Rams might have lost edge against Falcons but won on progress

It shouldn’t have come to a nerve-wracking, nerve-wracking finish.

The defending Super Bowl champion Rams had enough lead over the Atlanta Falcons late on Sunday to indicate they would easily even their record 1-1 and rebound strongly after being beaten by the Buffalo Bills in the season opener. Their attack was balanced and productive.

Their defense was solid. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had intercepted two passes, but the Rams had lived on 17 during their championship season. They minimized the damage.

But what should have been a waltz for the Rams resolved in a breath hold that ended in a 31-27 win at SoFi Field. The Falcons beat the Rams 24-10 in a sometimes chaotic second half that ended with a sack by Atlanta quarterback Marcus Mariota at the Falcons 40-yard line.

“That was definitely interesting in the end,” Stafford said, managing to smile, although the Rams shouldn’t have made it quite so dramatic.

After leading 28-3 in the third quarter and leading 31-10 with 12-13 in the fourth quarter, the Rams came perilously close to going into a 2-0 hole and taking on the Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns to join blow considerable leads and lose Sunday. That’s a trend they didn’t have to follow.

“It was definitely tighter than it should be,” said running back Cam Akers. “We shouldn’t have been in this position. We need to finish better. That will be the real test this week.”

As coach Sean McVay told his players in a typically animated post-game speech, the NFL does not award style points. A win is a win is a win. There isn’t an asterisk in the standings to indicate they almost gave the game away or that the 71,802 viewership seemed less than confident the Rams are on course to repeat themselves as champions.

“Can we clean up all this stuff? There’s no doubt about that,” McVay exclaimed. “But never take for granted how difficult it is to win week after week.”

That’s basic coaching language, but he added an important point that could be the most important takeaway the Rams could take from this game. “Don’t let this be anything other than a building block,” he said.

The Rams' Cobie Durant runs after intercepting a pass that was deflected by the hands of the Falcons' Cordarrelle Patterson.

Rams rookie defenseman Cobie Durant runs after intercepting a pass that was deflected by the hands of the Falcons’ Cordarrelle Patterson, 84.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

It’s easy to dwell on their near-breakdown rather than what they did right. You need to clean up your sales. Hold on when they’re in front. Don’t let an opponent wriggle out of his grip. These are things that champions do.

“It comes down to the degree. If we do that, we’re where we want to be,” said Akers, who carried the ball 15 times for 44 yards and caught two passes for 18 yards. “Of course we didn’t finish as well as we wanted today, so we have to go back to the drawing board and put some work into it.”

Ultimately, if they can take that game as a potential jumping-off point for the strengths they showed on Sunday, it will look and feel like a better win than it looked and felt in the late stages.

“I think it’s still early,” said linebacker Bobby Wagner. “I’ve been at it long enough that you have to take wins as you get them. A lot of these things that are happening can be easily fixed, and that’s encouraging.”

The patched up offensive line that allowed Buffalo to sack Stafford seven times in the opening game protected Stafford well enough that he was only sacked once. Perhaps most importantly, the Rams have found new dimensions for their offense.

They led 14-3 before Stafford connected for the first time with Cooper Kupp, who finished with 11 receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns.

They used Ben Skowronek at full-back and took aim at him three times and let Brandon Powell – usually a punt-and-kick returner – carry the ball once and catch it once.

Tight end Tyler Higbee, who had two drops last week and had five catches on 11 targets, was more efficient against Atlanta, catching seven catches for 71 yards on nine targets.

And unlike last week, when they targeted wide receiver Allen Robinson just twice, the Rams put him into the second game of their first possession with a pass he turned into a 15-yard gain. He also caught the short pass that became their first touchdown in the first quarter and had an apparent touchdown recalled due to a medical timeout being called before the snap. He caught four passes, the last receiving being the 500th of his career.

Stafford said he felt comfortable with Robinson the whole time and blamed himself for not getting the ball to him more often against Buffalo.

“He’s going to continue to grow into his role on this offense,” Stafford said. “We will continue to learn from each other.”

Robinson was happy with his engagement on Sunday.

“I felt great. It’s about it, it’s a process of winning and things like that,” he said. “For me, it’s about keeping up every day, getting better, sticking to the game plan and things like that.

“But it feels great. Like I said, that’s the main focus – to get wins, to be able to save, to do my part to the best of my ability and to be the best player I can be.”

They weren’t at their best as a team on Sunday. But by expanding their offense and clinging to victory, they’ve given themselves a chance to build from here. They can’t fumble that away.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/rams/story/2022-09-18/rams-lost-edge-against-falcons-but-win-is-progress Rams might have lost edge against Falcons but won on progress

Emma Bowman

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