The Los Angeles Rams were built to win right now, with that construction continuing well into the regular season, and they present a formidable opponent for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday's Divisional Round playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.
Since losing Super Bowl LII to Tom Brady's New England Patriots at the end of the 2018 season, Los Angeles had made a series of increasingly bold moves to build a star-powered core under Head Coach Sean McVay. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey came over in a 2019 offseason trade and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was signed as a free agent in 2020. The Rams made the boldest move of the 2021 offseason, sending a pair of first-rounders to the Lions in order to swap quarterback Jared Goff for quarterback Matthew Stafford. During the 2021 season, Los Angeles sent out additional draft picks to get edge rusher Von Miller and snapped up wide receiver Odell Beckham when the Browns let him go.
With stars like defensive tackle Aaron Donald, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and wide receiver Cooper Kupp already in place, these additions give the Rams above-average performers at nearly every position. And while those moves leave the Rams' draft cupboard almost completely dry for the next two years, it has also put them just two games away from making it back to the Super Bowl, this time with what they consider a championship-caliber quarterback at the helm.
Stafford, who just enjoyed his first career playoff win after 12 seasons in Detroit, did indeed transform the Rams' offense as expected. While McVay's offense had been rightfully lauded for how well it schemed its pass-catchers into wide-open spaces in the short and immediate ranges, Stafford's big arm opened up bigger downfield plays as well. Consider that Goff averaged 6.5 air yards per attempt in 2020, his last season in L.A., third-lowest among all quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts that year. Meanwhile Stafford just finished averaging 8.5 air yards per attempt in his Rams debut season, the ninth-highest mark in the league.
The single biggest effect Stafford has had on the Rams was the unlocking of Cooper Kupp's full potential. The fifth-year receiver had been quite good working with Goff, including consecutive 90-catch campaigns in 2019 and 2020. With Stafford, he turned into one of the most prolific pass-catchers in NFL history, finishing the 2021 regular season with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. More on him in the Difference-Makers section below, but Kupp is joined in the Rams' fifth-ranked passing attack by Beckham, emerging young wideout Van Jefferson and high-volume tight end Tyler Higbee.
The Rams' rushing attack finished 25th in the league during the regular season, with just 99.0 yards per game and 4.01 yards per carry, but there's reason to believe that ground game is a much bigger concern for the Buccaneers than those numbers would suggest. The surprising return of 2020 second-round pick Cam Akers from a July Achilles tendon injury in Week 18 looks like a potential game-changer after the Rams ran all over the Cardinals for 140 yards in their breezy Wild Card victory. Sony Michel, yet another trade acquisition this summer, came on very strong at the end of the regular season and the Rams now have a dangerous one-two backfield punch for the playoffs. They run behind the ageless Andrew Whitworth, who stunningly posted one of his better seasons while turning 40 in December. Tom Brady is the only active player in the NFL older than Whitworth, the 16th-year veteran.
The Rams' defense ranked 17th in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed, and the Bucs' offense rang up 441 yards against it in Week Three. But Los Angeles is coming off probably its most dominant defensive performance of the year in their 34-11 thrashing of Arizona last weekend. The Rams held the dynamic Kyler Murray and a good Cardinals offense to 183 total yards, 3.4 yards per play (!) and no third-down conversions in nine attempts. Yardage aside, the Rams had top-eight defensive rankings against the run, in interception and sack percentages and in the red zone.
Donald, as always, is a prime Defensive Player of the Year candidate after getting a team-high 12.5 sacks, and the acquisition of Miller gives the Rams an edge-rushing duo with Floyd that makes opponents pay for the almost obligatory double-teaming of their interior-line demon. Ramsey is the star in the secondary and a chess piece who has been a revelation in the slot this season, in both coverage and run support. He's not the Rams' only standout corner, however, as Darious Williams emerged as a star last year and has overcome some early-season struggles to finish the year strong. The Rams are dealing with some injury issues at safety, however, with Jordan Fuller lost for the year and Taylor Rapp out with a concussion last week. Things were thin enough at the back end to prompt the Rams to re-sign Eric Weddle, who had last played in the NFL in 2019.
