How the Rams match up
Rams (2-0) vs. Chargers (1-1)
When Rams have the ball
In each of the first two weeks of the season, Sean McVay unveiled a new wrinkle to the offense. First it was every starting receiver carrying the ball on fly sweeps. Last week, it was tight ends finally getting involved. So what’s next? McVay is maxing out all of the Rams’ many threats. The Chargers’ secondary is aggressive with cornerback Casey Hayward and talented rookie safety Derwin James. But after connecting with Brandin Cooks on a deep pass down the middle against the Arizona Cardinals, Rams quarterback Jared Goff almost certainly will continue to look for deep strikes, and not just limit them to the speedy Cooks. The offensive line has to control Chargers edge-rusher Melvin Ingram, but it caught a break with Joey Bosa sidelined because of injury. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley must try to do what every Rams opponent is tasked with: controlling running back Todd Gurley. The reigning NFL offensive player of the year has yet to break loose for a huge game. He still leads the NFL in scoring with 28 points. Gurley is a threat to reach the end zone as a ballcarrier or receiver — and McVay showed last week against the Cardinals that Gurley also could be “weapon-ized” for two-point conversions.
When Chargers have the ball
The Rams’ star-studded defensive line, featuring Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers, has been frustrated a bit because Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford got rid of the ball so quickly. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, in his 15th NFL season, can operate in a similar manner but is more apt to hold on to the ball longer to make a play. That’s good and bad news for a Rams defense coming off a shutout. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safeties John Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner will be tested by Chargers receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The Rams controlled Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and Cardinals running back David Johnson. Now they must do the same against Melvin Gordon. The fourth-year pro has a team-best 15 receptions, and Austin Ekeler also is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. With interior linemen and inside linebackers stuffing the run, the Rams have been getting pressure from outside linebackers Samson Ebukam, who had a sack against the Cardinals, and Dominique Easley, who has forced offensive tackles to commit holding penalties.
When they kick
The Rams showed the ability to adjust after kicker Greg Zuerlein suffered a groin injury during pregame warmups last week. Punter Johnny Hekker stepped in and kicked a field goal and the Rams converted three two-point conversions. The Rams re-signed kicker Sam Ficken, who filled in for Zuerlein down the stretch last season. Kick returner JoJo Natson took the place of injured Pro Bowl selection Pharoh Cooper and returned a punt 60 yards. The Chargers’ kicking game was erratic in 2017, but Caleb Sturgis has made three of four field-goal attempts this season.
Gary Klein’s prediction
The Chargers are a more formidable matchup than the Raiders or the Cardinals, but that won’t matter against a Rams team that is playing with confidence as one of the Super Bowl favorites. The offense is clicking, the defense is coming off a dominant effort and special teams showed they can thrive despite injuries to two Pro Bowl players.
RAMS 34, CHARGERS 17
How the Chargers match up
When Chargers have the ball
After punting on their first possession last week, the Chargers scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives at Buffalo to blow open the game early. Then they did nearly nothing the rest of the way, producing only a fourth-quarter field goal. They likely wouldn’t survive such an extended lull against the Rams. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler have given the Chargers a formidable tandem in the backfield, the two averaging more than five yards a carry and combining for 23 receptions and four of the team’s seven touchdowns. The Chargers’ hope is to control the time of possession and thus limit the opportunities for Jared Goff and his weapons. In order to do that, however, they’ll have to improve on third down; they converted only six of 20 chances through the first two games. Just four teams have been worse on third down so far. The Chargers also would love to continue to get tight ends Virgil Green and Antonio Gates involved in the passing game in order to help offset the Rams’ pass rush. But Green, whose reputation is built on his ability to block, might be needed more to help protect quarterback Philip Rivers and Gates has been slowed in recent days by an illness.
When Rams have the ball
The Chargers have a collection of concerns on defense, not the least of which is dealing with the varying speeds at which the Rams operate. When the tempo quickens, cornerback Casey Hayward explained, it makes identifying what the Rams are running more difficult. That results in a need to, as he put it, “just survive the down.” Hayward’s suggested remedy is to simply force the Rams to play slower, something that, of course, isn’t likely to be simple. The Chargers also have been aggressive in their praise of Goff, whom they last saw up close in the 2017 preseason. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Goff’s improvement over the last year has been glaring, specifically noting his accuracy, poise and willingness to squeeze passes into tight spaces if that’s what’s required. Having Gordon on their side, the Chargers are familiar with watching a versatile back who can run and catch like Todd Gurley can. Several Chargers likened the Rams’ offense to that of the Kansas City Chiefs, a perhaps troubling comparison seeing how much the Chargers struggled defensively in their opener, a 38-28 loss to those Chiefs.
When they kick
Caleb Sturgis is three for four on field goals and four for four on extra points, and so far has mostly blended in among his new Chargers teammates. Ho-hum and all, this has to be considered progress since the Chargers struggled mightily kicking the ball last season, especially early on. Sturgis’ lone miss came on a somewhat desperate 48-yarder late in the loss to Kansas City. Punter Drew Kaser also mostly has done what’s expected of him, although the Chargers did permit one of his efforts against the Chiefs to be returned for a touchdown.
Jeff Miller’s prediction
The Chargers were seven-point underdogs right from the start and remained so throughout the week. In Rivers’ career, though, they’re 11-3 against the spread in such situations, according to ESPN. This suggests the score will be close, and so does the explosive ability of both of these offenses. If the Chargers can block Aaron Donald just a little bit, they should be able to move the ball against a defense that hasn’t allowed a point since the second quarter of Week 1. But that won’t be enough.