on that drive, they rallied and held the Niners to a field goal.
The defense got lucky that Purdy was limited throwing deep as there were multiple big plays the Rams got away with because Purdy couldn’t get the ball there. They gave the Niners everything they had and eventually, the Niners talent won out. The Rams need more horses upfront but right now they’re getting by on grit and good coaching. They still haven’t registered a turnover and Aaron Donald is still getting triple-teamed with no one else being able to generate consistent pressure.
Wisdom’s a Gift the Rams Traded for Youth
The aforementioned young talent was great yesterday, HOWEVER, that youth and inexperience cost the Rams the game. The game turned on Stafford’s first interception which was a one-handed grab by Isaiah Oliver. That pick was caused by Kyren Williams not catching a ball and Oliver taking advantage of a great bounce. Kyren should’ve had that one and it came as the Rams were driving down the field.
Brycen Hopkins had a costly penalty on their opening drive, eventually forcing them to settle for a field goal. Kendrick not only had two devastating penalties but he routinely got burned to the point where he can now be labeled a liability. Tutu missed a route and that led to Stafford getting an intentional grounding penalty that neutralized a promising drive.
Tremayne Anchrum also struggled at guard when he had to step in with Noteboom being hurt. Puka had a massive drop on a fourth-quarter third down and Van Jefferson ran a very poor route resulting in Stafford’s game-killing second pick.
Even Sean McVay’s youth came out again because despite the play-calling being absolutely on point for the first half he went away from the running game in the second half. Perhaps it was because he didn’t trust the blocking post Noteboom or he panicked, but it put Stafford in some bad spots. Also, for reasons that remain unknown, he didn’t challenge a possible Deebo fumble that could’ve turned the tide a bit. Yes, they still stopped the Niners on that drive but the field position could’ve allowed the Rams to score a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The Rams did everything they could against the Niners and if not for some self-inflicted wounds and the Niners talent taking advantage of those errors the Rams could’ve pulled off the upset. The talent chasm is still wide but Rams are only going to get better as the year goes on.
This game was a massive test that they largely passed and that bodes well for the immediate and long-term future. This team no longer can use a winning record as the ceiling but a wild card spot is absolutely possible. Next week poses a primetime challenge against a hobbled Bengals team and if they pull that one off then they’ll no longer be a pleasant surprise but a team to be taken seriously.