ATLANTA — Coming into Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams had lost three straight games and the inside lane on a return to the Super Bowl. They left Atlanta with their mojo regained, thanks to the impressive trifecta of a blowout win, a viral wrestling move by their defensive rock and the in-week addition of one of the finest cornerbacks in the game.
The Rams notched only one win in the standings from Sunday’s 37-10 annihilation of the Falcons, but it felt like much more than that. Jalen Ramsey, a Ram for all of five days, brought the secondary a swagger it hadn’t had in weeks, if not months. Ramsey joined Los Angeles in exchange for two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder, and immediately proved why it cost so much to pry him out of Jacksonville. After all, not everybody could take a month off in the middle of the season and match up with Julio Jones on his first play from scrimmage.
Ramsey entered the game on the Rams’ third defensive snap, mouthguard dangling — as it always does — from his facemask. (It’s easier to talk clear, unimpeded trash that way.) From that play right on through the end of the game, he and Jones jabbed at each other on every snap, and when the Falcons weren’t able to convert on third down — which happened nine times out of 12 this game — Ramsey would hop-skip back to the Los Angeles sideline, jawing all the way at the Falcons sideline in general and Jones in particular.
It was an impressive performance for Ramsey given that the team wasn’t sure what condition he’d be in after a month-long layoff. He’d cited illness, the birth of his child and a back injury as reasons why he couldn’t play for Jacksonville in Weeks 4-6. He sure seemed game-ready on Sunday, whether he was checking Jones at the line or diving to punch the ball out of Devonta Freeman’s hands.
“I don’t think you can say enough about his ability to digest the game plan,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. “He’s kept himself in good shape … I think it’s just a credit to our defensive coaches and then Jalen’s ability to really demonstrate what a smart, cerebral player he is in addition to an elite skill set. To be able to come in on such short notice, with such short practice time and to be able to play the way that he did, it was a big boost to our team for sure.”
Granted, Ramsey wasn’t flawless on the day. He gave up a huge 39-yard play to Jones in the waning moments of the first half. The Rams simplified their defensive schemes to account for Ramsey, but they also took advantage of his skills to let him do what he does best — throw a blanket over the other team’s top receiver.
“Our coaches did a good job as far as, like, making it easy for him,” fellow cornerback Troy Hill said. “We kept talking to him. Communication was big out there. I felt like we gelled out there.”
“I feel like I played OK,” Ramsey said. “I got to get in my groove a little bit more. There’s maybe one, maybe two plays that I wanted to have back or play a little bit different … I want to know my safeties and know the guys I’m out with. I really trusted them a lot.”
Ramsey specializes in an in-your-face man-to-man defense that neutralizes an opponent’s best asset. He has been the ultimate shutdown cornerback since his days at Florida State, where he was the first true freshman to start at corner since a guy by the name of Deion. He edges up to the line, right in the receiver’s face, and cocks his arms like he’s about to get in the ring. And then it’s on.
“He doesn’t shy away from anybody, any challenge, any receiver,” safety Eric Weddle said. “You don’t know how his body is going to react. We had limited role for him, I just talked to him … just so he can play fast. It was fun.”
The Rams defense held Ryan to 16 completions, 159 yards and a 60.6 rating, all season lows. Ryan was one of the lone standouts of this miserable Falcons season, and the Rams took even that away from Atlanta.
“It was a full team effort,” Ramsey said. “We played sticky defense, sticky coverage, and a lot of man. I only had a couple of days to prepare so I really appreciate the guys going with their game plan because it wasn’t the best for them.”
You have to grade Sunday’s performance on a curve because the Falcons are just a horrendous ballclub, a red-and-black trash fire. Still, Jared Goff looked poised, Todd Gurley snared a beauty of a receiving touchdown, the defense knocked Ryan out of the game, and the special teams’ relentlessness added an elbow-drop touchdown in the game’s final seconds.
“Bringing Jalen on the team, having him match up against their best receiver, it completed us in the secondary,” cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said. “That’s a commend to him, coming in cold turkey, coming into [defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips’] schemes — they’re not the easiest scheme because you’ve got a lot to learn — to have him come and do what he did today, it just shows good signs for the future.”
There’s a bit of nice circularity in Sunday’s blowout, if you’re into that sort of thing: it was in this very building, eight months and 17 days ago, that the Rams got their spine, their spirit and their soul crushed in the Super Bowl. You could argue that the team hasn’t recovered from the Patriots beatdown; Goff has looked ordinary, and Gurley hasn’t even hit the level that made him a star. The offense’s efficiency has fallen from No. 2 last year to No. 17 this year, per Football Outsiders. Thanks to losses against Seattle and San Francisco, Los Angeles is already a distant third in the race for the NFC West.
There’s no doubt Sunday injected some life into this team. Granted, there’s only so much Ramsey can do on the field — he can’t help Goff make better decisions in the pocket, for instance. But he brings a presence that radiates throughout the secondary. That corner of the Rams’ locker room already sounds like they’re ready to run through walls for Ramsey.
“Obviously he’s the best corner in the league. We just helped him with a little bit of coverage. A player like him can hop in and just do his thing,” safety Marqui Christian said. “When you got a guy like him, that’s one half of the field locked down.”
The rest of the locker room was as relaxed as you’ll see in pro sports, laughter and trash-talking at every turn. High on the list of did-you-see’s: Aaron Donald’s Darth Vader-style hoisting of Freeman during a scuffle. More than one Rams player could be seen wiggling his fingers like a baby caught in the grip of a parent. Those are the kind of SportsCenter highlights you don’t mind seeing on a loop.
This could mark the start of a run back to the postseason for Los Angeles. With all due respect to Cincinnati, Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Rams won’t face another elite-level quarterback for another four weeks, until Baltimore comes to town in late November. By then, Ramsey will be fully integrated into the Rams defense.
“This is what we can do,” Weddle said. “We just hadn’t been able to do it … I don’t know our ceiling, I just want to keep doing this.”
Ramsey wasn’t in trash-talk mode after the game, but he did offer up one final bit of commentary that ought to chill opposing quarterbacks: “If I was really in my groove, like on my [stuff], it would really be scary out there,” he smiled. “I’ll put it that way.”
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