NFL roundtable: Can the Rams handle tough schedule, the Chargers the run game?
The Chargers moved into first place in the AFC West with their road victory over the Eagles coupled with the Raiders’ loss at the Giants. The Rams fell more behind the NFC West leading Cardinals, and half of their remaining eight games are in the division. Moderated by Los Angeles’ Times NFL editor Athan Atsales, Rams beater writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller and NFL writer Sam Farmer discuss their futures:
Besides a home date with the Jaguars, the Rams have a difficult schedule the rest of the way. Considering they already lost to the Cardinals, it is as if they are currently two games behind Arizona. What do you think the odds are that their only way into the postseason is as a wild-card team?
Farmer: That’s the way it looks now, but remember, we’re only at the midway point of the season. Plenty can — and will — happen between now and then. Sean McVay had never lost to Arizona until this season, and even though the Cardinals will play host to the Rams in their December meeting, it’s really tough to sweep a division opponent. Basically, that next Rams-Cardinals game is huge.
Klein: I keep waiting for the Cardinals to be the Cardinals, but Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and — Colt McCoy? — aren’t letting that happen. If the Cardinals maintain their pace, the Rams are looking at a wild-card path in the playoffs. But like Sam says, all kinds of crazy stuff is probably going to happen between now and the end of the regular season. You can’t rule out the possibility that the Rams will win the NFC West.
Considering Justin Herbert is the fifth quarterback in nine games this season to complete more than 80% of his passes against the Eagles — joining Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Derek Carr — are you still encouraged by the Chargers’ improvement on offense?
Dustin Hopkins hasn’t been with the Chargers long, and he missed an extra point against the Eagles, but he came through with the winning field goal in a 27-24 victory.
Farmer: First things first, the Chargers beat the team that was on their schedule. They won a game they were supposed to win, and did so 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 fret more about their own inability to stop the run.
Miller: But what happened Sunday is what will happen when defenses line up and play their system against Herbert without attempting to be terribly deceptive. This guy’s too good not to force him to have to diagnose what’s happening too. 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 utilized rollouts and bootlegs to get him on the move with some space.
Klein: With Justin Herbert, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, there is plenty to be encouraged about. Aren’t we still looking forward to a Rams-Chargers Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium?
The Titans really attacked and collapsed the center of the Rams offensive line, a quarterback’s worst nightmare. Has a weak spot been exposed?
Klein: Time will tell. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, in particular, made it really tough on Rams center Brian Allen and guards David Edwards and Austin Corbett. You know that upcoming and possible playoff opponents will be looking at the Titans’ scheme and attempt to mimic it. But part of the blame against the Titans rests squarely on Stafford. In some instances, he held on to the ball too long.
Farmer: It certainly was a problem against the Titans, and Jeffery Simmons looked like Aaron Donald with those three sacks in the first half. The Titans ran a lot of stunts and twists to create those opportunities. It’s unclear if the 49ers can be as effective, as they’ve been soft up the middle so far. Arik Armstead could give them some problems, but he’s really more of a natural defensive end, and San Francisco is nowhere near as stout on the interior as Tennessee. But yes, the Rams need to do a better job blocking in the interior, and Matthew Stafford does need to get the ball out of his hand quicker. He acknowledged that after the game, and he’s more likely now to take the check-down in those pressure situations.
The Chargers had been saying they need pass-catching help beyond Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Herbert connected with nine receivers this week, but L.A. only averaged 3.3 per carry on the ground for 89 yards. What run-pass balance do you think works best for the Chargers?
Farmer: The Chargers need to reliably get those hard yards. That 98-yard drive Sunday, when they were stonewalled at Philadelphia’s goal line was a tone-setter and potential spirit-crusher.
Miller: Still, coach Brandon Staley said he was pleased with the ground game Sunday, noting that the Chargers were able to run the ball when it mattered most — on their final, game-clinching drive. This team shouldn’t pursue anything like a 50/50 balance, not with Justin Herbert at quarterback. As long as the Chargers can run the ball in the red zone and in the fourth quarter, I think Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi can work with that.
Matthew Stafford had a rough night, Rams will have to wait to see Von Miller in action and other takeaways from a tough loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The Rams next face the division-rival 49ers on the road on “Monday Night Football,” a matchup that always seems like a chess match between L.A’s Sean McVay and S.F.’s Kyle Shanahan. The Rams also close the regular season against the Niners. What’s typically the challenge when going against Shanahan’s 49ers?
Klein: McVay came up under Shanahan so maybe there’s that student-master dynamic that gets into his head. Everyone jumps on Jimmy Garoppolo’s case, but when he’s reasonably healthy he seems to execute just fine against the Rams, sometimes spectacularly so. And Shanahan and his staff usually find an under-the-radar running back to perplex the Rams and create opportunities for tight end George Kittle. Then there’s 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, a one-man wrecking crew against the Rams.
Farmer: The 49ers have done 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 Sunday, but he likely will be for the Monday night game. Deebo Samuel, the 49ers’ answer to Cooper Kupp, has been nursing a calf injury of his own but also is getting back up to speed. In the absence of those two, receiver Brandon Aiyuk has stepped up his game — people had been waiting for that — and so the 49ers figure to be fully stocked for their showdown against the Rams. San Francisco is hitting its stride in that regard.
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.
The Chargers’ defense continued to struggle against the run, the Eagles rushing for 176 yards and a 4.5 average per carry. Now L.A. faces the Vikings and a much better back in Dalvin Cook, who ran 17 times for 110 yards against a good Ravens defense this week. How do you see the Chargers matching up with Minnesota?
Farmer: Tough matchup for the Chargers in that regard. Dalvin Cook is ramping back up to speed, and ran for 110 yards against Baltimore on Sunday. The Chargers got trampled by Baltimore a few weeks ago, and before that gave up 161 on the ground to Nick Chubb in a shootout win over Cleveland. The Chargers have surrendered more rushing yards than anyone (1,293) and are allowing an NFL-high 5.0 yards per carry.
Miller: The run defense has improved over the past couple games, which isn’t to suggest it’s no longer a concern. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts skewed the stats a little Sunday by continually breaking free on loose plays. But those yards count, as well. I’d 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 play the Vikings the day after Christmas, so I’ll be watching to see how the Chargers fare against Dalvin Cook. Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes to say that “stats are for losers.” OK, I get what he’s saying in some instances. A team that is always leading is probably going to give up an inordinate amount of passing yards that might not truly reflect how well the secondary is playing. But when you look at the Chargers’ numbers against the run it’s hard to argue that they need to vastly improve.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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