Rodrigue: These L.A. Rams are still waiting to meet their own potential

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It would be fair, I think, to look at these Los Angeles Rams from a couple of perspectives at the same time: that of the optimist, and that of the pessimist.

After a 23-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, just a week after the exhilaration of an overtime win in Indianapolis, I want to create space for both because I think both are true.

The optimist: This team is better than expected. Remember those expectations throughout the spring and summer, or lack thereof? The old, injury-riddled quarterback Matthew Stafford, the aging (and also injury-riddled) receiver Cooper Kupp, the “no-name” defense with a bunch of young dudes and star Aaron Donald as their chaperone? Fourteen rookies on the 53-man roster? Tanking? Projections of flat-out a– kicking by teams far worse than the Super Bowl-contending Eagles? Remember?

It’s not the conversation around this group now, but now there are also expectations.

The pessimist: The Rams’ issues seem largely self-inflicted, they certainly were Sunday against a physical, multiple and well-built Philadelphia team that doesn’t often allow much margin for error. Head coach Sean McVay said as much when literally pounding the lectern in his post-game news conference.

“There (are) opportunities that I know we’re capable of making, and then we’ve just gotta be able to string it together,” he said. “I believe that this team is capable of making those plays. I know they are capable of making those plays. … I’m not making excuses at all, because we expect to accelerate our progression, and I believe in this group. (But I) am disappointed with the inability to play off of one another. …

Sean McVay was disappointed at times Sunday with missed opportunities. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

The pessimist (and the realist): There was little support from the offense, and 23 points allowed should have been enough to win. Still, the Rams’ defense also allowed too many explosive plays (seven plays over 15 yards, including five pass plays and a Jalen Hurts scramble) and was a disaster on third down, especially third-and-long. The Eagles were 13 of 18 on third down, but of the 10 plays that were third-and-5 or longer, the Rams gave up seven conversions including a touchdown.

Some of the more glaring breakdowns keep happening. In losses to the Eagles and in Week 2 against the rival 49ers, defensive gaffes in late-clock situations especially right before halftime have dramatically impacted the game. Sunday, with about 30 seconds left in the second quarter, starting cornerback Derion Kendrick gave up a one-handed outstretched catch to receiver A.J. Brown on third-and-1 and Brown raced down the field toward the end zone. Kendrick, who did know he had to try to bring Brown down in-bounds, was flagged for a costly horse-collar penalty on the play while attempting to do so.

“That was tough,” McVay said, “It was almost identical to the way that things played out against the 49ers. It was, in some instances, deja vu. We gotta figure out how (we can) be better in some of those situations.”

The sequence got the Eagles to the Rams’ 14-yard line, and Kendrick was flagged for pass interference on the next play. That got the Eagles to the 1-yard line, where they were gifted the opportunity to run their highly effective “tush push” play, and took a 17-14 lead into halftime.

“S—, third-and-1, I should have played off (coverage) instead of pressing,” Kendrick said, “(he) just made a good catch, for real. And then on the P-I … I was on top, digging back for the ball (and) trying to play through him. They said I pulled him. I just keep playing the way I’m playing, some refs are going to call it and some ain’t. And I’d say on two plays, I just (have to) stay stickier to the receiver. On the play where I got the horse collar, I’d say I’d probably (next time) play his top shoulder more instead of trying to undercut it. I probably had someone (a help player) flashing back in my window to knock his head off.”

McVay said he likes the way Kendrick competes and reiterated the need for the entire team to play “all four quarters.” He cited their failed drive coming out of the half, including their inability to turn an interception by cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon into points. Stafford agreed.

“In the same respect,” Stafford said, “our defense goes out and gets a turnover, you know Ahkello (Witherspoon) makes a great pick on a tough drive, a long drive, and shoot, gives us life. And we don’t go score. I mean, there are just opportunities for both sides of the ball to just grab the momentum and kind of run with it. We weren’t able to do it.”

The optimist: Many of the Rams’ issues are self-inflicted, and can be corrected. While Stafford and Kupp were automatic in a target-heavy first half of Kupp’s return from a hamstring injury, connecting for six catches for 95 yards (including crucial third- and even fourth-down conversions), the two missed each other on a couple of throws in the second half and Kupp was limited to 23 yards during that time. On two deep balls against what Stafford would normally consider favorable man-coverage, they had timing issues (those specifically are timing throws, Stafford reiterated) in part because of how the Eagles were playing Kupp off the line of scrimmage, including trying to make contact through the motion concepts that usually get the receivers clean releases.

