Rams’ Puka Nacua another Cooper Kupp? How Chargers’ D is failing

Although the Rams didn’t beat NFC West rivals the San Francisco 49ers, they did put up a good fight in a 30-23 loss. The Chargers, on the other hand, lost another game that they could have easily won with a little play, losing on the road to the Tennessee Titans 27-24 in overtime. Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL columnist Sam Farmer and columnist Bill Plaschke discuss what happened and what lies ahead:

Other than the Rams’ Puka Nacua, no NFL rookie has caught 10 or more passes and had more than 100 receiving yards in each of his first two games. How does he compare to Cooper Kupp when everyone was excited about his rise?

Small: Remember, Cooper Kupp was added to Sean McVay’s first team with the Rams in 2017. Nobody knew what to expect from the players in the young coach’s offense. Kupp, a third-round pick, was the third wheel behind Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. In his first two games he had twelve scores, seven catches and one touchdown. Nacua takes advantage of the opportunity presented by Kupp’s absence and McVay’s playmaking. He has 35 targets and 25 catches in two games.

Farmer: The comparisons between the sinister Puka Nacua and the out-of-nowhere Cooper Kupp are inevitable and justified. Nacua is taking full advantage of his opportunity on a team that really doesn’t have a clear No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. He was targeted 20 times on Sunday, something that has only happened once to Kupp in his career. In his rookie season, Kupp was never targeted more than 11 times in a game. As well as Nacua has played, the jury is still out on whether he is as precise a route runner or has the mastery of concepts and overall offense comparable to Kupp, even in Kupp’s early years.

Plaschke: It’s impossible to watch Puka Nacua without thinking of Cooper Kupp. Robust receiver. Great moves. Lyrical name. The question is, will he disappear when Kupp returns from his leg problems? The guess here is: no. Kupp likely won’t return to his greatness right away, meaning Nacua could be a key factor throughout the season. He’s still available via your fantasy league’s waiver wire? Pick him up. Now!

The Chargers’ offense had its flaws, but was this another failure of the Chargers’ defense considering the Tennessee Titans failed to score a touchdown in their season opener and had not scored more than 16 points in any of their last five games, giving one average of 17.5 points? per game last season and had lost eight in a row?

Small: I’m a little baffled by the Chargers’ defensive woes. That’s Brandon Staley’s strength, they have a few stars and a lot of good players. But remember, the Chargers had the ball first in overtime and Justin Herbert didn’t complete a pass, giving the Titans a chance to win the game.

Müller: It was certainly a failure on both ends for the Chargers. The offense scored a touchdown and two field goals in the final 43 minutes of play, including overtime. The defense needed a stop late in the fourth quarter and again in overtime and failed to get both. Even though Ryan Tannehill was sacked five times, the defense looked accurate a week after throwing three interceptions. Yuck everywhere.

Is Kyren Williams a temporary solution at running back for the Rams considering he couldn’t beat Cam Akers in training camp?

Farmer: These are not the Todd Gurley Rams. The big investment is in Matthew Stafford’s arm. Kyren Williams is versatile enough to get the job done, especially with Sean McVay’s offensive creativity and other players’ involvement in the run game. Williams scored a receiving touchdown on Sunday, something no Rams running back did last season. This is a good start.

Small: In the NFL, all running backs except Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry are temporary solutions. Yes, this is not the Todd Gurley era. I think McVay will definitely use two defenders. Williams is the starter now, but the durability of any running back will be an issue, and he is no exception.

Plaschke: Did you see how much Williams played on Sunday? He was on the field for almost all but a handful of snaps, an unusually high rate for today’s running backs. Although his rushing numbers weren’t high, he has a feel for the goal line and is an important cog in the passing game. Cam Akers is gone, Williams is here, he is the answer, he is the man, he is him.

Was there a noticeable difference in the Chargers’ offensive line minus versatile running back Austin Ekeler?

Müller: The Chargers probably wouldn’t be able to run the ball against the Titans’ defense even if two Austin Ekelers were playing. But not having him meant they didn’t have the most explosive offensive player. Joshua Kelley and Elijah Dotson combined for just two catches out of the backfield. That’s just not enough. I can say this with certainty: the Chargers could have used Ekeler in overtime given the pathetic three-and-out they showed.