The Rams' special teams boast a Pro Bowl kicker in former Buccaneers draft pick Matt Gay, who made 32 of 34 field goals this year, including four of five from beyond 50 yards, and 48 of 49 extra point attempts. Los Angeles has also found a late-season spark in the return game with former practice squad receiver Brandon Powell who, over the last six games of the regular season, averaged 22.2 yards per punt return (with a 61-yard touchdown) and 26.0 yards per kickoff return.
The Buccaneers saw the 2021 Rams at their best all the way back in September. Los Angeles subsequently had some struggles in the season's second half, with Stafford throwing a few too many interceptions, but the team appears to be rounding back into top form at the right time. For them, that is. The Buccaneers will try to stop that ascension on Sunday, avenge that loss from Week Three and earn a second straight trip to the NFC Championship Game. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when the Rams come to town this weekend:
We already explained why Stafford has made a huge difference for the Rams franchise. When the Bucs and Rams met 16 weeks ago we used this section to highlight Kupp, Donald, Ramsey and Whitworth, and it would be perfectly reasonable to repeat that list without alteration. For the sake of variety, and because Los Angeles has such a talented roster, we're switching up two of those picks but can't in good conscious present a Rams Difference-Makers list that doesn't include Pro Bowlers Donald and Kupp.
1. WR Cooper Kupp. We noted Kupp's regular-season numbers above, but let's put them in some historical context. Kupp's 145 catches were the second most in a single season in NFL history, trailing only Michael Thomas's 149 in 2019. Thomas averaged 11.6 yards per catch that year to finish with 1,725 yards; Kupp averaged 13.4 yards per catch to finish with 1,947 yards, the second-most in league annals behind Calvin Johnson's 1,964 in 2012. Kupp's 16 touchdown catches also led the NFL during the regular season. His consistency in 2021 has been equally impressive; Kupp recorded more than 90 receiving yards in 16 of his 17 regular-season outings and never put up fewer than 60, last week's Wild Card game included. The 6-2, 208-pound pass-catcher out of Eastern Washington combines good size with great hands and an incredible ability to separate from defenders. He's a precise route runner who excels on every type of pattern; in fact, NFL Next Gen Stats says he was the only player in the NFL in 2021 to have at least 200 receiving yards on five different types of routes (he also scored on each of those five routes). If Todd Bowles and the Buccaneers choose to blitz Stafford on Sunday, the men in the secondary had better keep an eye on Kupp because Stafford has targeted him on 39% of the drop backs on which he was blitzed in 2021. That's the highest rate for any player in the NFL.
2. DL Aaron Donald. Donald simply never has an off year, or even an off day. His 12.5 sacks in 2021 marked the fifth straight year that he has hit double digits in that category, which is remarkable for a player who primarily rushes from interior spots. After just eight seasons, all of which ended in Pro Bowl berths and seven of which earned him first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors, Donald already is just two shy of 100 sacks in his career. And again, he brings it every single game. According to NGS, Donald has generated multiple quarterback pressures in 52 straight games, more than three times longer than the next-longest active streak. He has had multiple QB pressures in 82 of his last 83 games. What makes Donald practically unfair to play against is that he couples incredible strength with an extremely fast get-off. In 2021, NGS tracked him with an average get-off at the snap of 0.87 seconds, first among all NFL interior defensive linemen. Opposing offensive fronts often want to double-team him, but sometimes he splits those double teams before they can even take effect. Since 2017, Donald has pressured opposing quarterbacks 447 times, 84 more than any other player and 172 more than any other interior defensive linemen.
