Head coach Sean McVay asked star defensive lineman Aaron Donald if he wanted to come back for another title run. Then, as McVay chanted “run it back!” into the microphone, a shirtless Donald told a raucous crowd, “Why not run it back? We could be world champions again.”
The scrappy team that showed up to SoFi Stadium on Thursday night didn’t look at all incapable of living up to those bold proclamations. The Rams pressed their way to season opener 31-10 home loss to Buffaloand perhaps it would have been worse if the Bills had not given them four turnovers.
It’s too soon for the Rams to panic after a single loss, especially to a loaded Buffalo team that was 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC championship game last January and is the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl this season. And yet this lackluster performance exposed fundamental cracks that the Rams must fix to have any chance of becoming the NFL’s first repeat champion in nearly two decades.
“We weren’t ready to go,” McVay said. “I’m very proud of that, and that’s on me. I have to do better. There were a lot of decisions I made that I feel like I didn’t put our players in good enough spots.”
Any dissection of what went wrong for the Rams on Thursday night has to start with an offense that struggled to sustain drives. McVay went conservative on early downs for much of the night, running the ball with only modest success and consistently trailing the Rams on second- or third-and-long.
A reorganized Bills defensive line took off in those situations, sacking Matthew Stafford seven times despite consistently rushing only four men. Von Miller, the All-Pro defensive end who the Bills lured away from the Rams this spring, had two of the biggest sacks, hitting offensive tackle Joe Noteboom once on a bull rush and another time around the edge.
“They didn’t rush five really altogether tonight,” McVay said. “For them to be able to do that, it’s a real credit to them.”
McVay and several Rams players acknowledged that the crowd noise in their home stadium played a role in their struggles. Crowds of Bills fans at SoFi Stadium were so loud at times that the Rams had to resort to a silent count.
“You don’t want to go to a silent count,” said wide receiver and reigning Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, who had 13 catches on 15 targets for 128 yards and the The only Rams touchdown. “Once you go to a silent count, you lose the advantage offensively to be able to get off the ball.”
Even when Stafford had time to throw in the pocket, he produced only sporadic success against an array of Bills zone defenses designed to shadow Kupp’s route and take away the deep ball. Stafford went 29-for-41 for 240 yards and showed no obvious signs of pain from the elbow injury that bothered him during the offseason, but he also threw three interceptions and struggled to connect with any receivers besides Kupp.
Allen Robinson, the Rams’ prized free agent receiver acquisition, got just a pair of targets, getting one for just 12 yards. With Robinson not involved, Van Jefferson injured and little depth at wide receiver behind them, Stafford targeted tight end Tyler Higbee 11 times for minimal yardage.
“At the end of the day, there were too many mistakes,” Kupp said. “They forced us to be consistent and keep driving. I think to a man, offensively, we didn’t do a good enough job.”
One final source of concern for the Rams’ offense was Cam Akers’ disappearing act in the run game. Akers, now a year and a half removed from an Achilles tear that cost him nearly all of last season, came off the bench behind Darryl Henderson and ran the ball just three times without gaining a single yard.
When asked about Akers’ lack of involvement, McVay changed the subject without mentioning him.
“I’d like to get Allen more involved,” McVay said. “I’d like to get a lot of guys involved more.”
The Rams’ offensive struggles gave Buffalo a chance to deliver an early knockout blow, but three turnovers kept the Bills from extending their lead. The result was a 10-10 half time score much closer than it could have been.
The inability of the Rams’ defense to get off the field on third down ultimately backfired. On one third-and-long play, Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivered a ferocious right-handed stiff arm to defensive back Nick Scott and scrambled for a first down. On another, Allen found time to throw and hit Gabe Davis on a post pattern for 47 yards.
Both of those drives resulted in Buffalo touchdowns. Then the Bills added another on a third-down conversion, with Allen this time finding Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard TD after the star receiver got good behind Jalen Ramsey.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on third downs,” Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Third downs killed us. We just couldn’t get off the field.”
The Rams’ 21-point margin of defeat was the second-largest early season loss by a reigning Super Bowl champion. Only the 2013 Baltimore Ravens suffered a worse defeat, a 22-point beating at the hands of the Denver Broncos in which Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns.
If there is a silver lining for the Rams, it was how they reacted to the postgame loss. McVay blamed himself for not putting his players in position to succeed. Stafford said he wished he had released the ball earlier on several of the sacks. Wagner said not to point fingers at the offense when the defense didn’t get the job done.
Hollywood sequels rarely live up to the original, but the Rams are determined to keep trying.
“We’re going to fix this,” McVay said. “It was a very humbling night, but hey, you’ve got to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to be better for my role.’ That’s exactly what I’m going to do, that’s what our coaches will do and that’s what our players will do.”