Small: Ekeler had 20 touches, including 16 carries, in the season opener against the Dolphins. The Chargers only had 21 total rushing attempts against the Titans. So yes, there was at least a statistical difference.

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley (25) runs for yardage against the Titans.

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley ran 13 times for 39 yards against the Tennessee Titans.

(Wade Payne/Associated Press)

Aaron Donald’s only entry in the Rams’ defensive stats was a quarterback hit. No tackles, no assists. Is there an explainable reason for the lack of production?

Small: Without an experienced wingman like Michael Brockers or A’Shawn Robinson, opponents can use even more to control Donald… at least until younger players prove they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Plaschke: He’s not increasing his tackle numbers because teams are overly focused on him with the arrival of the anonymous and untested defenders around him. Donald is still a force simply because he attracts so much attention and allows budding stars like newcomer Byron Young to shine.

Farmer: Aaron Donald was a threat in the opener in Seattle, and I don’t expect him to have many of those quiet games this season. Obviously, an opposing offensive line’s primary goal is to stop him in particular, and the 49ers have generally done that well over the years. Sure, the Rams don’t have a Leonard Floyd or Von Miller to take full advantage of all the attention Donald is drawing. Regardless, Donald will have his wrecking ball games this season.

The Chargers seemed to play more zone defense against the Titans, but still allowed long passing plays. Do you attribute these failures to physical or mental failure?

Small: I’m not a film expert. But unless a player trips, slips, turns his body the wrong way, or is simply passed by a receiver, it’s likely a mental error by one or more defensive players.

Müller: The two big passing plays were more mental mistakes. After the game, coach Brandon Staley talked about recognizing who on the other team is a big threat. I’m not sure how you can prepare for an opponent all week and still try to figure something like this out on game day. The 49-yard completion to Michael Davis wasn’t a bad defense. Davis was a step behind Chris Moore at the start of the route, but closed at the end and couldn’t stop Tannehill’s excellent throw.

What are your first thoughts after two games of watching the Rams’ Monday Night Football away game against the 0-2 Bengals?

Small: The Rams are 1-1, but they will travel to the Bengals with plenty of confidence after holding on against the 49ers. The good news for the Rams is that Joe Burrow isn’t making any noise yet. The bad news for the Rams is that Joe Burrow will make a splash at some point.

Plaschke: There are rumors that the injured Joe Burrow may not play for the Bengals on Monday night. That means their quarterback would be Jake Browning, who hasn’t inspired fear in defenders since… Without Burrow, and even with a limping Burrow, the Rams will beat the Bengals, prove their legitimacy on national television and begin an improbable journey toward the postseason.

Next up is a battle between 0-2 teams, the Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings. Without looking at the history of how many 0-3 teams end up qualifying for the playoffs, are the Chargers done if they lose?

Müller: I wouldn’t say cooked, but they would be in trouble. In fact, there’s always a lot to worry about with this team. Since Brandon Staley was signed in January 2021, this defense has yet to show true championship-caliber play. The defense dominated late last season against some inferior offenses and quarterbacks, but nothing held up. Unless they figure that out, it won’t make a difference if they’re 1-2 or 0-3 anyway.

Farmer: History isn’t on their side if they lose, but I agree that it’s pretty early to say that the Chargers are finished at 0-3. The teams already had a three-game losing streak and made the playoffs. It’s just that teams that start 0-3 usually do so because they’re bad. The Chargers are not a bad team and they are capable of a long winning streak. You have to look at the quality of their losses. They lost near the end to Miami, one of the best teams in the AFC, and in overtime to Tennessee, historically a really difficult place to play against one of the best-coached teams in the league. No excuses – 0-2 is a deep hole and 0-3 would be miserable, but it’s not the end of the season.

Small: Three games isn’t even a fifth of the season. The Chargers have plenty of time and more than enough talent to get their act together.

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing emma@ustimespost.com.

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