LOS ANGELES — As the loose football wiggled, rolled and hopped around on the green grass in front of him Monday night, Samson Ebukam — who was only a scoop away from a wide-open path to the end zone — heard the commanding voice of his head coach, Sean McVay, repeating one thing:
“Bend your knees, bend your knees, bend your knees,” Ebukam, recalled to Yahoo Sports with a hearty laugh.
You see, after failing to scoop and score in a similar situation in practice Saturday, McVay had explicitly told Ebukam to bend his knees next time as he reeled in the ball, because he would likely score a touchdown if he did.
And in the biggest game of the season, Ebukam — an outside linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams — listened to his coach and he was rewarded with an 11-yard fumble return touchdown that was, amazingly, only the second-most impressive defensive touchdown the 23-year-old would score in their 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
The other was a highlight-reel, no-look pick-six, one that gave the Rams a second-half lead. It ultimately spoke to the overall dynamism of this nationally televised instant classic that both of Ebukam’s touchdowns — the importance of which epitomized the key to winning in The New NFL — still found a way to be a footnote in the highest-scoring football game in the history of “Monday Night Football.”
Oh yes, this barn-burning, college-style shootout featured all the drama and intrigue the NFL could ask for in a prime-time showdown. Referee consternation? Check (21 combined penalties for 195 yards). A revenge element? You bet, as Rams cornerback Marcus Peters squared off against his old team. And don’t forget, all the touchdowns (14), yards (1,001) and points (105) you can ask for.
This is the game that epitomizes The New NFL, folks. This is now the league where two elite, 9-1 squads can team up to punt only seven times in 28 possessions. This is where a second-year wunderkind at quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) can throw for 478 yards, a Monday night record six touchdowns and lose. This is where the only way for defenders who have been crippled by the NFL’s rule changes to get stops against an elite offense is to not only create turnovers, but score points, too.
That’s why Ebukam’s two scores were so important. On a night when both offenses moved up and down the field with ease, the only recourse for both defenses was to create turnovers. And at the end of the contest, the Rams not only won the turnover battle 5-2, their defense also accounted for 14 points, compared to seven for the Chiefs … who ended up losing by three points.
Afterward, Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers smiled broadly about the win, and shrugged his shoulders at the ridiculous 546 yards his unit surrendered in victory.
“Man, we know [that’s how it is],” Brockers said with a laugh. “The rules are skewed to the offense. We know we can’t touch ‘em past 2 yards. If you’ve got a hand on ‘em, it’s holding. So hey, we know the deal.
“I do feel bad defensively, yeah, I feel bad. But the league, that’s what they want.”
Viewers of Monday night’s game certainly weren’t complaining, and the defenders who played in it — as least the ones on the winning side — weren’t, either.
“Man, I just really want to go home and watch it,” Brockers said with a laugh. “It’s a little stressful to be in it, but to watch a great game like that, with two teams going at it until the final second, man, that’s a game that football is begging for.”
But there’s another reality of The New NFL, as the offenses are now so entertaining, they can relegate the type of bad officiating that would have taken over the narrative of this game only five years ago to an afterthought, not only nationally, but in the losing team’s locker room.
The first half of the NFL’s latest version of a super fight was marred by a disproportionate amount of penalties that were called against the Chiefs, who were flagged for nine penalties — not including a few that were declined — before the Rams were called for their first. There were also some missed calls against the Rams and some brutal ones against the Chiefs, like receiver Tyreek Hill being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for using a celebration he’s done in games for over two years.
“Too many penalties — a lot of penalties in the first quarter,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I don’t know about all those, but they called them.”
That was as close as the Chiefs really came to placing the blame elsewhere. Despite the lack of discipline and dubious calls that led to 13 penalties and 135 yards — compared to eight and 60 yards for the Rams — several Chiefs pointed out that they led multiple times in the end, and the failure to make those leads lay with themselves alone.
“Because we ought to know what we’re capable of,” Hill explained. “The sky is the limit for this team and we gave them 21 points [off turnovers]. We’ve got to do a better job taking care of the ball. And that’s on everybody.”
Hill’s words were parroted by multiple Chiefs, including tight end Travis Kelce, defensive end Allen Bailey and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, all of whom stated that they were annoyed with their own inability to finish, and not at the officials.
It’s really something, considering there was no shortage of consternation on social media over the way the “all-star” crew of refs, which the NFL compiled specifically for this game, called it.
“I find that stuff kind of funny, people that hate on the refs,” Schwartz said. “They’re out here trying to do the job to the best of their ability, and if they don’t, they have repercussions. It’s not like they’re out here favoring one team over the other.
“If [the Rams] make two less big plays, the whole game’s different.”
A handful of players from a Chiefs defense that surrendered 455 yards even mentioned after the game that if they’d created a few more turnovers — they failed to intercept Rams quarterback Jared Goff once, compared to Mahomes’ three picks — the outcome would have been different. It was, to be sure, an indication that even they understand the score in today’s era of high-powered NFL offenses.
“The defenses scored at least three or four times tonight, right?” Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford asked. “So we’ve just got to score a couple more times on defense.”
The Rams certainly know the value of that. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips stresses turnovers with drills in practice, and McVay’s eye for detail in that area in Saturday’s practice directly led to one of Ebukam’s defensive scores.
And fittingly, in the solitude of the locker room afterward, Ebukam was beaming, the way only a newly minted hero who delivered for his team in a playoff-like atmosphere could. Like his teammate Brockers, he couldn’t care less how easy the Chiefs’ offense had made it look against them for much of the night, as long as they came away with the win.
“A dub is a dub man, we’ll take a dub any day — I don’t care what the point total is,” Ebukam said emphatically. “We won. That’s all I know.”
Ebukam then admitted that he knew players might not have felt the same way even five years ago, let alone 20, when defenses had more of a chance. But this is The New NFL, where defenses have little recourse against highly efficient, uber-deadly spread offenses, other than to create turnovers and score.
And if you had any doubt about that, all you have to do is ask him what his two touchdowns Monday night would have been worth for a player in yesterday’s NFL.
“Seven sacks,” Ebukam told Yahoo Sports, with a smile and a shrug. “The single-game NFL sack record.”
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