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Offensive line embraces change: Takeaways from Rams’ win over Vikings

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald lunges to tackle Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison on Dec. 26, 2021.
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald lunges to tackle Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison during the Rams’ 30-23 victory Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)
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The Rams improved to 11-4 with a 30-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, a win that put the Rams in control of the NFC West.

What we learned from the Rams’ victory, their fourth in a row:

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Rams have a versatile offensive line

Rams center Brian Allen (55) looks to make a block during the first half.
Rams center Brian Allen (55) looks to make a block during the first half. Allen suffered a knee injury during the game.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Just when coach Sean McVay thought his team was through the fallout of its coronavirus outbreak, the Rams traveled to Minnesota without starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was put on a reserve/COVID-19 list that still included backup Joe Noteboom.

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So, against a Vikings defense that ranked first in the NFL with 44 sacks, left guard David Edwards moved to left tackle and Coleman Shelton started at left guard

Then, early in the game, center Brian Allen suffered a knee injury, forcing Shelton to move to center. Edwards switched to left guard, and rookie Alaric Jackson came in to play left tackle.

Brandon Powell did not have a job earlier this NFL season, but he’s now the Rams’ returner and his punt return for a TD led a victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Despite the musical chairs, the line gave up zero sacks and helped Sony Michel rush for more than 100 yards.

“Those guys dominated the line of scrimmage,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said.

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Said McVay: “It shows the strength of that unit with the way these guys have been able to step up the last few weeks.”

The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Jackson is “as steady and as even-keel as they come for a rookie,” Stafford said.

“It helps probably because he’s a giant human being and can move and is strong, so he knows he’s got that,” he said. “When you wake up with that, you should feel pretty good about playing O-line. ... He learns from a guy in Andrew Whitworth every single day and watches him practice and Joe Noteboom as well. ... That probably makes his job a little bit easier when it comes to game day.”

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Matthew Stafford struggled ... but performed down stretch

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford passes in the first half against the Vikings.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Stafford mostly reverted to November form, when he committed six turnovers in three losses to the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers.

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On Sunday, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr intercepted two passes and safety Xavier Woods another.

But in the fourth quarter, Stafford led two scoring drives, one that ended with a touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr.

McVay, as is his custom, blamed himself for putting Stafford “in some bad spots.” But that does not excuse what even Stafford acknowledged were some bad decisions.

McVay supported his quarterback.

“In key crunch time, known passing situations, he delivered in a big way,” McVay said.

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Sony Michel is on a roll

Rams running back Sony Michel rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in 27 carries.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

For the second time in four games, Michel rushed for more than 100 yards.

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On Sunday, he ran for 131 yards and a touchdown in 27 carries. That followed games in which he rushed for 121, 79 and 92 yards.

Not coincidentally, the Rams won all four games.

“Sony, really for the last month, he’s been a workhorse,” McVay said.

Darrell Henderson had one carry for 17 yards but immediately left the game because of a knee injury.

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Cooper Kupp not talking about records, his own anyway

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball after a first-half catch Dec. 26, 2021.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball after a catch. He finished with 10 receptions for 109 yards.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Kupp caught 10 passes for 109 yards, extending his team record for receptions in a season to 132.

Kupp has eclipsed 100 yards receiving in 10 games. He also has amassed at least 90 yards receiving in 11 consecutive games.

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“I’m just glad we won the game,” he said, adding, “My job is to execute whatever is asked of me week after week.

“Whatever is coming from it outside of that, it is what it is, but I just want to be a part of our team winning games. That’s what’s most important to me.”

Kupp leads the NFL in receptions, yards receiving (1,734) and touchdown catches (14).

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Linebacker Travin Howard stepped up

Rams linebacker Travin Howard, left, tries to run past Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen.
Rams linebacker Travin Howard, left, tries to run past Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen after intercepting a pass in the first half.
(Jim Mone / Associated Press)

Howard, in his second game since returning from injured reserve, came off the bench after Ernest Jones suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter.

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Four plays later, with the Vikings at the Rams’ nine-yard line, Howard intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it 19 yards. It was the fourth-year pro’s first NFL interception.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Rams’ 30-23 road victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

“I just came in with the mindset of I was a starter, so I prepared like a starter even though I was playing mostly special teams,” said Howard, who made four tackles. “Ernest went down, and I went in and I made plays.”

Before last season, Howard had been regarded as a probable starter. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury and watched Kenny Young and Troy Reeder become the main inside linebackers. This season, he mostly played on special teams before suffering a hamstring injury.

“Just staying with it and being locked in and waiting on my time,” he said, “and when I got my time, these are the results.”

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Aaron Donald can dominate as a run stopper

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Rams defensive end Aaron Donald.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Rams defensive end Aaron Donald in the second half.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Donald, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year, is mainly known for rushing the passer. On Sunday, he recorded his 12th sack of the season. He needs 2½ sacks to reach 100 for his career.

But Donald also had three tackles for losses. He was ever present in the Vikings’ backfield, wrangling running backs behind or at the line of scrimmage.

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