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NFC Wild Card scouting report: Los Angeles Rams—surging team or favorable schedule?

A deep dive into the Detroit Lions’ first-round playoff opponent: Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL scriptwriters have an interesting way of getting drama in the NFL playoffs this season. The Detroit Lions host the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night for the first Wild Card game at Ford Field in franchise history. It’s not just an intriguing matchup with the Rams; it’s that the Lions are facing their former franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford.

The Lions have played Stafford already. Back in 2021, the Lions lost to Stafford and the Rams, 28-19 in LA. This time, though, both teams are different. The Rams in 2021 were a Super Bowl team, while the Lions were in the first year of their rebuild under head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes. This year, the Lions went 12-5, winning their division for the first time since 1993, and have a chance to be a Super Bowl contender. The Rams enter as a Wild Card team, second place in the NFC West as they have had a solid second half of the season. Also, this game is the first time Stafford returns to the city of Detroit as an opponent, and the fans’ reaction to his return will be interesting.

Let’s jump into the NFC Wild Card scouting report for the Detroit Lions against the Los Angeles Rams.

2023 Los Angeles Rams

2023 season (10-7)

Week 1: Win against Seattle Seahawks 30-13
Week 2: Loss against San Francisco 49ers 30-23
Week 3: Loss against Cincinnati Bengals 19-16
Week 4: Win against Indianapolis Colts 29-23 (OT)
Week 5: Loss against Philadelphia Eagles 23-14
Week 6: Win against Arizona Cardinals 26-9
Week 7: Loss against Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17
Week 8: Loss against Dallas Cowboys 43-20
Week 9: Loss against Green Bay Packers 20-3
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Win against Seattle Seahawks 17-16
Week 12: Win against Arizona Cardinals 37-14
Week 13: Win against Cleveland Browns 36-19
Week 14: Loss against Baltimore Ravens 37-31 (OT)
Week 15: Win against Washington Commanders 28-20
Week 16: Win against New Orleans Saints 30-22
Week 17: Win against New York Giants 26-25
Week 18: Win against San Francisco 49ers 21-20

Stats:

  • 8th in points scored, 19th in points allowed
  • 17th in DVOA
  • 7th in offensive DVOA (9th in pass DVOA, 6th in run DVOA)
  • 22nd in defensive DVOA (21st pass DVOA, 20th in run DVOA)
  • 32nd in special teams

What a rollercoaster of a season for the Rams this year. The first half of the season was rough for them as they went 3-6 in the first nine games. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp was on IR to start the year, missing the first four games, but rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua soon became a favorite target for Stafford and emerged as the top threat in Kupp’s absence. In those four games, LA went 2-2 with a win over the Seahawks and an overtime win over the Colts.

With the return of Kupp after Week 4, the Rams would only beat the Cardinals and suffer losses to the Eagles, Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers—all playoff teams. After the midseason bye week, the schedule would favor the Rams, and things began to click. The Rams finished the year 7-1, with the lone loss being another overtime game, this time being on the losing end against the top AFC team, the Ravens.

The Rams took over in December, and the schedule became more favorable. They got a win over a playoff team in the Browns, but after losing to the Ravens, they defeated the Commanders, Saints, and Giants before upsetting the 49ers, who played most of their backups, in the season finale. Overall this season, the Rams went 2-6 against playoff teams, 6-7 against teams with a winning record, and swept teams who didn’t have a winning record and going 4-0.

It wasn’t just the passing game that was working for the Rams, but the run game was starting to become a big help with running back Kyren Williams taking over. He missed six games this season, and the Rams went 3-3 in those six games. Williams finished the season in third in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,144 and 12 touchdowns, along with 32 catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Since his time in LA, he has been Stafford’s best running back, which helped Stafford and the passing game out immensely.

The defense of the Rams is a step back compared to the offense. While the Rams defense isn’t horrible, it isn’t one of the best in the league. They still have one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, Aaron Donald, who had 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and three pass deflections this season. He has some help around him in the front seven with rookie defensive tackle Kobie Turner, who leads the team in sacks with nine.

Linebackers Byron Young, Michael Hoecht, and Ernest Jones have been disruptive for opposing offensive lines, combining for 18.5 sacks between them. Young and Hoecht combined for three forced fumbles, and Jones and Hoecht combined for eight pass deflections. Safety Jordan Fuller seems to be the leader of the secondary, and is tied with cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon with three interceptions on the team. While Fuller leads the team in forced fumbles with three, Witherspoon leads the team in pass deflections with 14.

