Image: Cleveland Historical
The time has come! For 206 consecutive nights, I have slept uneasy, knowing that when I wake up in the morning, there would be no NFL Football on tv (I know what you're going to say, and NO, preseason does NOT count). Now, as I awake on this Thursday morning, I go through my morning routine with just an extra pep in my step in anticipation of the Rams, the stars of this season-long series, beginning their journey back to the Super Bowl with a game against the Buffalo Bills.
As we enter this season, there are many questions surrounding this Rams team and their ceiling:
How far can Matthew Stafford take this Rams team, even with his early season injuries?
How will some key departures on defense affect the workload of the offense?
How do other NFC West moves set the Rams up for a deep run?
In today's season preview, I will do my best to give an educated guess on all of these questions based on what we learned in the preseason, but first, I will answer one more question you may have had when clicking on this piece.
Who the heck is Buzz?
Before the Fearsome Foursome, before the Greatest Show on Turf, and before the Mob Squad, there were two men in Cleveland; Homer Marshman and Damon "Buzz" Wetzel (wearing #10 in the cover photo of this post). Wetzel, an Ohio State graduate and player-coach of Cleveland during their first season, named the young franchise "The Rams" after his favorite college team; the Rams of Fordham University. At the time, Fordham was a national powerhouse, known for an offensive line unit dubbed "The Seven Blocks of Granite," of which Vince Lombardi was a member in 1936. The name also fit well when printed in a small newspaper box score, but that's way less important.
86 years, 3 moves, and two Super Bowls later, the Rams name has stuck, and with it, LA will look to contend once again for the greatest title in all of American sports.
That is, of course, as long as they can iron out a few kinks.
Coming out of the offseason, it's easy to point at several departures that could hinder the Rams' ability to move the ball downfield in 2022. Despite Stafford's tendency to air the ball out, Robert Woods will definitely be missed as a short-gain focused, creative receiver. Odell Beckham Jr., despite joining the team late last year, Beckham made an immediate impact on the Rams offense, catching a touchdown in 5 of LA's last 8 games of the regular season.
Despite these big shoes to fill, I think several newcomers, combined with some immense talent from last year, will be up to the task. Allen Robinson, who signed with the Rams in March, possesses the same ability to run tricky routes as Woods, and can use his imposing physicality to muscle his way through the red zone. Kyren Williams, the rookie running back drafted out of Notre Dame, will help take the pressure off Cam Akers as an explosive young back, hopefully reinvigorating a run game that has taken a bit of a backseat since Stafford's arrival. Based on some preseason press conferences, it's clear that Coach McVay is excited for what Williams has to offer.
Of course, even with all of this change, there remains the most exciting QB-Receiver connection of 2021; Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. With 145 completions, 1,947 yards, and 16 TDs shared between the two Champions last year, it goes without saying that this passing duo may be the most cohesive since, well, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Kupp, with his agility and ability to get open on deep plays, and Stafford, with his seemingly unwavering accuracy, are a match made in heaven both on and off the field. If you don't believe me, I'll just leave this right here.
Now, here's where things get a little shaky. One on hand, Aaron Donald is still a Ram. Sitting at No. 2 in the NFL Top 100 for the second year in a row, Aaron Donald has cemented his legacy as the best defensive player in this current era of NFL history, and with another elite season or two, is quickly approaching the discussion for the defensive GOAT. Week in and week out, the 31-year old DT makes absolute mincemeat out of opposing offensive lines, frequently breaking groups of three, even four blockers to lead the league in sacks last season with 46. While I don't think we'll see any regression from him this season, the departure of Von Miller leaves this backfield unit a little weak. Expect this defense to get the job done, but not be so dominant that Stafford and Co. can put on cruise control. On the bright side, after a quiet season and a half since departing Jacksonville, Cornerback Jalen Ramsey set a new personal record for tackles in 2021, while tying his career high at 4.
When looking around the various voices in the football world, the Rams usually rank either 1st or 2nd in terms of the difficulty of their 2022 schedule. However, due to a lot of movement within their own division, I think they've got a pretty clear path to another NFC West title, if not the No. 1 seed. Early injuries to DeAndre Hopkins will hamper the Cardinals, Trey Lance is still developing into someone who I think WILL BE a solid QB, and Seattle...well I think we know where they'll end up. Outside the division, the Rams will find themselves against a few more NFC division champs that are really all tossups. They beat the Bucs in the playoffs in Tampa last year, but Tom Brady is not someone to let something like that go. They could definitely take advantage of a Packers receiving corps not super familiar with each other, but Aaron Rodgers does tend to pull clutch moments out of seemingly nowhere. Finally, out of the conference, the Rams will go up against the entire AFC West, arguably the best division in Football this year. If anyone will upset them, look towards the LA Chargers and Justin Herbert looking to make a big statement win before the playoffs.
Given the tossup nature of a lot of these games, I'll the Rams a best possible record of 14-3 this season, and 12-5 at worst.
Tonight-The Buffalo Bills
Another hot opponent with a lot to prove, the Rams open up their 2022 campaign against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. For Week 1, the biggest difference maker tonight will be Matt Stafford's elbow, with the severity of his injury seemingly changing with every update. According to Coach McVay via RamsDigest, there should be little to no limitation on Stafford in the season opener, and while Stafford himself has said that his situation could be much better, he's doesn't expect to miss any significant playing time. Luckily, it looks like the books have accounted for this, and have listed the Rams as a 2.5 point underdog against the Bills. While Josh Allen and this Bills offense is very talented, they've had a tough time recently against teams of a similar quality, going 0-4 in regular season games decided by single digits. Look for the supporting cast to help Stafford get through this one in a game decided by no more than 7 points.