Roundtable: Is Rams’ Puka Nacua another Cooper Kupp? Why is Chargers’ D still failing?

Rams receiver Puka Nacua (17) enters the field with enthusiasm before a home game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua (17) has emerged with record-setting performances in the first two weeks of his pro career.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Although the Rams did not beat the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers, they put up quite a fight in a 30-23 defeat. The Chargers, on the other hand, lost another game they easily could have won with some clutch play, losing to the Tennessee Titans on the road, 27-24, in overtime. Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL columnist Sam Farmer and columnist Bill Plaschke discuss what happened and upcoming prospects:

No NFL rookie has caught 10 or more passes and surpassed 100 yards receiving in each of their first two games besides the Rams’ Puka Nacua. How does he compare to Cooper Kupp when everyone was excited about his emergence?

Klein: Remember, Cooper Kupp was drafted onto Sean McVay’s first team with the Rams in 2017. No one knew what to expect from any of the players in the young coach’s offense. Kupp, a third-round pick, was the third wheel behind Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. He had 12 targets, seven catches and one touchdown in his first two games. Nacua is taking advantage of the opportunity Kupp’s absence, and McVay’s play design, has presented. He has 35 targets and 25 catches in two games.


Farmer: The comparisons between the gritty Puka Nacua and the out-of-nowhere Cooper Kupp are inevitable and valid. Nacua is taking full advantage of his opportunity on a team that really has no clear-cut No. 1 or 2 receiver. He was targeted 20 times on Sunday, something that has only happened to Kupp once in his career. In his rookie season, Kupp was never targeted more than 11 times in a game. As well as Nacua has played, the jury is still out on whether he’s as precise a route runner or has the mastery of concepts and the overall offense that compares to Kupp, even in Kupp’s early years.

Plaschke: It’s impossible to watch Puka Nacua and not think of Cooper Kupp. Tough receiver. Great moves. Lyrical name. The question is, will he disappear once Kupp returns from his leg issues? The guess here is, no. Kupp probably won’t return to his greatness immediately, meaning Nacua could be a big factor throughout the season. He’s still available on your fantasy league’s waiver wire? Pick him up. Now!

Rams-49ers takeaways: As happened last season, running back Cam Akers was a healthy scratch and it appears his days with L.A. are numbered.

Sept. 18, 2023

The Chargers offense had its pitfalls, but was this another failure by the Chargers’ defense considering the Tennessee Titans were not able to score a touchdown in their opener, had not scored more than 16 points in any of their last five games, averaged 17.5 points per game last season and had lost eight in a row?

Klein: I’m kind of baffled by the Chargers’ problems on defense. That is Brandon Staley’s forté, they have a few stars and plenty of quality players. But don’t forget: the Chargers had the ball first in overtime, and Justin Herbert did not complete a pass, giving the Titans the chance to win the game.

Miller: It was most assuredly a failure on both sides of the ball for the Chargers. The offense produced one touchdown and two field goals over the final 43 minutes of play, including overtime. The defense needed a stop late in the fourth quarter and again in overtime and managed neither. Despite sacking him five times, the defense made Ryan Tannehill look precise one week after he threw three interceptions. Yuck all around.

Is Kyren Williams a temporary solution at running back for the Rams considering he was not able beat out Cam Akers in training camp?


Farmer: These are not the Todd Gurley Rams. The big investment is in Matthew Stafford’s arm. Kyren Williams is versatile enough to get the job done, especially with Sean McVay’s offensive creativity and incorporation of other players in the run game. Williams scored a receiving touchdown Sunday, something no Rams running back did last season. That’s a good start.

Rams-49ers takeaways: As happened last season, running back Cam Akers was a healthy scratch and it appears his days with L.A. are numbered.

Sept. 18, 2023

Klein: In the NFL, every running back except Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry are temporary solutions. Yes, this is not the Todd Gurley era. I think McVay will utilize two backs regardless. Williams is now the starter, but durability for any running back is going to be an issue, and he is no exception.

Plaschke: Did you see how much Williams played on Sunday? He was on the field for all but a handful of snaps, an abnormally high rate for today’s running backs. While his rushing totals weren’t high, he has a nose for the goal line and he is an important cog in the passing game. Cam Akers is gone, Williams is here, he’s the answer, he’s the man, he’s him.

Was there a noticeable difference in how the Chargers’ offense proceeded minus versatile running back Austin Ekeler?

Miller: The Chargers likely weren’t going to be able to run the ball against the Titans defense even if two Austin Ekelers played. But not having him meant not having your most explosive offensive player. Joshua Kelley and Elijah Dotson combined for only two catches out of the backfield. That’s just not enough. I’ll say this with certainty: The Chargers could have used Ekeler in overtime given that pathetic three-and-out they produced.