“Those are plays that I believe that we’ll hit, those are looks that we’re looking for,” McVay added.

A play in the fourth quarter called for running back Kyren Williams as chipping help for rookie tackle Warren McClendon, suddenly in the game in place of veteran right tackle Rob Havenstein as the Rams went for it on fourth-and-12 from their own 41-yard line with 2:50 left to play (that was when they went for it, by the way, not on fourth-and-5 from their 42-yard line with 10:05 left to play, sigh). Stafford was sacked for a loss around that right side.

While it is a fixable moment (optimism!), McVay uncharacteristically voiced pointed frustration about the failure there.

“I saw us not do a good job of chipping. We had a chip on that right there, (but) we accelerated (Haason) Reddick into a rush,” McVay said, “that was really poor execution on our part. Those are the things that make me very upset.”

The pessimist: Some self-inflicted problems are becoming patterns, or are shadows of long-established problems. Down just three points at the start of the third quarter, the Rams, who started the second half on offense, ran three consecutive pass plays (one a penalty) and only converted a very long third-and-26 run because of a flag for a facemask against Williams. Through the entire third quarter, McVay called a 10-to-3 pass/run ratio, even though the Eagles didn’t score.

“I thought we were getting off looks that we wanted,” he said, “I just think the margin for error was really small.”

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In his first game this season, Cooper Kupp caught eight passes for 118 yards. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

When the passes stalled, the Rams’ offense was sent off the field too quickly (giving a possession team like the Eagles plenty of time to run their top-of-sheet game plan). The Rams couldn’t sustain their second-half drives on the other side of a six-point effort by their defense.

Witherspoon intercepted Hurts in the end zone midway through the third quarter, and the Rams’ offense couldn’t score on the gifted possession.

“Huge turnover, Ahkello gets that pick in the end zone,” Kupp said, “that is something that you want to turn into points offensively. We just kind of stalled out there, we didn’t execute as well as we should against a good Eagles team that possesses the ball like they do. They really make you play a really good game offensively, and we had too many mistakes. Felt like it was right there, right there for us.”

After a 168-yard, two-touchdown first half, the Rams managed just 81 net yards in the third and fourth quarters.

The Rams have struggled in the second half of four of their five games this season, and are averaging only 6.3 second-half points per game in their last three, the fourth-worst in the NFL.

“We gotta go back and watch the film, really watch the film and see what that is,” Kupp said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to us executing. You see a lot of stuff in the first half, and you kind of see the patterns, see what you’re getting. They make some adjustments, we gotta come out and we gotta be able to adapt and respond to that. I’m not saying coaches, I’m saying as players. You gotta run your routes and understand that things are gonna be different. You might be running the same route, but they’re playing it differently. Second half, they made some adjustments. (We need to) try to give Sean, give Matthew the widest range of successful outcomes no matter what look you’re getting and I think we gotta do a better job of that. We’ll be critical of ourselves watching this film tomorrow.”

So, it’s a little of both ends of the emotional spectrum. After a game like this, it’s OK to be an optimist, a pessimist, or both at the same time. It’s all true, if you think about it.

And whichever way you lean about these Rams, the singular, bald truth is this: The fans of this team, and the players on it, and the coaches and the front office are all waiting to meet their own potential.

We’ve seen their potential, much like we’ve seen their ability to legitimately play complementary football. We’ve all seen the proof, if they can just get out of their own way and keep growing in the process.

“I think you see it in spurts,” Stafford said. “It’s just, can you go out there and do it for the full game? And I don’t know if you’re going to do it on every single drive, but can the standard be a little bit better, to just go out and execute at a higher level?

“I know we are doing everything we can, putting in the work. Continue to work, trust that work that we do put into it on a weekly basis, (and) go out there and trust yourself on game day. It’s never going to be perfect. Football is played in the gray. … But just go out there and do everything you can to be fundamentally sound, go out there and execute. Let the chips fall where they may, at that point.”

(Top photo of Matthew Stafford: Harry How / Getty Images)

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