In the first game they try to “run it back,” the Rams watch the Bills run them to the ground

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — At the end of the champagne and confetti Super Bowl parade last February, the Los Angeles Rams began to look to the future and ponder the possibilities.

Head coach Sean McVay asked defensive lineman Aaron Donald if he wanted to return for another title run. Then, as McVeigh yelled “run back!” on the microphone, a shirtless Donald told a raucous crowd: “Why don’t we bring it back? We could be world champions again.”

The team that showed up at SoFi Stadium on Thursday night looked nowhere near able to live up to those bold proclamations. The Rams blitzed their way to a 31-10 season-opening loss to Buffalo, and it might have been worse if the Bills hadn’t forced four turnovers.

It’s too early for the Rams to panic after one loss, especially to a loaded Buffalo team that was 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC Championship Game last January and is the favorite to win the Super Bowl this season. And yet, that improbable performance exposed fundamental cracks that the Rams must fix to have a chance at becoming the NFL’s first repeat champions in nearly two decades.

“We weren’t ready to go,” McVeigh said. “I’m very proud of that, and that’s about me. I have to do better. There were a lot of decisions I made and I feel like I didn’t put our players in good enough spots.”

Any analysis of what went wrong for the Rams on Thursday night has to start with an offense that struggled to sustain drives. McVay was conservative on first downs for much of the night, running the ball with only moderate success and consistently leaving the Rams on second or third down.

A revamped Bills defensive line exploded in those situations, sacking Matthew Stafford seven times despite only rushing four men consistently. Von Miller, the All-Pro defensive end the Bills lured away from the Rams this spring, had two of the biggest sacks, beating offensive tackle Joe Noteboom once on a bull rush and another time on the edge.

“They didn’t rush five really not at all tonight,” McVeigh said. “For them to be able to do that, it’s a real credit to them.”

It wasn’t a fun night for Matthew Stafford (right) and the Rams offense against the Bills. Stafford was sacked seven times, his most since going down 10 times in 2018 against the Minnesota Vikings while quarterbacking the Detroit Lions. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

McVay and several Rams players acknowledged that the noise of the home crowd played a role in their struggles. The crowds of Bills fans at SoFi Stadium were so loud at times that the Rams had to resort to a silent count.

“You don’t want to go to a silent count,” said wide receiver and reigning Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, who had 13 catches on 15 targets for 128 yards and the Rams’ lone touchdown. “Once you go to a silent count, you lose the edge offensively to be able to get off the ball.”

Even when Stafford had time to throw in the pocket, he had only sporadic success against a series of Bills zone defenses designed to shade Kupp’s route and take away the deep ball. Stafford went 29-for-41 for 240 yards and showed no obvious signs of soreness from the elbow injury that has bothered him during the offseason, but he also threw three interceptions and struggled to connect with receivers other than Kupp.

Allen Robinson, the Rams’ prized free agent receiver acquisition, received just a pair of targets, catching one for just 12 yards. With Robinson out, Van Jefferson injured and little depth at wide receiver behind them, Stafford targeted Tyler Higbee 11 times for minimal yardage.

“At the end of the day, there were too many mistakes,” Kupp said. “They forced us to be consistent and keep the moves going. I think to a man, offensively, we didn’t do a good enough job.”

A final source of concern for the Rams offense has been Cam Akers’ disappearing act in the run game. Akers, now a year and a half removed from an Achilles tear that cost him nearly all of last season, came off the bench behind Daryl Henderson and ran the ball just three times without gaining a single yard.

When asked about Akers’ lack of involvement, McVay changed the subject without mentioning him.

“I’d like to get Allen more involved,” McVay said. “I would like to be more involved with many men.”

The Rams’ offensive struggles gave Buffalo a chance to deliver an early knockout blow, but three turnovers kept the Bills from extending their lead. The result was 10-10 the half time score much closer than it could have been.

The Rams defense’s inability to get off the field on third down ultimately proved disappointing. On a third-and-long play, Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivered a wild right stiff arm to defensive back Nick Scott and scrambled for a first down. On another, Allen found time to drop and hit Gabe Davis in a post pattern for 47 yards.

Both of those drives resulted in Buffalo touchdowns. The Bills then added another third-down conversion, with Allen this time finds Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard TD after the star receiver had passed well behind Jalen Ramsey.

“We didn’t do a good enough job on third downs,” Rams running back Bobby Wagner said. “A third fall killed us. We just couldn’t get off the field.”

The Rams’ 21-point margin of defeat was the second-longest season-opening loss by a reigning Super Bowl champion. Only the 2013 Baltimore Ravens suffered a worse loss, a 22-point loss to the Denver Broncos, where Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns.

If there is a silver lining for the Rams, it was how they responded to the loss after the game. McVay blamed himself for not putting his players in a position to succeed. Stafford said he wished he had left the ball earlier on several of the sacks. Wagner said not to point the finger at the offense when the defense didn’t get the job done.

Hollywood sequels rarely live up to the original, but the Rams are determined to keep trying.

“We’re going to fix it,” McVeigh said. “It was a very humbling night, but you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to be better within my role.’ That’s exactly what I’m going to do, that’s what our coaches are going to do and that’s what our players are going to do.”

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