Head coach Sean McVay asked star defensive lineman Aaron Donald if he wanted to return for another title run. Then, as McVay chanted “run it back!” into the microphone, a shirtless Donald told a raucous crowd, "Why not run it back? We could be world champs again."
The bumbling team that showed up to SoFi Stadium on Thursday night didn’t look anywhere near capable of fulfilling those bold proclamations. The Rams underwhelmed their way to a season-opening 31-10 home loss to Buffalo, and it might have been worse had the Bills not gifted them four turnovers.
It’s way too early for the Rams to panic after a single loss, especially to a loaded Buffalo team that was 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC championship game last January and is the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl this season. And yet this lackluster performance exposed foundational cracks that the Rams must fix to have any chance to become the NFL’s first repeat champ in nearly two decades.
“We weren’t ready to go,” McVay said. “I take a lot of pride in that, and that’s on me. I’ve got to do better. There were a lot of decisions I made that I feel like didn’t put our players in good enough spots.”
Any dissection of what went wrong for the Rams on Thursday night must start with an offense that struggled to sustain drives. McVay went conservative on early downs for much of the night, running the ball with only modest success and consistently leaving the Rams in second- or third-and-long.
A revamped Bills defensive line teed off in those situations, sacking Matthew Stafford seven times despite consistently rushing only four men. Von Miller, the All-Pro defensive end who the Bills lured away from the Rams this spring, had two of the biggest sacks, beating offensive tackle Joe Noteboom once on a bull rush and another time around the edge.
“They didn’t rush five really at all tonight,” McVay said. “For them to be able to do that, it’s a real credit to them.”
McVay and several Rams players acknowledged that the crowd noise in their home stadium played a role in their struggles. Throngs of Bills fans in 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' only touchdown. “Once you go 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 way and take away the deep ball. Stafford went 29-for-41 for 240 yards and showed no obvious signs of pain from the elbow injury that bothered him during the offseason, but he also threw three interceptions and struggled to connect with any receivers besides Kupp.
Allen Robinson, the Rams’ prized free agent receiver acquisition, received only a pair of targets, snagging one for a mere 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.
“At the end of the day, there were too many mistakes,” Kupp said. “They forced us to be consistent and sustain drives. I think to a man, offensively, we didn’t do a good enough job.”
One final source of concern for the Rams’ offense was Cam Akers’ vanishing act in the run game. Akers, now a year and a half removed from an Achilles tear that cost him nearly all of last season, came off the bench behind Darryl Henderson and ran the ball just three times without gaining a single yard.
When asked about Akers’ lack of involvement, McVay changed the subject without mentioning him.
“I’d like to get Allen more involved," McVay said. "I’d like to get a lot of guys more involved.”
The Rams’ offensive struggles gave Buffalo a chance to deliver an early knockout blow, but three turnovers kept the Bills from widening their lead. The result was a 10-10 halftime score far closer than it could have been.
The inability of the Rams’ defense to get off the field on third down ultimately proved back-breaking. On one third-and-long play, Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivered a ferocious right-handed stiff arm to defensive back Nick Scott and scrambled for a first down. On another, Allen found time to throw and hit Gabe Davis on a post pattern for 47 yards.
Both those drives resulted in Buffalo touchdowns. Then the Bills added another on third-down conversion, with Allen this time finding Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard TD after the star receiver had gotten well behind Jalen Ramsey.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on third downs,” Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Third downs killed us. We just couldn’t get off the field.”
The Rams’ 21-point margin of defeat was the second largest season-opening loss by a reigning Super Bowl champion. Only the 2013 Baltimore Ravens suffered a worse defeat, a 22-point thumping at the hands of the Denver Broncos in which Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns.
If there’s a silver lining for the Rams, it was how they reacted to the loss postgame. McVay blamed himself for not putting his players in position to succeed. Stafford said he wished he had released the ball earlier on several of the sacks. Wagner said not to point fingers at the offense when the defense didn’t get the job done.
Hollywood sequels seldom live up to the original, but the Rams are determined to keep trying.
“We’re going to fix this,” McVay said. “It was a very humbling night, but hey, you’ve got to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey I’ve got to be better in the framework of 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.”