INGLEWOOD — The Rams’ patchwork protection plan for quarterback Matthew Stafford worked for a few weeks before falling apart against the San Francisco 49ers’ vaunted defense during a forgetful performance on Monday night
Using wide receiver Ben Skowronek as a fullback to help the injury-plagued offensive line didn’t function against 49ers star edge rusher Nick Bosa and it probably won’t work against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. The Cowboys’ stout defense features second-year edge rusher Micah Parsons, who’s already drawing Aaron Donald-like attention on the field.
The Rams are accustomed to giving opposing offenses nightmare matchups with Donald often being double- and triple-teamed. Now they’re on the other side after spending the past week building a game plan for how to contain Parsons, a task that became more daunting after offensive lineman Coleman Shelton was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
The Rams (2-2) will start their fifth offensive line combination in five weeks, one of many reasons why Stafford and his offense have struggled to score points this season, especially in the red zone. But before the Rams can worry about touchdowns and getting newcomer receiver Allen Robinson involved, they’ll need to ensure their protection plan will hold up against Parsons and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who would be the top pass rusher on most teams.
Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen provided a glimpse into what the team can do to help their banged-up offensive line versus the Cowboys (3-1). But the offensive linemen can also help themselves by not missing assignments and having proper communication, which were critical mistakes pointed out by Rams coach Sean McVay after the loss to the 49ers.
“I think just trying to create different formations,” Coen said. “I think utilizing our tempo, whether it’s going fast, slowing it down, just changing tempos a little bit. I think we can help create an edge. Then also just we need to be better in our communication up front, but specifically with the backs as well. We missed a couple things in the Niners game that was really an execution issue. It wasn’t really guys just getting beat. We had a couple execution issues.
“Communication needs to be at a premium, especially with the crowd that we’re probably expecting this upcoming week.”
With injuries along the line and facing arguably the best defensive front in the NFL, the Rams’ offense will likely have to deal with crowd noise in their home venue with many Cowboys fans expected to be in attendance. The Rams practiced with loud music this week and McVay said they’re preparing to use the silent count.
Jeremiah Kolone, the Rams’ third-string center who’s expected to snap the ball to Stafford on Sunday, got to experience loud crowd noise after he played in relief work against the 49ers. Kolone, a 2018 undrafted free agent from San Jose State, received praise from Stafford, coaches and many other teammates for his career debut in a nonideal situation.
“When he came in the other night,” Stafford recalled, “I told him, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in your ear all night. Don’t worry, you just go out there and play and I’ll get us going in the right direction.’ … That probably is something that I can do to try to help him go out there and just play as fast as he possibly can and it’s something that I’m more than comfortable doing.”
The Rams’ offensive line this week will have three of their five Week 1 starters with left tackle Joe Noteboom, right tackle Rob Havenstein and left guard David Edwards, who missed Monday night’s game with a concussion. Alaric Jackson will start at right guard for the third consecutive game.
On Saturday, the Rams called up running back Malcolm Brown from the practice squad and signed him to the active roster. Brown is known for his pass protection and will likely see a handful of snaps to help Stafford, but the Rams will need more than just blocking from their backfield.
Running backs Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson have struggled to find a rhythm this season, making the Rams one-dimensional with their air attack that features heavy use of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who has a league-high 54 targets this season.
Kupp will have his hands full against Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, one of the best playmaking defensive backs in the NFL with 16 career interceptions in three seasons. If Stafford, who has six interceptions this season, locks onto Kupp, that could create plenty of takeaway opportunities for Diggs.
The Rams are aware they need to spread the ball around better and get Robinson involved early in games. Robinson is averaging 23.75 receiving yards this season and has only nine catches for 95 yards and one touchdown.
“We’ll find ways,” Kupp said about getting Robinson involved. “It’s going to come his way. He’s going to make some big plays for us.”
In addition to their concerns on offense, the Rams will need points to keep pace with Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush, who is 3-0 since taking over for the injured Dak Prescott.
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“I think they’re doing a really good job in the run game,” Rams middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “I think they’re taking a lot of pressure off (Rush) in the pass game. He’s making a lot of great throws, doing what he needs to do to win the game. So it’s a guy we definitely have to respect.”
The Cowboys’ offense is clicking, but they have their fair share of concerns. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who’s off to a hot start, is nursing a groin injury and considered “questionable” to play Sunday. Cowboys offensive lineman Jason Peters is “doubtful” with a chest injury and running back Tony Pollard missed practice Friday because of illness.
This could be the game where Donald sees his teammates take advantage of the one-on-one matchups. Or it could be Parsons’ teammates who capitalize on the extra attention he’ll likely get from the Rams.
It will come down to the pass rush for the Rams if they want Rush’s undefeated streak to end Sunday at SoFi Stadium.