Rodrigue: The Rams are showing who they think they are — and now they must keep growing

SEATTLE — Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has never had a good poker face, and neither have his teams.

They’re always pretty good at showing their work, for better or for worse. In Sunday’s 30-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks, they showed the outside world exactly what they’ve been doing in practices over the last four months.

The top item on McVay’s agenda, when overhauling half of his roster and coaching staff, was to re-introduce a brand of toughness and physicality into a group that limped painfully through the 2022 season. He made practices tougher. Drives in team drills went from three- and four-play sequences before a rotation, to 12- and 15-play drives that his players hated, but also kind of loved in a sick way. With his coaching staff, he put some teeth back into his offensive operation, activating more blocking surfaces with 12 personnel concepts and beefier offensive linemen. He installed a run game that now features hit-you-in-the-mouth gap concepts as well as their mid and outside zone.

They all got tougher together. Then they showed their work: Three of the Rams’ touchdown drives were at least 10 plays or longer, including a 16-play gut-buster that smothered 9:13 off the clock in the first quarter. The Rams had the ball for 39:23 to Seattle’s 20:37, a year after they went three-and-out at the fifth-highest rate of any team in the NFL.

“There was a grittiness, there was a toughness, there was a resilience on display from this team,” said McVay, his voice cracking very slightly. “And I loved it.”

Their run game could not be called “explosive” on Sunday, at 2.3 yards per carry. No, but it was something else, something a little more brutal than it used to be. Second-year running back Kyren Williams scored twice, and starter Cam Akers added a touchdown of his own — and they carried the ball through just about every gap and around the outside of them, too, including for eight first downs.

“They sprinkled in a little bit of 12 personnel, they ran a lot more gap scheme,” said Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was a team captain for the Rams in 2022 before returning to his longtime team this spring. “Pullers, things of that nature.”

Many in the outside world saw Matthew Stafford as a quarterback passed up by time, and injury, and a partial-rebuild. Those at the facility every day saw a slimmer (read: more agile), healthier Stafford who won’t admit he had a little fire in his belly about those outside opinions, but practiced like he did.

“Outside world” was re-introduced to Stafford’s real world on Sunday afternoon. There’s a little bit of a darkness to the way Stafford plays, when he’s feeling right. A throw he made to up-and-coming rookie receiver Puka Nacua, who he targeted a team-high 15 times, was a reminder: A plane-bending concept toward the sideline that capitalizes on a “blind” defender, and depends on pure timing and trust and a quarterback who can throw with velocity and still sink the ball into the arms of his receiver like a pitcher with a specialized fastball.

“Well shoot, I was getting stuff out of a weird look and I had an out-breaking route,” said Nacua, who chuckled with glee through his entire interview. “I knew when we had a motion and the defender kind of lost me, it was like ‘Oh, shoot, I’m gonna kind of run wide open,’ … I turn around, and the defender is on me. Look up, and the ball is already in there. It was so perfect, because the defender is running blind, trying to chase me down and kind of in a panic. I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Never had to change stride again, it was just so perfect because with a blind defender and Matthew Stafford throwing the ball, that’s the dream you ask for. Like, ‘Oh, shoot. If he’s not looking and No. 9 is throwing the ball, I gotta come down with that every time.’ I can’t wait to call my mom and tell her.”

His receivers said postgame that they didn’t view Sunday’s game as an “a-ha” moment with Stafford or a reaffirmation of his health; he’s been this guy in practice every day. They are correct, and they would know. Sunday, they got the ball like how they have gotten it all through August: minus star Cooper Kupp (who missed multiple weeks of camp with an ongoing hamstring issue), plus 119 yards apiece for Nacua and third- year receiver Tutu Atwell. Stafford threw for 334 yards with no interceptions, and targeted seven players.

Atwell had a little message for the outside world, too. Last week, he told me in the Rams’ locker room that the people who have believed in him the entire way would see something, and so would those who have not.

“I’m quite sure they see,” he said Sunday after the game. “But we’re going to stay humble and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and get ready for next week.”

Stafford was also kept clean by an offensive line that featured, from left to right, Alaric Jackson, Steve Avila, Coleman Shelton, Joe Noteboom and Rob Havenstein. The offensive line gave up just six pressures in pass protection, according to TruMedia, two quarterback hits and no sacks. Stafford ran a sneak and also had a 9-yard keeper.

On paper and to the outside world, the Rams’ overhauled defense looked to be in for a really tough 2023 season. They still might be, at times — heck, it’s one game — but they also showed how much they are learning along the way and how, in those grueling practices each day, they just went to work.

Well, first a couple of them taped a certain football analytics company’s defensive rankings, which had them dead last in 2023, to their lockers. Then they went to work. While the touchdown catch the defense gave up to D.K. Metcalf was an easy toss-and-catch in which Metcalf beat second-year cornerback Derion Kendrick, the latter also prevented a touchdown and otherwise held Seattle to field goals. In the first half, their edges against outside runs were mushy, they didn’t get much pressure on quarterback Geno Smith and Kenneth Walker averaged 5.9 yards per carry. In the second half, the Rams pitched a points-shutout and held the Seahawks to 12 net yards.

“Things didn’t always go perfect in the first half,” McVay said, “and these guys just stayed steady. They were even-keeled, they just continued to pick one another up. I love the way that we handled the ebbs and flows of the game, which is exactly what occurs in football. … I’m so proud of this team, I’m so proud of this group. It was awesome to be able so see a lot of the work that they’ve put in come to fruition.”

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Kyren Williams scored two touchdowns Sunday for the Rams. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

McVay knows that the outside world largely believed the Rams would be pushovers this season, that they were “tanking” or viewing 2023 as a lost season. He knows that, when he has reiterated his belief in the growth potential of this team at the very least, people have looked at him like he’s insane. He remembers the last time he was in Seattle — the gray rain, the gray feeling of being lost and reeling, his team crumbling around him, uncertainty over whether he’d even return to coaching.

Sunday, McVay seemed to show how he felt about all of it with one specific call: A fourth-and-1 at the goal line, a run play called for Akers and a touchdown. The Rams had the lead at that time, but chose no safe points via field goal. Guts instead, in the sunlight.

“Normally I would have gone for a field goal, is that what you’re saying?” he quipped — a dry recognition of his own past conservatism with those types of calls. “Yeah. I thought it was confidence in the players’ ability to execute that play. And they did it.”

The next part gets harder. As the Rams showed their work, they also showed their potential. Now the bar moves again.

“It’s one game, and they know that,” McVay said. “We’ve got to continue to keep it rolling.”

Progress won’t likely be linear — growth rarely is. They have to stay healthy. They have to keep learning. They’ll take some lumps, sure.

But they also showed they’re not going to quit.

(Top photo of Matthew Stafford: Steven Bisig / USA Today)

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