Rams show promise with breakout performances by Nacua and Williams in loss to Niners

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, left, tries to fend off San Francisco 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Rams are clearly facing many weeks and months of work before they're a Super Bowl contender again.

It's also increasingly clear Sean McVay has a collection of talented skill players who can make his schemes come to life in what could become an exciting year of renewal for his offense.

The Rams have rarely emerged from meetings with the 49ers feeling good about themselves in the past half-decade, but Sunday's 30-23 loss had far more positives than most of those nine consecutive regular-season defeats.

Rookie receiver Puka Nacua, second-year running back Kyren Williams and third-year wideout Tutu Atwell led the way in a 386-yard effort by Matthew Stafford's offense, which was only a couple of mistakes away from hanging with powerhouse San Francisco for the entire afternoon.

“I love the rapport of that group,” McVay said. “I love the way that they play for one another. I love the energy and the edge that they play with. I think we want to just be able to continue to stack blocks, and whether we came away with the result we wanted or we had this result today, it’s about, ‘How do we move forward?’”

Nacua set an NFL single-game rookie record with 15 catches for 147 yards, giving him an NFL-leading 25 receptions already this season. Atwell had a second straight standout game with seven catches for 77 yards, while Williams rushed for a score, caught a TD pass and racked up 100 total yards while also handling punt returns.

In his 15th NFL season, Stafford appears to be far from discouraged about playing for a rebuilding team. Instead, he's enjoying the process of helping his young teammates to become better.

“I know those guys are fighting tooth and nail,” said Stafford, who threw for 307 yards and passed Peyton Manning's NFL record for the most yards passing by a quarterback in his first 200 NFL games.

“They’re asking me questions," he added. "We’re trying to get on the same page and do it as well as we possibly can. That’s part of it. I was a young player once. I’m not naive to that. I love the effort and the fight and the strain these guys have. ... This was a hell of a game. A couple plays here or there, and this one’s in our back pocket.”

While Nacua and Atwell have assuaged the injury absence of Cooper Kupp for at least two more games, Williams' emergence might be even more important.

After being injured for much of his rookie season, the Notre Dame product already has seized the starting job from fourth-year pro Cam Akers, who appears to be on his way out of Los Angeles after falling out of favor with the coaching staff for the second straight year.


The Rams’ offensive line has been much better than it was last season, when its ineffectiveness doomed almost everything McVay tried to do. Stafford has been sacked just once and hit only eight times in two games. He was sacked 29 times in nine games last season, ultimately leading to the injuries that sidelined him.


The defense didn't handle the 49ers — who averaged 6.8 yards per play — as impressively as they did the Seahawks in Week 1, although that's hardly a surprise. LA's unit lacks elite talent after getting rid of several important players from last season's group, but the Rams made those moves with the plan to develop young players into core contributors.


Rookie edge rusher Byron Young had five tackles, two quarterback hits and a sack while providing a modicum of the pass-rushing acumen Los Angeles' roster appears to lack. The Rams really hope Young can become a difference-maker this season.


While Nacua and Atwell excel, Van Jefferson is being left behind. The fourth-year pro had just one catch on four targets against the 49ers while Nacua got 20 targets and Atwell got nine. Jefferson is in a contract year, but he hasn't seized a key role in the Rams' game plan.


Right guard Joseph Noteboom went out with a shoulder injury. If he has an extended absence, it could affect the chemistry of an offensive line that was starting to look sharp. The Niners didn't get significant pressure on Stafford until Tremayne Anchrum replaced Noteboom in the second half.


2 — The Rams' NFL ranking in third-down efficiency after going 17 for 31 in their first two games. They were 18th last season.


Los Angeles is on the road Monday night for a Super Bowl 56 rematch against the winless Cincinnati Bengals. Joe Burrow's injured calf provides an opportunity for the Rams to keep their season on a solid path.


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