3. RB Cam Akers. The second-year back just gave us a real-time illustration of why he is a difference-maker for the Rams when he made a surprising return from injured reserve and recorded 90 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches in the Wild Card round. Akers tore an Achilles tendon shortly before the Rams opened training camp, an injury that was assumed to end his season. But Akers returned in Week 18 and, after getting a small handful of touches in Week 18 to get his feet wet returned to an integral role in the Rams' backfield. That's a role he had gradually assumed as his 2020 rookie season wore on, as he rushed for 645 yards and four touchdowns in his last seven outings. A second-round pick in 2020, Akers was considered a candidate to significantly improve upon his college numbers after playing behind a very bad offensive line at Florida State, and that appears to be coming to fruition. The 5-10, 217-pound back is muscular and compact with pile-driving power in his legs. He is good at breaking tackles and bouncing off hits if he's not wrapped up, and once he gets into the open field he has very good instincts and vision.
4. OLB Von Miller. The long-time Bronco has had a stellar career that will probably eventually land him in Canton, but specifically this season he's back to his usual level of play after missing all of 2020 due to a tough ankle injury suffered just before Denver's opener. Miller came back to record 4.5 sacks in seven games for the Broncos in 2021 before being traded to the Rams on November 1 for second and third-round picks. In eight games since he has notched 5.0 more sacks to finish the regular season at 9.5 before adding one more in the Wild Card round. That marks the first time in Miller's career that he's played a full season and not hit double-digits in sacks, though he came awfully close. Overall, he has 123 sacks in 158 career games, postseason included. Miller's prodigious talents made him the second-overall pick in the 2011 draft and he had collected two Pro Bowl berths (out of eight total in his career) and a first-team AP All-Pro selection after just two years. Those talents, which are still on full display, include rare flexibility, burst and speed off the edge and even the power to bull-rush opponents. On the snaps on which he is able to twist and dash past opposing blockers, he accelerates to the quarterback very quickly and is always looking to strip the ball loose.
As noted above, the Rams finished fifth in passing yards in the regular season but were also third-best in yards per pass play. The offensive line, anchored by Whitworth at left tackle, gave Stafford excellent protection, ranking seventh in sacks allowed per pass play. The Rams' offense converts third downs at a 43.9% clip and averages 5.98 yards per snap, both in the NFL's top seven. Unsurprisingly given the presence of Donald, Miller and Floyd, the Los Angeles defense had the NFL's fifth-best sack percentage (8.00%) and was also fifth-best at yards allowed per carry. Five different Rams defenders had multiple interceptions, including four each for Ramsey and Rapp, and overall L.A.'s 19 picks tied for the third-most in the NFL. Here are some other areas in which Los Angeles has excelled in the early part of the 2021 season:
• We mentioned the possibility of Todd Bowles dialing up some blitzes above, but upon further inspection that might not be a great idea. According to STATS LLC, Stafford has been absolutely dominant when facing a blitz. He has thrown 131 passes under those circumstances and completed 93 of them for 14 touchdowns and one interception, while taking eight sacks. Those numbers give the Rams a league-best passer rating of 129.3 when facing a blitz.
• One of the reasons Los Angeles finished eighth in red zone touchdown percentage allowed (51.8%) is that its defense was able to pick off a league-high six passes in that part of the field. Three of those six takeaways occurred after their opponents got into a first-and-goal situation, which was also the most in the NFL.
• Los Angeles is a disciplined team that does not frequently hurt itself with a rash of penalties. The Rams were flagged 76 times during the regular season, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. In particular, L.A. was very good at avoiding one type of penalty that can stall offensive drives and one that can help opposing drives stay alive. The Rams were only called for nine false starts on offense in 2021, the fewest against any team in the league. Los Angeles also drew the fewest defensive pass interference penalties of any team, with just three all year.
• Stafford's big arm and ability to fit passes into tight windows has allowed the Rams to work out of difficult third-down situations much more frequently than most teams. During the regular season L.A.'s offense faced 48 third downs on which they needed 10 or more yards to convert. They were able to move the sticks on 16 of them, a 33.3% success rate that ranked second in the NFL. The league average was 19.5%.
