INGLEWOOD – By all appearances, it took the Rams a half Sunday to remember that they were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars, a playoff contender facing a group reduced to playing for next season’s employment.
Eventually the Rams figured it out, exorcising the demons of a three-game losing streak with a 37-7 victory that reinforced one of the age-old tenets of football.
The running game sets up the passing game, right? It may not always be true, and sometimes it even works in reverse. But it followed that order Sunday, with Sony Michel – the feature back with Darrell Henderson Jr. out – running for 121 yards and a first-half touchdown and opening things enough for Matthew Stafford to fire three touchdown passes in the second half and break the game open. Specifically, Michel’s running bought time for Stafford to regain his sharpness.
“When you can kind of get some stuff going, we’re obviously running the ball well. We will get some of that play-action stuff. You’ll get the ball down the field, get a couple of explosives,” said Cooper Kupp, who had eight catches for 129 yards and a score and reached the 100-reception mark for the season.
“That’s kind of been, I guess, the root of what our identity has been for the last five years. If you’re going to try to put your finger on it, it’s being able to run the ball well and get something explosive off that play-action stuff.”
Another indication the Rams were rediscovering some of their identity: They won the turnover battle for the first time in a month, the defense forcing two Jacksonville fumbles and the offense committing none. They do go hand in hand.
Complementary football, commonly, is considered excellence in all three phases, but safety Jalen Ramsey talked of how it also involves one unit maintaining the momentum that another has established.
“The one thing that I know we can improve on … the offense went down and scored in the second half,” he said, referring to Kupp’s 29-yard TD catch for a 23-7 lead a little over three minutes into the third quarter, two plays after a 43-yard Stafford-to-Kupp connection.
“But then you want to come out and get three-and-out or a turnover real quick,” Ramsey added. “That’s like good complementary football. And we got off the field on that drive. But it wasn’t a three-and-out or a turnover. We can still improve on certain stuff like that, just capitalizing on situations during the game so we can take this thing to the next level where we need to take it.”
That was the overriding theme of this game. Cleanse the palate, get rid of that sour taste from those losses to Tennessee, San Francisco and Green Bay, and create some positive momentum for the final five-game stretch that begins next Monday night on the road against division-leader Arizona.
For a while it wasn’t certain that would happen. The Rams were ahead 16-7 at halftime, Stafford was having accuracy issues and there were some not very smart penalties (including a taunting penalty against Ramsey that led to Jacksonville’s early second-quarter touchdown). The mood seemed to resemble that of last December against the Jets, who came to Inglewood 0-13 but were allowed to stay close and wound up shocking the Rams 23-20.
Never mind. By the final four minutes Sunday the lead was comfortable enough that John Woolford was playing quarterback and Mekhi Sargent, recently promoted from the practice squad, was carrying the ball.
Stafford took a vicious shot late in the first half that drew a roughing the passer penalty, but missed one play and later allowed that his sternum “is still in one piece at the moment.” He came out for the second half and looked more like the Stafford we’d seen for most of the first eight games than the one we’d seen the last three.
But keep in mind: These are the 2-10 Jaguars. The truer tests are to come.
“You know, each game is its own entity,” Stafford said. “It’s nice to get a win after, you know, three subpar performances, so I was happy for that for our team. Got a big one coming up next week, obviously, and gotta also find ways to be better.
“You know, we got to stay on the field on third down a couple more times. … We had a couple of third downs where I could throw a little bit better ball. On the first one to Ben (Skowronek, a third-and-11 on the first drive where the receiver was wide open), he’ll tell you he probably wishes he could have made that catch. Had one (misfire) down in the red zone to Van (Jefferson) as well.”
Stafford also had a second-and-6 pass to Skowronek, a rookie from Notre Dame, early in the second quarter that resulted in a 35-yard gain. That was off of play-action, which goes back to the point at the top of the column.
The bottom line, Stafford said, was that there were “opportunities that, you know, didn’t hurt us in this game, but might hurt us in another one. So we got to make sure we clean those up. It’s nice to get a win and be able to clean those things up but continue to focus hard on the little things. And those will make a big difference.”
Could the Rams’ season be riding on it? It is December, and their margin for error has shrunk considerably.
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