Klein: Ekeler got 20 touches in the season opener against the Dolphins, including 16 carries. The Chargers had only 21 total rushing attempts against the Titans. So yes, there at least was a statistical difference.

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley (25) runs for yardage against the Titans.
Chargers running back Joshua Kelley rushed 13 times against the Tennessee Titans for 39 yards.
(Wade Payne / Associated Press)

Aaron Donald’s only mark on the Rams’ defensive statistics sheet was one quarterback hit. No tackles, no assists. Is there an explainable reason for the lack of production?

Klein: Without an experienced wingman such as Michael Brockers or A’Shawn Robinson, opponents can load up even more to control Donald ... at least until younger players prove they must be reckoned with.

Plaschke: He doesn’t rack up the tackle numbers because teams are uber-focusing on him with the arrival of the anonymous and untested defenders around him. Donald is still a force simply by drawing so much attention, allowing budding stars like rookie Byron Young to shine.

Farmer: Aaron Donald was a menace in the opener at Seattle, and I don’t anticipate he’ll have many of these quiet games this season. Clearly, stopping him in particular is the primary objective of an opposing offensive line, and the 49ers typically have done a good job of that over the years. Sure, the Rams don’t have a Leonard Floyd or Von Miller to take full advantage of all the attention Donald commands. Regardless, Donald will have his wrecking-ball games this season.

Former Ram Andrew Whitworth and former 49er Richard Sherman lived the rivalry between San Francisco and L.A. with S.F. dominating ... except in the big game.

Sept. 15, 2023

The Chargers appeared to play more zone defense against the Titans but still ended up allowing long pass plays. Do you attribute these breakdowns to physical or mental failures?


Klein: I’m no film expert. But unless a player trips, slips, turns his body the wrong way or just gets outrun by a receiver, it’s probably a mental mistake by one or more defensive players.

Miller: The two big pass plays were more mental errors. After the game, coach Brandon Staley talked about recognizing who on the other team is a deep threat. Not sure how you can prepare all week for an opponent and still be trying to figure out something like that on game day. The 49-yard completion against Michael Davis wasn’t terrible defense. Davis was a step behind Chris Moore early in the route but closed at the end and couldn’t stop what was an excellent throw by Tannehill.

With two games of observation, what are your first thoughts about the Rams’ “Monday Night Football” road matchup against the 0-2 Bengals.

Klein: The Rams are 1-1 but they will travel to play the Bengals with a lot of confidence after hanging in against the 49ers. The good news for the Rams is that Joe Burrow is not lighting it up yet. The bad news for the Rams is that Joe Burrow will light it up at some point.

Coming into the season, many predicted doom and gloom for the Rams, a fun group that proceeded to win their opener and give the powerful 49ers all they could handle before losing, 30-23.

Sept. 17, 2023

Plaschke: There are mumblings that injured Joe Burrow might not play for the Bengals on Monday night. This means their quarterback would be Jake Browning, who hasn’t summoned fear in defenders since ... never. With no Burrow, and even with a limping Burrow, the Rams will beat the Bengals, proving their legitimacy on national television and beginning an unlikely journey toward the postseason.

Next, it’s a battle of 0-2 teams, the Chargers at the Minnesota Vikings. Without checking history on how many 0-3 teams end up qualifying for the playoffs, are the Chargers cooked if they lose?


Miller: I wouldn’t say cooked, but they’d be in trouble. In fact, there’s always plenty about this team to be troubled about. Since Brandon Staley was hired in January of 2021, this defense has yet to display a stretch of truly championship-quality play. The defense dominated late last season against some inferior offenses and quarterbacks but nothing has been sustained. Unless they figure this out, being 1-2 or 0-3 isn’t going to make any difference anyway.

Farmer: History isn’t on their side if they lose, but agree it’s pretty early to say the Chargers would be cooked at 0-3. Teams have had three-game losing streaks at some point before and made the playoffs. It’s just that teams that start 0-3 usually do so because they’re bad. The Chargers aren’t a bad team, and they’re capable of tearing off a long string of wins. You have to look at the quality of their losses. They lost at the wire to Miami, among the best teams in the AFC, and in overtime at Tennessee, historically a really tough place to play against one of the best-coached teams in the league. No excuses — 0-2 is a deep hole, and 0-3 would be abysmal, but it’s not the end of the season.

Klein: Three games is not even a fifth of the season. The Chargers have plenty of time and more than enough talent to get their act together.