Stafford's 17 picks, plus one thrown by John Wolford, gave the Rams one of the NFL's worst interception rates, at 2.97%. The Rams' offense also averaged only 4.1 yards per carry, good for 25th in the NFL. The Los Angeles defense gave up 241.7 passing yards per game to rank 22nd in the league and was only 21st in third-down defense, at 41.3%. In addition:
• Sony Michel broke off a 35-yard run against the Cardinals last Monday but that was a rare site for the Rams' offense during the regular season. Los Angeles only recorded three runs of 20 or more yards during the season, and only Atlanta (two) had fewer. The league average was 10 per team.
• That somewhat forgiving third-down defense noted above primarily struggled, relative to the rest of the NFL, on trying to stop opponents when they needed three or fewer yards to move the sticks. The Rams faced 64 such attempts and failed to stop 44 of them from being converted. That's an opposing third-and-short success rate of 68.8 that was the fourth-worst in the NFL.
• The Rams' bottom-half ranking in pass defense came to pass in part because they struggled to stop opposing pass-catchers from picking up extra yards after the catch. Los Angeles gave up 2,249 YAC during the regular season, the sixth-most allowed by any defense. That YAC total accounted for 50.2% of the overall passing yards the Rams surrendered, the eighth-highest total against any defense.
• The Los Angeles Rams scored plenty of points in 2021 (27.1 per game to rank seventh) but not often during the final two minutes of either half. L.A. had 17 drives that started after the two-minute warning in either half this season, an average of exactly one per game, but only scored on one of them. That score was a touchdown, resulting in seven total two-minute points, the fourth-lowest total in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Obviously, as noted above, the Rams made one of the most impactful acquisitions of the 2021 offseason with their trade for Matthew Stafford. They were otherwise quiet in free agency but have made several key additions from training camp through the regular season.
1. RB Sony Michel. After losing Akers to his Achilles tendon injury, the Rams responded by sending fifth and sixth-round draft picks to New England to get Michel, a former first-round pick who had 2,292 yards over three seasons with the Patriots. Michel finished his first Rams season on a tear and now makes a good combination in the backfield with Cam Akers.
2. WR Odell Beckham. The eighth-year receiver got his wish when Cleveland cut him loose on November 8. Since that was after the trade deadline, Beckham had to clear waivers before he could sign with another team, but as soon as that happened he quickly entertained a handful of possible landing spots before choosing to team up with Stafford and Kupp. Beckham's receiving numbers for the Rams weren't gaudy during the regular season, with 38.1 yards per game and a 56.3% catch rate when targeted that was just barely higher than his 2021 Cleveland percentage. But he scored five touchdowns in eight games and added another score last Monday in the Wild Card round.
3. OLB Von Miller. We already looked closely at Miller in the Difference-Makers section above, but it's worth noting that the Rams gave up two Day Two picks to essentially "rent" an impact pass rusher for nine games plus the playoffs. The price was steep but Miller has definitely made the Rams' defensive front more difficult to contend with.
1. WR Robert Woods. The timing of the Beckham signing for the Rams proved to be somewhat surreal. The Rams had planned to work Beckham into their rotation with Kupp, Woods and Jefferson, but mere days after Beckham's arrival Woods suffered a torn ACL in a practice and was lost for the season. Woods had three catches for 33 yards in the Week Three Bucs-Rams contest.
2. S Jordan Fuller. The second-year safety started 16 of the Rams' first 17 games but didn't quite make it to the end of the regular season. Fuller suffered an ankle injury in overtime in the team's Week 18 loss to San Francisco and had to be placed on injured reserve. He will not return for any part of the playoffs if the Rams continue to advance. Nick Scott, a seventh-round pick in 2019, made his first career start in Fuller's place in Week 15 and also stepped into the lineup last Monday against the Cardinals.
3. WR DeSean Jackson. The last time the Bucs' saw their former speedy receiver, in their Week Three trip to Los Angeles, he was ripping off a 75-yard touchdown against them, the kind of play that has defined his career. Jackson also had a 40-yard reception in that game and a 68-yarder against Seattle but otherwise never became a big part of the Rams' passing attack. The Bucs won't have to worry about a repeat of Week Three. Los Angeles let him go after seven games and he finished up the balance of the season with the Raiders.