Nobody could catch DeSean Jackson. Early in the third quarter against the Buccaneers, the veteran Rams wideout dusted a pair of Tampa Bay defenders before skipping into the end zone on a 75-yard touchdown catch, then disappeared into a SoFi Stadium tunnel. As Jackson circled back, though, someone finally did catch him—Los Angeles coach Sean McVay, who’d sprinted up the sideline to beat Jackson’s teammates to join the celebration.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it,” McVay said of his scamper. “I was being in the moment and having fun, enjoying watching these guys do their thing. There was a lot of reasons to be excited for our team today.”
.@budlight | #BudLightCelly pic.twitter.com/P5NkDmUURy— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 26, 2021
Beating the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in a convincing 34-24 win is just cause for celebration. The Rams delivered the most emphatic statement of the NFL’s young season, dominating a squad many consider to be the league’s best, and did so despite coming off a practice week in which McVay missed a day because of an illness.
The Rams’ passion, evident throughout the game, suggests they understand the significance of Sunday’s outcome. Their sideline was all smiles as their offense landed haymaker after haymaker on Tampa Bay’s vaunted-but-injury-depleted defense. Their defense chirped as it hurried Tom Brady and frustrated Rob Gronkowski all afternoon. The win lifts L.A. to 3-0 and validates the team as a legitimate Super Bowl contender—even if the players and coaches won’t say so.
“If you said, ‘Hey, who were the teams who were 3-0 last year or previous years?’ I bet you really couldn’t remember,” McVay said. “There’s so many football games to go ahead. We have to have steady improvement.”
Matthew Stafford dramatically introduced himself in his Rams debut. He finished Sunday with another monster statline: 27-for-38, 343 yards, and four TDs (plus an impressive 0.46 estimated points added per play). But it took a bit longer to get going against Tampa Bay’s defense, which forced L.A. to punt on its two opening series as Stafford couldn’t connect with receivers Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Van Jefferson on a handful of throws. Getting Tyler Higbee involved on tight end screens and within the short passing game helped the offense settle, and Stafford hit Kupp and Higbee on a pair of short TD passes to give L.A. a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
But the Rams offense wanted to land a major blow. Twice in the first half, Jackson—another offseason addition—got behind the Bucs secondary, and both times, Stafford underthrew him. (For what it’s worth, the second throw was affected by 347-pound Vita Vea barreling into him.) Three plays into the third quarter, Jackson breached Tampa Bay’s secondary again, and Stafford dropped a perfect throw to the speedster. It was a testament to patience on multiple fronts. Jackson—who entered Sunday with two catches for 21 yards through two games—recently held a discussion with McVay about his role, and the coach explained he’d find a way to get him the ball. Stafford had to stick with it after missing on previous tries, too, even with Vea closing in as he released the throw.
“I missed him on a couple,” Stafford said. “So I was glad to make one of them count. It was a big play for us.”
Entering Sunday, the Rams expressed respect for Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. McVay mentioned that Bowles’s scheme is difficult to manage because of his aggressive game plans, which feature heavy blitz usage and effective man coverage. But as Tampa Bay suffered personnel losses, the Rams took advantage. Already without starting pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, the Bucs lost cornerback Jamel Dean after a knee injury in the first half. L.A. found ways to get Kupp matched up on his replacement, Dee Delaney, in several spots. Kupp finished with nine catches, 96 yards, and two scores; he enters Monday night tied for the most receptions (25) and leading the league in receiving yards (367) and touchdowns (five).
“We didn’t change up our plan as much as it was continuing to attack, continuing to be aggressors,” Kupp said.
Two other key factors helped the Rams be aggressive offensively. Their offensive line continued its strong start to the season, stymieing the Bucs pass rush (Tampa Bay generated eight total pressures, per Pro Football Focus) and not allowing a sack until midway through the fourth quarter. According to PFF, Stafford had been pressured on 20.3 percent of his dropbacks through two games this season—he hasn’t been pressured on less than 25 percent of his dropbacks in a single season since 2011 (24.1 percent).
The second reason for L.A.’s aggression was the play of its defense, which provided crucial possessions. Through two games under defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, the unit seemed to be regressing from a juggernaut last year into a bend-but-don’t-break outfit this year. The Bears and Colts found some success moving the ball against the Rams. The idea of facing a Bucs offense at the heart of a record-setting stretch didn’t bode well. However, L.A.’s defense was sturdy on Sunday, forcing Tampa Bay to punt on its first three possessions.
The Rams defensive front, led by linebacker Kenny Young, shut down the Bucs run game; Brady finished as their leading rusher with 14 yards. Aaron Donald registered a strip-sack of Brady along with four total pressures. Ramsey got in Brady’s face as he was deployed on four blitzes, and blocked a field goal. Gronkowski suffered a rib injury, but returned to the game. The Bucs passing game couldn’t find success against the Rams’ secondary, and Brady was sacked three times. L.A. ultimately allowed just 17 meaningful offensive points; the Bucs added a garbage-time touchdown with 1:10 left in the fourth quarter.
“I think we did our job overall as far as making [Brady] frustrated, pressuring him, making him feel us to the point where he’s not able to step up and make certain throws,” Donald said. “Guys on the back end did a great job.”
As the Rams defense reveled in its success, it took even more joy in setting up the offense. Donald explained that “it’s a whole lot of fun” to watch Stafford lead the Rams’ passing game. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year even gave Stafford a hug after the win, telling the QB he loves him.
“It’s a whole lot better than when he used to be chasing me, so I’ll take it,” Stafford said. “Those hugs are a whole lot better than the old ones. I’m just trying to be myself. I’m lucky to be in a locker room with guys like that.”
One reporter asked if Stafford has ever played with so many great players. Stafford said he didn’t want to “rehash” his Detroit years; “I just know that I feel grateful to step in the huddle with the guys that I have, both the guys up front that are playing at the level that they’re playing at right now and the guys around me in the skilled positions.” Stafford won’t explicitly say it, but L.A. is the most talented and well-coached team he’s played for in his career. And because of that, he’s equipped to help steamroll the NFL’s defending champion. The Rams have benefited from the partnership thus far, too.
“I think he’s just seamlessly accommodated himself or really acclimated himself to being in our building,” McVay said. “His teammates love him. His coaches love him. And he just goes about his business.”
The Rams’ performances raise the question of what their potential is. But the team isn’t ready to start thinking about the Lombardi Trophy. “There’s a lot of growth that we have to do,” Kupp said, thoughtfully. “By no means do we measure ourselves against anyone except for our guys in our room.”
There is tangible buy-in from the Rams. Players aim for perfection but maintain an understanding that mistakes are a part of the process. That’s a mind-set instilled by McVay that’s manifested in his players. It’s why L.A. managed to get things clicking on offense Sunday after a slow start. It’s why there’s so much passion on the Rams sideline during games and why they have so much fun. The attitude is something that Donald prizes.
“Everybody’s always having fun together,” Donald said. “And last time I had a team like that, we went to the Super Bowl.”
There’s still plenty of time for the NFL season to take shape and even more before the playoff picture comes into focus. Still, from a distance, the Rams look the part.