INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams dropped their second consecutive preseason game, this time 34-17 to the Las Vegas Raiders.
While I’m still not jumping to full conclusions in the preseason (the preseason), I’m a lot closer to strong hypotheses about certain position groups (cough, the defensive line, cough) and seeing growth in others.
Five developing thoughts from Saturday:
1. We knew this defense could face these types of growing pains. Are fans ready for the ride?
In writing since February about the Rams’ intention to overhaul just one side of their roster, in this case the defense — for the sake of a team that both wanted to keep the majority of its offense intact and clean up its future salary cap in the process — it was easy to forget about one thing: What it could actually look like in action.
There’s no sugar-coating it, this is simply a group that is going to have a lot of bumps as the younger players grow, and progress won’t be linear. I’ll use the first half specifically as an example, because few players in Saturday night’s second half will actually contribute in the regular season barring some sort of injury fiasco.
So, about that first-half group: The defensive line is still a major concern, certainly on passing downs but most glaringly against the run. The Raiders ended the first quarter with eight first downs, half of which were on run plays, and averaged 5.8 yards per carry on their first drive alone. They capped that drive, which featured five all-too-easy runs, with a 7-yard touchdown. The Rams even had inside linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who is the No. 2 on this team, jumping into gaps on run plays and even play-action looks to try to see what works for their defensive line or even helps it, while third-string inside linebacker Jake Hummel often manned the second level. The Rams play a lot of single-linebacker looks in their regular-season defense, so this seemed to be a clear effort to help against the run.
Last week, head coach Sean McVay said that technical work within their gap-and-a-half scheme, such as hand placement and general spatial execution, were the culprits for a porous run defense and that those things are correctible. He said again Saturday night, what he’s most concerned with is whether he can see players take steps in “the right direction.”
So I asked him: Could he?
“I gotta be able to look at the film, to be able to answer that,” he said.
Whiplash to the good stuff: the Rams’ defense tightened up at the end of the first quarter and into the second. Rookie cornerback Tre Tomlinson, who started the game, had an impressive pass breakup deep downfield against receiver Phillip Dorsett II and cornerback Robert Rochell broke up the third-down pass that followed.
Whiplash to the bad stuff: Tomlinson got flagged for an illegal block while trying to cut off a run play. That sent the Raiders, who already had great field position because of a 31-yard punt return, down the field even further.
Coach McVay on Coach Cam for Jake Hummel’s pick-6. 🤣
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) August 20, 2023
Whiplash to the good stuff: The Rams got a coverage sack (Keir Thomas) that helped hold the Raiders to a field goal. Hummel got a pick-six. Defensive lineman Jonah Williams batted a pass that helped the Rams force a turnover on downs. Whiplash to the bad stuff: Their two-minute defense was full of coverage holes and quarterback Brian Hoyer had a ton of time on some of his throws.
You get the idea. As it pertains to their defensive line, specifically, the Rams should keep a close eye on other teams’ cutdowns over the next couple of weeks. It’s OK to be learning and growing, but they won’t have a chance against some of the teams they’ll face over the first part of the season if they keep getting carved up on the ground like this. The Rams believe their offense will keep them competitive in many games, but that won’t matter if a team can so easily go ball-control on them with a decent run game and play keep-away from quarterback Matthew Stafford.
2. Davis Allen has a heck of a debut
Allen, the rookie tight end who the Rams drafted in the fifth round this spring, missed the entirety of training camp with a hamstring issue. Allen just started practicing this week, and was thrown into the mix Saturday night. He absolutely impressed: Allen caught all eight of his targets for 53 yards.
The best of these was a tough 7-yard catch-and-run in the red zone, where it took multiple Raiders defenders to bring Allen to the ground. Allen was plenty tired at that point, after just a few days back on the field, but showed his potential as a yards-after-catch contributor in a high-stakes part of the field.
“Growin’ up as a kid, my dad always said, ‘Don’t let one person take you down,’” said Allen after the game, grinning. “So, I’ve always tried to do that. If I’m gonna go down, I’m taking a lot of people with me. Thankfully it turned out to where I broke a few (tackles) and got a few more yards.
“It felt great to be back. Definitely need to get more into football shape, for sure, but that’s a perfect way to do it.”
Despite spending training camp on the sideline watching practice unfold, Allen said the Rams’ coaches threw a full playbook at him ahead of Saturday’s game. He also showed some intriguing ability as a blocker.
“They threw me right in, threw me right in the fire,” Allen said. “I was very thankful for that. And thankfully, while I was out the only thing I could do was study the playbook. So I didn’t want to be behind at all in that phase. This week, they kind of just … let me go. You know, they watched it a little bit, just coming back from injury. They kind of had to limit my yardage. But they just kind of let me go.”
