After a long and eventful offseason, the Los Angeles Rams finally returned to the field on Sunday night, hosting the Dallas Cowboys in the first game in the brand-new SoFi Stadium.
A lot was talked about the changes the Rams made this season, whether it be their new stadium, logos and uniforms or the changes they made to their roster and coaching staff. L.A. finished 9-7 and missed the postseason last year for the first time in the Sean McVay era.
It looks like those changes may have been for the better though as the Rams opened their new home in style, earning a 20-17 victory over the Cowboys in Week 1 to move to 4-0 in opening week games in McVay’s tenure.
The Rams offense came out firing as they did not have to punt until midway through the third quarter. They stalled in the red zone a few times, however, one of which resulted in a missed chip-shot field goal by rookie Samuel Sloman, which allowed the Cowboys to stay in the game.
Led by new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley though, the Rams’ defense buckled down in the second half by allowing just three points, which came off a Jared Goff interception, to seal the victory.
While there is a ton to take away from the Rams’ first game of the season, here are five observations that helped shift the game in L.A.’s favor:
Aaron Donald remains the best at what he does
Aaron Donald is coming off a subpar season in 2019, by his standards, as for the first time in three years, he wasn’t named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
He came out like a man on a mission in 2020 though, spending most of the night in the Cowboys’ backfield wreaking havoc on Dak Prescott. Donald finished with seven quarterback hurries, a pair of quarterback hits and a sack. He was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded defensive player on the Rams thanks in part to incredible plays like these that he makes look easy:
Aaron Donald is just unfair pic.twitter.com/ABrIzSfm3e
— PFF (@PFF) September 14, 2020
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) September 14, 2020
Donald’s greatness is well-documented by now, but it’s a huge credit to him that he is continuing to build on his legendary status and was once again a big part of the Rams slowing down the Cowboys’ high-powered offense.
With Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have two cornerstones to build around on defense for years to come.
Rams defense should be much-improved under Brandon Staley
One of the biggest decisions McVay made this offseason was parting ways with one of the most respected defensive coordinators of all time in Wade Phillips for an unknown commodity in Staley. Other than him working under another legend in Vic Fangio, there wasn’t much known about Staley.
His debut was a fantastic one though as his scheme limited the Cowboys to three points in the second half. He was constantly bringing pressure all night, not allowing Dallas’ trio of talented receivers – Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb – to get down the field.
Gallup almost had them beat on a long play late in the game, although he was called for offensive pass interference on Ramsey. The call was a bit questionable, but that can be said about almost any penalty with the benefit of slow-motion replay.
The Rams defense did not create any turnovers, but they were able to get off the field, limiting the Cowboys to just three conversions on 12 third-down plays. The Cowboys only possessed the ball for 24:22 compared to 35:38 for the Rams, which is a credit to both the defensive and offensive units for L.A.
Rams’ rookie class can play
The Rams did not have a first-round pick in 2020 after trading it away to acquire Ramsey, but they did have a handful of mid-round picks. It’s never clear if those type of players will be able to produce right away, although the Rams got contributions from a ton of rookies in their win over the Cowboys.
The first one that deserves acknowledgment is Jordan Fuller, who was taken in the sixth round out of Ohio State. With Taylor Rapp nursing an injury most of training camp, Fuller earned the starting safety job opposite John Johnson III and made the most of his NFL debut.
Fuller led the Rams with eight total tackles, with the biggest coming on a big fourth-down stop of Lamb deep in L.A.’s territory late in the game:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 14, 2020
That was a game-saving play for Fuller, who was one of the only two-time captains in Ohio State’s history and already looks like he belongs in the NFL.
Other rookies that made contributions for the Rams include running back Cam Akers, who had 14 carries for 39 yards, and Van Jefferson, who only had one catch but it was a great one:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 14, 2020
Given L.A.’s lack of cap space, they will need to get production from young players to be successful, so it is good to see they are already getting that in Week 1.
McVay and Les Snead have proven to draft great in the middle rounds in recent years, and it seems 2020 is another example of that.
Malcolm Brown the guy in the backfield?
After the departure of Todd Gurley, a lot was talked about how the Rams will divvy up the carries in their backfield this season between the three-headed monster of Malcolm Brown, Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson.
All three got opportunities on Sunday night, but it was the veteran in Brown that made the most of them with 18 carries for 79 yards and two touchdowns to go along with three receptions for 31 yards.
Brown obviously has the most experience of the bunch and McVay rode the hot hand as he was in on 44 snaps compared to 24 for Akers and only five for Henderson, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury.
Akers’ role will likely increase weekly if he is able to produce, but for now, it seems that Brown is the leader in the clubhouse to lead the Rams in carries this season.
Also, a huge credit to the Rams’ offensive line, who played a brilliant game. Not only were they protecting Goff, but they were opening up holes for Brown all night long for him to get up field. The offensive line issues from 2019 got figured out late in the season and now seem to be a thing of the past.
Kicking game could be an issue
After a subpar season in 2019, the Rams decided to let long-time kicker Greg Zuerlein walk in free agency to the Cowboys. That left the team having a kicking competition in training camp, which was won by rookie seventh-round pick Samuel Sloman.
Sloman’s NFL debut did not get off to a great start as he missed the first field goal of his career, a 29-yard chip shot that doinked off the left upright.
He bounced back from there, making his next two kicks as well as both of his extra-point attempts. With the Rams’ well-documented red zone woes though, they will need Sloman to be automatic from inside 40 yards moving forward.
Bonus observation: SoFi Stadium is gorgeous
It took four years and roughly $5 billion to build the Rams’ new home, but SoFi Stadium made its debut on Sunday night and looked like the nicest new venue in the world.
There were no fans there due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, unfortunately, which made the atmosphere a little weird, but there is no doubt that Stan Kroenke built a masterpiece that will serve as a hub for sports and entertainment in L.A. for many years to come.