LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Rams' most disappointing loss of the season came with some painful reminders of this team's self-inflicted shortcomings.
Los Angeles (3-4) was beaten in crunch time again Sunday, getting outscored 21-8 in the second half of a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh. The Rams had a strong second quarter and built a lead heading to the fourth, but the Steelers outplayed Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald and their supporting cast when it counted.
“We didn’t help ourselves,” coach Sean McVay said. “There were a lot of plays that we could have been able to make. There’s always things. Any time that we don’t get it done, it’s a collective effort as a team, but there were a lot of things that we didn’t do to be able to finish this game.”
It's increasingly clear the Rams don't have the talent to do many of those things.
When the Rams gutted their roster in the offseason, they removed several difference-making veterans and elected to play this year with youngsters, late-round picks and spare parts. LA's lack of elite players is particularly glaring in games like this loss, when nobody in a horned helmet steps up to turn the tide of a game that could go either way.
Even the Rams' few remaining stars couldn't do it against the Steelers.
“Just didn’t do enough in the second half to get it done, obviously,” said Stafford, an unimpressive 14 of 29 for 231 yards. “Left some plays out there that we wish we had back. We’re in the game the whole game, felt like we had control of it for a decent amount of it, (and) just didn’t finish it.”
Stafford was sharp at times, particularly when throwing to rookie Puka Nacua, but he also struggled to make plays at key moments in the second half — particularly while he failed to complete a pass in the fourth quarter. Super Bowl 56 MVP Cooper Kupp had a down game, catching only two of the seven balls thrown his way.
Stafford also made the Rams' single most costly mistake, throwing an interception to T.J. Watt that led directly to Pittsburgh's first touchdown. Los Angeles' defense had been outstanding up to that point, and it forced another punt after the TD — but the Steelers finished their victory with three long, effective drives.
Pittsburgh has a solid defense, but Stafford and Kupp often took charge of games between two evenly matched teams in the Rams' previous two seasons. They couldn't do it, resulting in a pathetic offensive fourth quarter and a blown lead for LA's fourth loss in six games.
Nacua bounced back from a quiet game against Arizona with another spectacular outing, making eight receptions for 154 yards. The fifth-round pick was more reliable than Kupp, who dropped two passes on Los Angeles' opening drive. Nacua's bond with Stafford is getting stronger, and it has become the backbone of the Rams' offense.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Rams’ special teams philosophy bit them again when Brett Maher missed two long field goals and an extra point — seven points wasted in a seven-point loss. Los Angeles could have kept ex-Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay with the franchise tag or transition tag last spring, but the team’s long-standing philosophy of not investing in kickers led them to scrape the well-traveled Maher off the release pile Aug. 30 instead.
WR Tutu Atwell. The undersized receiver continues to make plays whenever he gets the chance. He alertly caught a 31-yard touchdown pass that was probably intended for Kupp, scoring for the second time in the Rams' last three games — despite making only four catches in that stretch. Atwell's underuse has become an obvious area to address for Stafford and for McVay, who was infamously slow to give Atwell a true opportunity on offense until late last season.
CB Derion Kendrick. After the starting cornerback spent three nights in police custody last week, Kendrick played only 36% of LA's snaps and struggled in coverage, allowing three catches for 67 yards. He was also at fault in the second half when the Rams were penalized for too many men on the field. Aside from his embarrassing legal troubles, Kendrick hasn't been particularly good this season.
0 — Total carries this season before Sunday for Darrell Henderson and Royce Freeman, who stepped into the backfield and combined to rush for 127 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Henderson was out of the NFL and Freeman was the Rams' fourth-stringer before last weekend, and their instant success underlines the league-wide perception that investment in running backs is foolhardy.
The Rams are relatively healthy. Even oft-injured lineman Joe Noteboom dressed for Sunday's game, though he played only on special teams because he has lost his prior starting jobs at left tackle to Alaric Jackson and at right guard to Kevin Dotson.
The Rams have been a strong road team in McVay's tenure, and two of their three wins this season are away from Inglewood. They'll need that road poise when they visit Dallas and Green Bay on the next two Sundays before their bye.
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