In the first game trying to “run it back”, Rams watch Bills run them into the ground

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – At the close of their champagne-soaked, confetti-speckled Super Bowl parade last February, the Los Angeles Rams began peering into the future and pondering the possibilities.

Head coach Sean McVay asked star defense lineman Aaron Donald if he wanted to return for another title run. Then, as McVay sang, “run it back!” into the microphone, a shirtless Donald said to a rowdy crowd, “Why not turn it back? We can be world champions again.”

The bumbling team that showed up at SoFi Stadium on Thursday night seemed nowhere near able to fulfill those bold proclamations. The Rams couldn’t top their way to a season-opening 31-10 home loss to Buffalo, and it would have been worse if the Bills hadn’t gifted them four turnovers.

It’s way too early for the Rams to panic after a single loss, especially for a fraught Buffalo team that was 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC championship game last January and is the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl this season. to win. And yet this lackluster performance exposed fundamental cracks that the Rams must mend to stand any chance of becoming the NFL’s first repeat champion in nearly two decades.

“We weren’t ready to go yet,” McVay said. “I’m very proud of that, and that’s my fault. I have to do better. There were a lot of decisions I made that I felt didn’t put our players in a good place.”

Any dissection of what went wrong for the Rams on Thursday night must begin with an offense that struggled to sustain drives. McVay went conservative into early downs for much of the night, playing the ball with only modest success and consistently leaving the Rams in second or third place.

A revamped line of defense from Bills began in those situations, with Matthew Stafford being sacked seven times despite only four men rushing consistently. Von Miller, the All-Pro defender lured away from the Rams by the Bills this spring, had two of the biggest blows: beating Joe Noteboom once in a bull rush and another time around the rim.

“They didn’t really rush with five not at all tonight,” said McVay. “For them to be able to do that, it’s a real asset to them.”

It wasn't a fun night for Matthew Stafford (right) and the Rams' attack on the Bills.  (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

It wasn’t a fun night for Matthew Stafford (right) and the Rams’ attack on the Bills. Stafford has been sacked seven times, the most he has suffered since going down ten times in 2018 against the Minnesota Vikings as the Detroit Lions quarterback. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

McVay and several Rams players acknowledged that the noise of the crowd at their home stadium played a part in their struggle. The crowd of Bills fans at SoFi Stadium were so loud at times that the Rams had to resort to a silent count.

“You don’t want to go to a silent count,” said wide receiver and reigning Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, who had 13 catches on 15 targets for 128 yards and the Rams’ only touchdown. “Once you go on a silent count, you lose the advantage of being able to get off the ball offensively.”

Even when Stafford had time to pocket, he produced only sporadic success against a range of Bills zone defenses designed to shadow Kupp’s away and take the deep ball away. Stafford went 29-for-41 for 240 yards and showed no obvious signs of pain from the elbow injury that hindered him during the offseason, but he also threw three interceptions and struggled to make contact with receivers other than Kupp.

Allen Robinson, the esteemed purchase of a free agent receiver from the Rams, received only a few goals, one for just 12 yards. With Robinson uninvolved, Van Jefferson injured and little depth at wide receiver behind them, Stafford aimed 11 times at tight end Tyler Higbee for minimal distance.

“In the end there were too many mistakes,” said Kupp. “They forced us to be consistent and support drivers. I don’t think we did the job well enough for a man offensively.”

A final concern for the Rams’ attack was Cam Akers’ disappearance in the run game. Akers, now a year and a half away from an Achilles tendon that cost him nearly the entire season last season, got off the bench behind Darryl Henderson and ran the ball just three times without gaining a foot.

When asked about Akers’ lack of involvement, McVay changed the subject without mentioning him.

“I’d like to get Allen involved more,” McVay said. “I’d like to get a lot of guys involved more.”

The Rams’ offensive battle gave Buffalo a chance to dish out an early knockout attack, but three turnovers kept the Bills from extending their lead. The result was a 10-10 halftime score much closer than it could have been.

The inability of the Rams defense to move into third of the field ultimately proved debilitating. On a third and long game, Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivered a savage right-handed stiff-arm to defending back Nick Scott and scrambled for a first down. On another, Allen found time to pitch and hit Gabe Davis on a post cartridge for 47 yards.

Both drives resulted in Buffalo touchdowns. Then the bills added another one on conversion from the third down, with Finding all this time Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard TD after the star receiver got way behind Jalen Ramsey.

“We didn’t do well enough on the third downs,” said Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner. “Third downs have killed us. We just didn’t get off the field.”

The Rams’ 21-point loss was the second-biggest season-opening loss for a reigning Super Bowl champion. Only the 2013 Baltimore Ravens suffered a worse loss, a 22-point thump by the Denver Broncos in which Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns.

If there’s a silver lining to the Rams, it was how they reacted to the post-game loss. McVay blamed himself for not putting his players in a position to succeed. Stafford said he wished he had released the ball on several pockets sooner. Wagner said not to point the finger at the offense if the defense hadn’t gotten the job done.

Hollywood sequels rarely match the original, but the Rams are determined to keep trying.

“We’re going to work this out,” McVay said. “It was a very humbling night, but hey, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I need to get better for my role.’ That’s exactly what I’m going to do, that’s what our coaches are going to do and that’s what our players are going to do.”

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