Injury Notes

Key players ruled out: None

Key players to monitor: TE Tyler Higbee (shoulder), OT Joe Noteboom (Foot), LB Troy Reeder (knee), S Jordan Fuller (ankle)

The Rams are relatively healthy entering the playoffs, with four notable players as options that could miss the game on Sunday. Tight end Tyler Higbee and offensive tackle Joe Noteboom were doubtful last week against the 49ers as they didn’t practice at all. However, the Rams were resting a bunch of starters with their playoff spot clinched already, and they didn’t want to risk losing any starters before the playoffs began.

The Rams did have two players get injured against the 49ers, as linebacker Troy Reeder left the game with a knee injury and Fuller left with an ankle injury, both didn’t return. The defense for the Rams is a weakness, and possibly being down two starters is something they don’t want, especially against a tough Lions offense that will be coming in with weapons all over. On Monday, Rams head coach Sean McVay said Reeder and Fuller are currently day-to-day with their injuries.

Biggest strength: Wide receivers

The most brutal wide receiver duo Detroit has seen this season will be facing them this week. First, Kupp has the second-most receiving yards ever in a season with 1,947 back in 2021, 17 yards behind Lions Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Kupp is similar to Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who can be used anywhere: in the slot, out wide. Line him up where you want, and it works for him. He has been a monster for the Rams since they drafted him, and more help alongside him gives him fewer chances of facing double teams.

Kupp’s partner in crime is Nacua, who broke two records for rookie receivers in 2023: the most yards by a rookie wide receiver(1,486) and the most catches by a rookie wide receiver (105). He also leads the team in receiving touchdowns with six this season.

Both of these receivers for the Rams are tall and athletic, listed as 6-foot-2, so they can be a mismatch for opposing cornerbacks. While Nacua and Kupp get most of the attention, the Rams have some underrated wide receivers they can use as well: Demarcus Robinson, who had 26 catches for 371 yards and four touchdowns this season, and Tutu Atwell, who had 39 catches for 483 yards and three touchdowns. This team has some depth, but the main focus will undoubtedly be on Kupp and Nacua.

Biggest weakness: Special teams

When you are the worst rated special teams unit in the NFL and the playoffs, that is a part of the game that could cost you a championship. First, let’s start with the kicking game. Like the Lions, the Rams have had multiple kickers this season, and Brett Maher is the last one standing. Maher’s struggles are a huge step back from last year’s career season in Dallas. From a 90.6 percent field goal percentage in 2022, Maher has a 73.9 percent field goal percentage, with his longest being from 54 yards out this season. He’s also missed two extra points so far this year.

Regarding the return game, the Rams are among the worst in the league. They are tied for first in the NFL in fewest kick return attempts with just nine, only getting 145 yards on those returns. Punt returns aren’t much better; they have 28 punt returns for 204 yards, averaging just 7.3 yards per return, tied for fourth least in the NFL, and they have also fumbled three punt returns.

Their punt game overall is the best part of the special teams, but the punt coverage part hurts them. While the Rams are eighth in the NFL in yards per punt with 49.2 yards, they have second most punt return yards allowed with 495, have allowed two punt return touchdowns, and they’ve had a punt get blocked this year. While it’s a part of the game people dismiss, it could have the most significant impact on Sunday night.

Key matchup: Lions secondary vs. Rams wide receivers

For the fourth straight week, the biggest difference in this game will be the Lions’ secondary against another dynamic duo at wide receiver. The Lions have had extensive tests in the last three weeks, facing Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, Ceedee Lamb, and Brandin Cooks. Now, they take on the best rookie wide receiver this season and Kupp.

This matchup for Detroit will undoubtedly be the most formidable challenge this season. The Lions’ starting cornerback, Cameron Sutton, has had a poor final three games this season, struggling against Jefferson and Lamb. His task will be tricky going up against Kupp or Nacua on Sunday night. He isn’t alone, though, as cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs, Kindle Vildor, and others have struggled in coverage this season.

The good news for Detroit is that their safety play has improved and will get better with C.J. Gardner-Johnson back into the mix. Gardner-Johnson returned from a torn pec against the Vikings in Week 18, finishing the game with four tackles, a pass deflection, and an interception. Safety Ifeatu Melifonwu has stepped up greatly as well late in the season. If the Lions can limit the damage the Rams can do through the air and force LA to run on them, it will be the best chance for Detroit to hold off the Rams and make their first home playoff game at Ford Field a win.

Vegas line for Sunday: Lions by 3.5

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