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    Young Rams aren’t just ‘happy to be here’ in the playoffs
    • January 13, 2024

    THOUSAND OAKS — The common narrative when a young team makes the postseason is that the players are just happy to be there. They aren’t supposed to be here, they’re in the playoffs ahead of schedule, so they’ve already overachieved.

    So here the Rams are, in the postseason, ahead of schedule after winning 10 games in a year that was supposed to be about developing and rebuilding. Potentially, happy to be here.

    But sitting in the middle of the Rams’ locker room as they’ve prepared to face the Detroit Lions on Sunday in the NFC wild-card round has been the Vince Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl LVI. Los Angeles Rams 23, Cincinnati Bengals 20 etched into its face.

    In front of it, a white piece of paper bearing a handwritten message in black ink: “Why not us!”

    “It’s very possible, and it’s on us,” running back Kyren Williams said of the message he receives looking at the trophy. “It’s on everybody who’s on this team that they want to buy in to this postseason and go as far as they want to go, it’s on us. Seeing that trophy every day is a reminder that it is possible and if you keep working, if we keep working as a team, as a unit, we’ll be right where we want to be when it’s time to be there.”

    Williams is one of 22 second-year and rookie players who were not around to experience the Rams’ championship run following the 2021 season. After last year’s 5-12 campaign, more than 20% of the Rams’ roster has no playoff experience.

    But while the Rams are among the youngest teams in the NFL, let alone the playoffs, a championship core still exists from 2021. Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford, Tyler Higbee, Rob Havenstein, Ernest Jones and others were all key contributors to the Rams’ first championship in Los Angeles.

    And by putting that trophy in the locker room, head coach Sean McVay wants the younger players to rely on these veterans and their knowledge as they make their playoff debuts Sunday.

    “I think it’s really settling for those guys to be able to say, ‘What is it like?’ There’s nothing like that peer-to-peer advice, perspective,” McVay said. “So there’s examples that are on this team, that have really done a great job modeling the way. And then there’s a lot of young guys that they got a lot of confidence to be able to go cut it loose and play. And that’s what I want to see from our team.”

    From Stafford to Donald to Kupp to Havenstein, the advice for young guys has been simple: Stick with what has worked for you this year. Don’t make things bigger than they need to be. But don’t shy away from the stakes.

    “My message to the defense yesterday was just, we are playing for something, right? It’s win or go home. You got to play every snap like it’s your last, man,” Donald said. “I feel like since the bye, it’s been playoff ball for us. We couldn’t afford to really lose too many games. So every week, every approach was it’s playoff ball, play it like it’s your last game and I think guys have been doing that. So you let them know what’s on stakes and what type of game this is, the urgency is, but overall football is football. You go out there and play.”

    And the Lions, first-time winners of the NFC North, present plenty of problems to diagnose.

    Former Rams quarterback Jared Goff now leads the offense with creative coordinator Ben Johnson calling the plays. Toward the end of Goff’s Rams tenure, there were questions of whether he was the type of quarterback who could win if everything around him – from play calling to protection to route running – wasn’t in perfect alignment.

    But despite being sixth in the NFL in pressured dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, Goff was ninth in the NFL in passer rating this season while completing a career-high 67.3% of his passes and throwing for 30 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

    But there are still some vulnerabilities the Rams can try to exploit.

    “Jared has been able to display that since he’s been there, the mental toughness, the ability to bring people up,” Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “If you can get pressure on him and really bother him and frustrate him a little bit, that gives us a better chance for success.”

    On the defensive side for Detroit, second-year defensive end Aidan Hutchinson looms. The Michigan product pressured quarterbacks 101 times this season, according to PFF, and won his matchups against blockers 21.3% of the time.

    “I think the biggest thing is the effort mixed with the talent that just pops off the film. He’s got a great feel for the game,” Havenstein said. “Usually young guys are a little bit more robotic but that’s what kind of sets him apart right now.”

    But Hutchinson was given little support in pass rush, with the Lions ranking 22nd in the league with a 6.52% sack percentage. The Rams have had success in stopping singular pass rushers – take shutting out Myles Garrett against the Browns this season – and will try to replicate that sort of game plan.

    One thing the Rams couldn’t truly replicate, try as they might, at practice this week is the atmosphere waiting for them at Ford Field. The Lions will be hosting their first home playoff game in 30 years, and a city that normally turns up in the worst of times will have something to truly be loud about Sunday.

    But the Rams are embracing this, too. During a defensive meeting this week, secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant asked whom everyone’s favorite villain was.

    “Mine was Scarface. Couple guys picked The Joker,” Morris said. “But it is a cool thing, man, the playoffs and going into hostile environments and you really love that, right? No better feeling in sports than to go in there and be the Darth Vader.”

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    And lest the Rams somehow lose sight of what lies in front of them, a sterling silver reminder was present in the locker room all week.

    “It tells me that there’s a lot to fight for,” rookie defensive tackle Kobie Turner said. “We’ve been in the playoffs since we’ve come back off of the bye. It’s never been about just getting there. That’s been our mentality the entire time. We’re excited to just take it one step at a time and go win games. We fully expect to win each game that we play. There’s no consolation prizes. It’s about winning it all.”

    Rams (10-7) at Detroit (12-5)

    What: NFC wild-card playoff game

    When: 5 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Ford Field, Detroit

    How to watch: NBC Ch. 4

    ​ Orange County Register