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Forget Derrick Henry, the Rams are going to remember the Titans’ dominant defense

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is brought down by Titans linebackers David Long Jr. and Harold Landry.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is brought down by Titans linebackers David Long Jr. and Harold Landry in the first quarter of the Rams’ 28-16 loss at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Tennessee Titans were missing two starters on the offensive line and two-time NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry.

Most observers thought Sunday night’s game against the mighty Rams wouldn’t be a fair fight.

Sadly for the Rams, those people were correct.

The game was lopsided all right, just not in the expected way. On a day of rub-your-eyes NFL results — Jacksonville beating Buffalo, Denver demolishing Dallas, Cleveland humiliating Cincinnati — the Titans pulled off a stunning 28-16 upset with an illusion that would make David Copperfield do a double-take.

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The 7 1/2-point underdogs made Matthew Stafford’s blockers disappear.

Nobody saw this Stupor Bowl coming.

Matthew Stafford threw two costly interceptions and evoked flashbacks of the quarterback he was traded for in the Rams’ 28-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

“I choose to believe that tonight was not a reflection of who we are,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.

Snap after snap, the Titans spun, twisted and squeezed through gaps, flooding the Rams’ backfield and swarming Stafford, sacking him four times in the first half alone. It was especially strange because that line had provided Stafford with a hermetically sealed pocket throughout most of the season.

When the Rams went to an empty backfield — with no one back there to help block — the quarterback was under heavy pressure from the moment he received the shotgun snap. He was sacked five times for 41 yards in losses, and the Rams converted just four of 15 third downs (27%).

“That’s something we’ve always done ... stabbing through the pocket, hammering, raking, all those things,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “The more they see themselves doing that on film and holding themselves accountable to get turnovers — and the offense is taking care of the football — you can start to do some really good things.”

The 7-2 Titans have won five in a row and are atop the AFC South by three games, the widest divisional lead in the AFC.

Stafford came into the game with four interceptions on the season, yet was picked off on back-to-back throws, first as he was being dragged down in his own end zone, then on the first play of the ensuing possession, resulting in a 24-yard pick-six.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throws a pass from the end zone that was intercepted and set up a Titans touchdown.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throws a pass while falling in the end zone that was intercepted and set up a Titans touchdown.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I basically spotted them 14 points,” Stafford said. “Can’t do that in the NFL.”

On the first of those interceptions, Stafford looked strikingly similar to Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, who while trying to avoid a safety against the Titans a week earlier, flipped a feeble pass with his left hand that was picked and essentially walked in for a touchdown.

“We just weren’t very good as a whole offensively tonight,” McVay said, noting that in their other loss, at home to Arizona, the Rams bounced back four days later with a win at Seattle.

Sunday night, Tennessee defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons had three first-half sacks and was as relentlessly dominant as Aaron Donald in prime form. So on this night, No. 98 (Simmons) looked like No. 99 (Donald).

What it meant for the Rams is that even as prolific and entertaining as this offense has been, it’s far from foolproof. Stafford isn’t immobile — he had a couple of nice runs against the Titans — but he’s not the kind of quarterback who can make do when the dam crumbles.

The high-powered offense the Rams brought into the game looked as flimsy as a two-dimensional movie set. The final touchdown, a short toss to Sony Michel, was purely cosmetic and was witnessed by maybe a quarter of the SoFi Stadium crowd, as the rest had long since streamed for the exits.

In the fourth quarter, after falling awkwardly to the turf on a third-down incompletion, Stafford hobbled gingerly to the sideline, where his left ankle was re-taped. He didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday, and was limited Friday, because of a sore back.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Rams’ 28-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans at SoFi Stadium on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

Stafford, for one, isn’t worried about these performances becoming a trend.

“You just turn the tape on and learn from it,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Had a bunch of good games, had a bunch of bad games before. I know what it looks like to go out there and respond, play well the next week. I think our team does. We did it earlier this year and we plan on doing it again.”

Next up for the Rams: at San Francisco on Monday night.

There had to be a familiar feel to it for Stafford, who was 0-3 against Tennessee while with the Detroit Lions. In this one, he was as overwhelmed as Jared Goff on a rough night, and the Rams were as flat as they were three years ago in the Super Bowl against New England.

But in other ways, the game felt like the Rams’ first after returning to Los Angeles in 2016, when they were shut out 28-0 at San Francisco on a Monday night. Donald was ejected from that game and had to watch the messy finish from the locker room.

The Rams showed that same lack of restraint against the Titans, looking nothing like the measured and efficient L.A. team that came into the game with an NFL-low 31 penalties through the first eight games. Against the Titans, the Rams were flagged 12 times for 115 yards, compared to Tennessee’s three penalties for 15 yards.

The Rams lost their cool and found their ice cold.


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