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Rams

Tyler Higbee keeps the Rams’ offense marching with career day against Cardinals

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee prepares to make one of his seven catches against the Arizona Cardinals.
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee prepares to make one of his seven catches against the Arizona Cardinals. Higbee finished with a career-high 107 receiving yards.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Jared Goff had no trouble identifying tight end Tyler Higbee’s best catch on Sunday afternoon.

Over the course of Higbee’s career-high, seven-grab, 107-yard display in the Rams’ 34-7 rout of the Arizona Cardinals, Goff had plenty to choose from.

  • The checkdown that Higbee turned into a 26-yard gain with a stiff-arm along the sideline.
  • The perfectly executed crossing route that freed Higbee from defenders for a 25-yard, third-down conversion.
  • The play-action bootleg near the goal line that Higbee hauled in for a two-yard touchdown.

The quarterback, however, went in a different direction.

“What was his best catch?” Goff asked rhetorically. “The one on the sideline.”

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That moment came on a first-and-10 during the Rams’ second drive. With the ball on Arizona’s 46-yard-line, Higbee burst off the end of the offensive line and broke to his right on a deep corner route. He found a soft spot in the Cardinals secondary, and Goff hit him near the sideline. With an explosive leap and exquisite footwork, Higbee stretched his 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame into the air and tapped his toes down inbounds.

“All the other ones,” Goff joked, “were easy.”

That’s the way Higbee made them look, at least, serving as a key cog for a Rams offense that rediscovered its motor even without fellow tight end Gerald Everett or offensive lineman Rob Havenstein, both of whom missed the game with knee injuries.

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After Higbee spent most of the season — productionwise, anyway — in the background, his signature day could signal a bigger role for him in the future.

“He just made plays,” coach Sean McVay said of Higbee. “Capitalizing on his opportunities.”

When the Rams signed Higbee to a four-year, $31-million ($15.5 million guaranteed) contract extension in the offseason, they weren’t paying for performances such as Sunday’s. The former fourth-round draft choice out of Western Kentucky had never eclipsed 100 yards in his previous 62 regular-season or playoff games. Sixteen times, he failed to record a catch.

He impacts the game in other ways: as a key blocker in the trenches, or space-clearing route runner in the passing game.

“An incredible football player,” receiver Cooper Kupp called him. “You might not always see him in that stat book. But what he does behind the scenes, what he does up front and blocking, what he does in pass [protection], even the routes that he does run … you see him competing. He was due for this. It was inevitable.”

Still, the numbers Higbee posted Sunday felt almost superfluous — even for the soon-to-be fourth-highest-paid skill player (Higbee’s new salary kicks in starting next season) on the offense.

“When we’re beating 34-7, I enjoy that,” Higbee said. “Doesn’t matter if I’m catching passes or not. It’s always fun when you’re winning games.”

Indeed, there is a certain level of unselfishness often required to succeed at tight end. This season, for example, Higbee’s best statistical displays largely have accompanied losses. In the team’s five defeats, he averaged 4.4 receptions and 35 yards. Before Sunday, he was averaging fewer than two grabs and 12 yards in wins.

Taylor Rapp’s first career interception received plenty of raucous reactions from his Rams teammates in a 34-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
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And yet, “He’s truly inspiring,” said Johnny Mundt, the Rams’ only other active tight end Sunday. “I’ve taken a lot from him. … It’s not going to be perfect every week, it’s not going to be how you dial it up. But you’re opportunities are going to come. Today his opportunities came, and he was ready for each one of them.”

Exacting such an explosive encore won’t be so easy. Underlying Higbee’s performance was the Cardinals’ second-to-last ranked pass defense. They especially have struggled against tight ends.

But, as McVay pointed out, Higbee created a lot on his own.
“When he gets his opportunities, he shows up in the pass game,” McVay said. “A lot of [yards after the catch] that he ended up making. Big third down where comes on a crossing route. Made a couple plays on the play-action game. He was outstanding. He showed why he’s a true, complete tight end today.”

But for a Rams team hoping the thumping of the Cardinals can spark a surge — it still trails the Minnesota Vikings by two games in the loss column in the race for the second NFC wild-card spot — perhaps Higbee can emerge as a consistent weapon.

Robert Woods tied his career high with 13 catches and set a career high with 172 yards receiving as the Rams rolled over the Arizona Cardinals, 34-7.

“It makes us that much more versatile, that much harder to play against on defense,” Goff said. “He’s always been a guy that we’ve wanted to get involved. We want to get the ball to him.

“We’ve got such good receivers and Todd [Gurley] is such a threat out of the backfield that, there’s only so many footballs to go around. But Tyler showed what he can do. I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues to get the ball like that.”


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