3. Stetson Bennett giveth, taketh away
The Rams’ rookie backup quarterback, who played all but the second half of the fourth quarter Saturday, continues to hit the NFL learning curve in public — and often must do exactly that, several times per game. Bennett had a shaky opening, including a skipped third-down pass to receiver Tyler Johnson and another incomplete pass on a third down where he threw a high (but catchable) ball to contested receiver Demarcus Robinson and it fell incomplete. Bennett also threw a pick-six almost directly to safety Isaiah Pola-Mao. The ball was supposed to go to Johnson on an in-breaking route, which he ran, but Bennett instead threw to a landmark where an out-breaking route would have been.
“It was completely my fault,” Bennett said, “I thought that he was going to run a different route than he did, and anticipated it. And then he ran the one that was called. I threw the one that wasn’t, and I paid for it.”
And yet Bennett is also capable of making plays the Rams love to see, including a perfect timing throw to rookie receiver Xavier Smith in the second half, who in turn made an outstanding catch.
“They were running man coverage, and he had a seam route,” Bennett said, “I saw his release, checked the safety and just put it there. While it was in the air, I was like, ‘look … look … look …” and he did and it was right there, and he made a heck of a play.”
Bennett, who finished the game 15 of 24 for 142 yards and the interception, also ran in a keeper touchdown to cap an 11-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter. He’s up and he’s down, and that’s to be expected. The Rams have seen him work through a learning curve before, when he went from walk-on to starter at Georgia.
“It’s hard to say exactly when it started to slow down (in college), I think it’s a continuous process,” he said. “All of the sudden, you’re kind of there. And that’s, I guess, what it will be like here. You don’t really know until you arrive, and all we can do is take the next step forward. That’s what I try to do each and every play.”
4. Special teams tackling a work in progress
Not only did the Raiders get a 31-yard punt return, barely saved by punter Ethan Evans pushing the returner out of bounds, but on many of the coverages of Evans’ punts there were at least two missed tackles, by a variety of different players. In fact, missing tackles at the initial contact point seemed more regular an occurrence than not, except when Evans punted a tight shot to the sideline that forced a Raiders returner to tip-toe as he caught it to stay inbounds, before going out of bounds — therefore rendering it unnecessary for the coverage players to tackle the returner.
“I think there’s been a lot of missed tackles,” McVay said, “there’s been a lot of situations, too, where I think you want to give some grace to (what would be) the main 11 guys that we’ve barely been working on that unit, that we anticipate covering punts when we play the Seattle Seahawks on the 10th. I’m not trying to make excuses, but there (are) some real continuity things that we want to continue to tighten down. Even on the one that we gave up last week, there are some very seamless things that we can correct.”
On a positive note, second-year safety Quentin Lake has been a true bright spot on special teams and also while playing dime linebacker — a sub package position that features a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but is separate from their multifaceted “Star” role. Lake had a couple of outstanding tackles, including one on special teams that pinned the Raiders deep in their own territory in the second quarter.
I may be the only one but I found this super interesting from ST coordinator Chase Blackburn. Similar to offense (and now even many defenses), special teams is so much about manipulating space. If Rams can correctly leverage Evans’ big-air punts they have more space to manipulate pic.twitter.com/42xkdWyFbn
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) August 14, 2023
5. Byron Young … penciled-in starter?
I marked down Young as a player to watch in this week’s preseason game after a fantastic week of practice. Turns out, it was indeed productive enough that the Rams surprisingly decided to rest him — also potentially nodding toward his status as a starter. A team spokesman confirmed that Young is not injured.
McVay mentioned after the game that Young was “a little sore” after so heavy a workload in practice and so he made the call to rest him, but this additionally indicates to me that Young is, as of now, penciled in as one of the starting outside linebackers.
Should be mentioned: Third-string running back Ronnie Rivers followed an impressive first preseason game with another strong performance against the Raiders. Rivers cleaved out runs of six, seven and six yards on the Rams’ opening drive and many times when he was substituted, the run game seemed to stall. It’s still unknown whether the Rams will keep three or four running backs on their 53-man roster, and rookie Zach Evans has draft pick status. But Rivers will not go quietly, nor should he.
Did not play: Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell, Puka Nacua, Cam Akers, Tyler Higbee, Coleman Shelton, Brian Allen, Rob Havenstein, Brycen Hopkins, Hunter Long (injured), Ernest Jones, Cobie Durant, Derion Kendrick (injured), Jason Taylor (also missed practice Thursday), Young, Ochaun Mathis (injured).
(Top photo of Davis Allen: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
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