NFL: Can the Rams handle a tough schedule, the Chargers the running game?
The Chargers rose to No. 1 in the AFC West thanks to their road victory over the Eagles and the Raiders’ loss to the Giants. The Rams are further behind the NFC West Cardinals, and half of their remaining eight games are in the division. Moderated by Los Angeles NFL Times editor Athan Atsales, writer to Rams drummer Gary Klein, writer to Chargers drummer Jeff Miller and NFL writer Sam Farmer discuss their future:
Besides a home date with the Jaguars, the Rams have a tough schedule for the rest of the way. Considering they’ve already lost to the Cardinals, it’s like they’re currently two games behind Arizona. What do you think are the odds that their only way to make the playoffs is as a wild card team?
Farmer: This is what it looks like now, but remember, we’re only halfway through the season. A lot can – and will – happen by then. Sean McVay had never lost to Arizona until this season, and while the Cardinals will host the Rams when they meet in December, it’s really tough to brush off a division opponent. Basically this next Rams-Cardinals game is huge.
Klein: I’m still waiting for the Cardinals to be the Cardinals, but Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and – Colt McCoy? – don’t let that happen. If the Cardinals keep up their pace, the Rams are considering a playoff replacement route. But like Sam says, all kinds of crazy things are probably going to happen by the end of the regular season. You can’t rule out the possibility that the Rams will win NFC West.
Considering Justin Herbert is the fifth quarterback in nine games this season to complete over 80% of his passes against the Eagles – joining Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Derek Carr – are you still encouraged by the improvement? Chargers in attack?
Farmer: First of all, the Chargers beat the team that was on their schedule. They won a game they were supposed to win and made it in the Eastern Time Zone, which is no small feat. Of course, they will face tougher defenses than Philadelphia. Justin Herbert will be fine. The Chargers should be more worried about their own inability to stop the race.
Miller: But what happened on Sunday is what will happen when the defenses line up and play their system against Herbert without trying to be terribly misleading. This guy is too good not to force him to diagnose what is going on as well. The most encouraging thing about the Chargers’ performance was how well their protection plan worked. The offensive line played better, Herbert was quick to get rid of the ball and they used rollouts and bootlegs to get it moving with a bit of space.
Klein: With Justin Herbert, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, there is much to be encouraged. Don’t we always look forward to a Super Bowl Rams-Chargers at SoFi Stadium?
The Titans really attacked and knocked down the Rams’ center of the offensive line, a quarterback’s worst nightmare. Has a weak point been exposed?
Klein: Time will tell us. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, in particular, made it very difficult for Rams center Brian Allen and guards David Edwards and Austin Corbett. You know that upcoming and possible playoff opponents will look at the Titans’ plan and try to emulate it. But some of the blame against the Titans rests squarely on Stafford. In some cases, he held the ball too long.
Farmer: It was definitely a problem against the Titans, and Jeffery Simmons looked like Aaron Donald with those three sacks in the first half. The Titans did a lot of stunts and twists to create these opportunities. It’s unclear if the 49ers can be as effective as they’ve been soft in the middle so far. Arik Armstead might give them some problems, but he’s definitely more of a natural defensive end, and San Francisco is nowhere near as solid on the inside as Tennessee. But yes, the Rams need to do a better job of blocking on the inside, and Matthew Stafford needs to get the ball out of his hand faster. He recognized it after the game, and he’s more likely now to check down in those pressure situations.
The Chargers had said they needed help catching passes past Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Herbert connected with nine receivers this week, but LA averaged just 3.3 per rushing rush for 89 yards. Which run-pass balance do you think works best for the Chargers?
Farmer: The Chargers need to reliably get those tough yards. That 98-yard drive on Sunday, when they were stranded at the Philadelphia goal line, set the tone and potentially mind-crushing.
Miller: Still, coach Brandon Staley said he was happy with the game on the floor on Sunday, noting that the Chargers were able to throw the ball when it mattered most – in their last decisive practice. This team shouldn’t be aiming for a 50/50 balance, not with Justin Herbert at quarterback. As long as the Chargers can throw the ball into the red zone and into the fourth quarter, I think Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi can work with that.
The Rams will next face the division’s rival 49ers on the road in “Monday Night Football,” a clash that always feels like a chess match between LA’s Sean McVay and SF’s Kyle Shanahan. The Rams also end the regular season against the Niners. What is usually the challenge when facing the Shanahan 49ers?
Klein: McVay came under Shanahan, so maybe there’s this student teacher dynamic that comes to his mind. Everyone is jumping on Jimmy Garoppolo’s case, but when he’s healthy enough he seems to perform very well against the Rams, sometimes in spectacular fashion. And Shanahan and his team usually find a comeback under the radar to perplex the Rams and create opportunities for tight end George Kittle. Then there’s 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, a one-man demolition crew against the Rams.
Farmer: The 49ers did a good job establishing the run against the Rams, and obviously that sets up the passing game. Tight end George Kittle is back for San Francisco after missing a month with a calf injury. He wasn’t at full speed on Sunday, but he likely will be for Monday night’s game. Deebo Samuel, the 49ers’ answer to Cooper Kupp, is treating a calf injury himself, but is also getting back on track. In the absence of those two, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk stepped up his game – people were expecting him – so the 49ers should be fully stocked for their showdown against the Rams. San Francisco is catching up to its pace in this regard.
The Chargers’ defense continued to fight the run, with the Eagles rushing for 176 yards and an average of 4.5 per carry. Now LA faces the Vikings and a much better back to Dalvin Cook, who has run 17 times for 110 yards against a strong defense from the Ravens this week. How do you see the Chargers aligning with Minnesota?
Farmer: Difficult clash for the Chargers in this regard. Dalvin Cook picked up speed and ran 110 yards against Baltimore on Sunday. The Chargers were trampled by Baltimore a few weeks ago, and before that they gave up 161 ground to Nick Chubb in a shootout win over Cleveland. The Chargers have given up more rushing yards than anyone (1,293) and are allowing an NFL-high 5.0 yards per carry.
Miller: The running defense has improved over the past two games, which isn’t to say it’s no longer a problem. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts skewed the stats a bit on Sunday by continuously releasing himself on loose plays. But those meters also matter. I would expect Cook to have a big game against the Chargers, but quarterback Kirk Cousins is the Viking who will have to make the winning plays.
Klein: The Rams face off against the Vikings on Boxing Day, so I’ll watch how the Chargers fare against Dalvin Cook. Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes to say “the stats are for the losers.” OK, I understand what he is saying in some cases. A team that is still in the lead is likely going to give up too many passing yards that might not really reflect how well the secondary is playing. But when you look at the Chargers versus the run numbers, it’s hard to say they need to improve significantly.