INGLEWOOD, Calif. — At the end of their champagne-soaked, confetti-speckled Super Bowl parade last February, the Los Angeles Rams began to look ahead and ponder the possibilities.
Head coach Sean McVay asked star defensive lineman Aaron Donald if he wanted to return for another title run. Then, as McVay chanted “Send him back!” into the microphone, a shirtless Donald said to a raucous crowd, “Why don’t we go back? We could be world champions again.”
The awkward team that showed up at SoFi Stadium on Thursday night didn’t seem capable of fulfilling those bold proclamations at all. The Rams disappointed their way to a 31-10 home loss to Buffalo, and it could have been worse if the Bills hadn’t given them four turnovers.
It’s far too early for the Rams to panic after just one loss, especially against a loaded Buffalo team that was 13 seconds from hosting the AFC Championship game last January and is the betting favorite. to win the Super Bowl this season. And yet, that lackluster performance exposed fundamental cracks the Rams must repair to have a chance at becoming the NFL’s first repeat champion in nearly two decades.
“We weren’t ready to go,” McVay said. “I’m very proud of it, and it’s on me. I have to do better. There were a lot of decisions I made that I felt didn’t place our players well enough.
Any dissection of what went wrong for the Rams on Thursday night has to start with an offense that struggled to sustain practices. McVay remained conservative on early downs for much of the night, running the ball with only modest success and consistently leaving the Rams second or third and long.
A revamped Bills defensive line kicked off in those situations, sacking Matthew Stafford seven times despite consistently rushing just four men. Von Miller, the All-Pro defensive end the Bills lured away from the Rams this spring, had two of the biggest sacks, beating offensive tackle Joe Noteboom once on a scramble and another time on the rim.
“They didn’t really rush five at all tonight,” McVay said. “For them to be able to do this is a real honor for them.”
McVay and several Rams players have acknowledged that crowd noise at their stadium played a role in their struggles. Throngs 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 Rams’ lone touchdown. “Once you switch 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 shade Kupp’s path and take the ball deep. Stafford went 29 for 41 for 240 yards and showed no obvious signs of pain from the elbow injury that bothered him this offseason, but he also threw three interceptions and struggled to connect. with receivers other than Kupp.
Allen Robinson, the Rams’ prized free-agent wide receiver acquisition, received just a pair of targets, catching one for just 12 yards. With Robinson uninvolved, Van Jefferson injured and little depth at wide receiver behind them, Stafford targeted tight end Tyler Higbee 11 times for minimal yardage.
“In the end, there were too many mistakes,” Kupp said. “They forced us to be consistent and to maintain our practices. I think for a man, offensively, we didn’t do a good enough job.
A final cause for concern for the Rams offense was Cam Akers’ disappearing act in the running game. Akers, now a year and a half away from an Achilles tear that cost him most of last season, came off the bench behind Darryl Henderson and ran the ball just three times without gaining a single yard.
Asked about Akers’ lack of involvement, McVay changed the subject without mentioning it.
“I would like to involve Allen more,” McVay said. “I would like to involve more guys.”
The Rams’ offensive struggles gave Buffalo a chance for a quick knockout, but three turnovers prevented the Bills from expanding their lead. The result was a 10-10 halftime score much closer than it could have been.
The Rams defense’s inability to get off the field on third down ultimately proved to be grueling. On a long, third play, Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivered a ferocious stiff right hand arm to defensive back Nick Scott and rushed in for a first down. On another, Allen found time to throw and hit Gabe Davis on a 47-yard post pattern.
Both of those drives resulted in touchdowns at Buffalo. Then the Bills added another in the third conversion, with Allen this time finding Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard touchdown after the star receiver got well behind Jalen Ramsey.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on third downs,” Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Third tries killed us. We just couldn’t leave the field.
The Rams’ 21-point margin of loss was the second-biggest season-opening loss by a defending Super Bowl champion. Only the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 suffered a worse loss, a 22-point loss to the Denver Broncos in which Peyton Manning threw for seven touchdowns.
If there’s a silver lining for the Rams, it’s how they reacted to the postgame loss. McVay blamed himself for not putting his players in a position to succeed. Stafford said he wished he had released the ball earlier on several sacks. Wagner said not to point the finger at the offense when the defense hasn’t done the job.
Hollywood sequels rarely live up to the original, but the Rams are determined to keep trying.
“We’re going to fix this problem,” McVay said. “It was a very humbling night, but hey, you have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I have to be better at my role. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, that’s what our coaches are going to do and that’s what our players are going to do.”
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