As some Rams fans blame Brett Maher for leaving a potential game-tying seven points on the board in the 24-17 loss to the Steelers, some serious questions need to be asked about what happened on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Though Maher’s two missed field goals from 53 and 51 yards, along with a missed extra point after Tutu Atwell’s touchdown, did contribute to the seven-point gap between the Steelers and the Rams, those misses were far from the reason why the Rams lost the game. The offense was out of sync, Cooper Kupp was uncharacteristically ineffective and despite two touchdowns, the Rams performed even worse than what the scoreline showed. But why?
One would think that the issues would stem from losing Ronnie Rivers and Kyren Williams to IR but backups Darrell Henderson Jr. (who was just signed seven days ago) and Royce Freeman did their jobs well. Combining for 127 rushing yards and a touchdown, they did what they needed to do to emulate the rushing success the Rams have had so far this season.
The reason the Rams struggled was due to two things: an inability to finish promising drives and Matthew Stafford continuously having to make plays on third-and-long. On 10 offensive drives, five in each half, the Rams had only one appearance in the red zone. That is completely unacceptable. In fact, the Rams only crossed Pittsburgh’s 30-yard line on three occasions. Their one trip to the red zone that culminated in a Henderson rushing touchdown, a Stafford prayer that was somehow hauled in by Atwell for a touchdown and the 41-yard made field goal by Maher. Crossing the Pitt 30 directly contributed to all of the Rams’ points.
Why did they only cross the 30 on three occasions? That leads us to the second and main point. The Rams shot themselves in the foot by putting themselves in multiple third-and-long situations. The Rams converted on third down 9 of 16 times. In those seven failed conversions, they had to gain yardage of 14, 5, 29, 4, 9, 3 and 10. On second down before those third down attempts, the Rams passed the ball five times. Three of those passes were incomplete and the other two were a 5-yard completion to Kupp and a 1-yard completion to Puka Nacua. The distance to go when they ran the ball was third-and-4, set up by a Freeman 5-yard run on second down and third-and-3, set up by a 4-yard run by Henderson. Now we’re starting to see a pattern.
Let’s look at the Rams’ nine third-down conversions. The Rams had to gain yardage of 1, 11, 11, 3, 3, 7, 1, 1 and 7. On those nine plays, the Rams ran the ball six times. When the Rams passed the ball, they were left with third-and-11, third-and-7, and third-and-1.
The reason the Rams lost Sunday was the play calling, which falls on Sean McVay. He did not have faith in his backup running backs despite their constant production. His offensive line did its job, the running backs did their job, but McVay didn’t do what he needed to do to put his team in an advantageous position. And it’s actually a bit deeper than that.
See, on the 16 third downs they faced, Stafford dropped back to pass 14 times. He targeted Cooper Kupp only twice. However, on second down, he targeted Kupp four times. All four of those drives led to four failed third down conversions with distances of 14, 5, 29 and 10.
Not only did McVay not run the ball enough on second down despite averaging 4.4 yards per carry, Stafford is sinking back into his old ways of only targeting Cooper Kupp.
The Steelers won today because the Rams’ Super Bowl heroes couldn’t get out of their own way. Despite Puka Nacua’s eight receptions for 154 yards, it is still the Cooper Kupp show as far as Stafford is concerned. This isn’t 2021. That won’t work anymore and until Stafford either changes habits he’s held on to for his entire career, Kupp will still get the bulk of the targets and the Rams will continue to lose.
Defensive coordinators know this, defenses know this and they’ve adjusted. How do I know? Well, for one, the numbers are right here to see, but on Stafford’s only interception on the day, he saw that Alex Highsmith was on Kupp. A clear mismatch for the Steelers. Except, T.J. Watt was also in coverage and read what Stafford saw. How? Stafford stared Kupp down from the snap and in one play, the Steelers made the pick that changed the game and got them the win.
McVay needs to change things up even if it means taking Kupp off of the field. Run the ball and the wins will come pouring back. Your team can do it but are you willing to call it? Only time will tell. Oh, and just to add insult to injury, on Stafford’s lone passing TD, he was actually targeting Kupp but underthrew the ball as he was on the run. The answer is clear. As incredible of a connection that Stafford and Kupp have been, it’s also been the detriment of the Rams in the post-Super Bowl era.