Hekker of a Game: Rams get leg up on Packers

The Green Bay Packers fans flooded the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Aaron Rodgers had a double-digit lead, and it appeared the offensive juggernaut that is the Sean McVay Machine, playing without Cooper Kupp, had finally been out-schemed and out-executed for one week. The Los Angeles Rams offense had punted their first five possessions, had mustered only 94 yards on 30 plays, were being shutout, and Quarterback Jared Goff was barely completing 40% of his passes and had been sacked three times on third downs. Arguably their best offensive play was a 12-yard connection from Punter Johnny Hekker to Cornerback, and former Packer, Sam Shields. It was Hekker and John Fassel’s Special Teams units which caused the tides to turn in the Rams favor. Ultimately those often forgotten kicking and punting teams would be the deciding factor of the game.

Following the Rams fifth straight possession that would end in a punt, and trailing 10-0 with less than 3:00 left in the 2nd Quarter, Hekker’s precision boot was downed at the Packers one yard line by Sam Shields. The very next play, Mark Barron bum rushed Bryan Bulaga to the point of attack and collected Aaron Jones’ remains for the two-point safety. The safety was just the wake-up call the Rams offense needed to rise from their slumber. The Rams possession featured the consistent chunk plays we had become accustomed to all season. After a 10-yard strike to Todd Gurley, Goff eluded the rush of Kenny Clark, and zipped a low ball along the sideline to Brandin Cooks with Jaire Alexander in tight coverage.  The Official’s review would overturn the initial incomplete ruling and give the Rams the ball down at the Packers 35-yard line. The flare for dramatics continued as the next play was a pass from Goff to Gurley down the left sideline, near the goal line, in which Gurley bobbled the ball before getting his feet in-bounds. The second reviewed play in-a-row would confirm another completion for the Rams. On 3rd & 1 from the 1-yard line, Goff found Josh Reynolds for the touchdown to quickly make it only a 10-8 Packers lead at Half Time (The Rams would strangely fail their two-point conversion attempt).

After the Rams had a three-and-out to start the Second Half, Aaron Rodgers connected on five straight passes to his slew of receivers — Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, and Equanimeous St. Brown — to get the ball to the Rams 26-yard line. It was then that the reigning Shop Wrecker of the Universe, Aaron Donald, decided to take matters into his own hands, beating Lane Taylor outside to sack Aaron Rodgers 9 yards back on 3rd & 2, leading to a Mason Crosby field goal.

The drive encapsulated how the season has gone for both units. The Packers offense, namely Aaron Rodgers, can get hot and distribute the ball to his go-to target in Davante Adams and then evenly to the rest of his pass catchers to move the ball, as evidenced by their 6.2 yards-per-play average (7th in the NFL) . A major issue of the 2018 Packers is their 20th Ranked Red Zone offense (as opposed to 4th last season) and you can’t settle for Mason Crosby field goals when facing the Rams. On the flip-side, Wade Phillips’ defense is aided by their offenses dominance, while they’re 27th in yards-per-rush (4.8), their opponent is often trailing and unable to rely on the run heavily. The Rams defense believes in the Bend-But-Let-Aaron-break philosophy, they’re 21st in yards-per-play allowed (5.8) but still boast the Leagues 6th best scoring defense (19.4 points/game). Wade Phillips has the luxury of regularly relying on Aaron Donald to completely dismantle an opposing offenses’ possession a handful of times a game.

Mike Pettine’s pressure packed defense surprisingly stifled the Rams offense a majority of the First Half and the opening possession of the 3rd Quarter with solid play by the front seven, highlighted by Blake Martinez (12 tackles and a sack) and the very underrated Kenny Clark (5 tackles and 2 sacks). While the most unexpected performance from the Packers defense came from rookie Jaire Alexander, who had missed the previous 3 games and was rotating in coverage between Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, yet still wound up with a whopping 5 pass deflections on the day. The Rams offense wouldn’t be kept dormant by Pettine’s crew for an entire game, the Rams would ride the Gurley train for 18 points on their three possessions to open the game up. Todd Gurley, the NFL’s most consistently dominant running back in 2018, would rip off nearly 200 total yards on the day and scored a touchdown for his 11th consecutive game, tying the Franchise record set by Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch in 1950-51 (A feat never achieved by Eric Dickerson or Marshall Faulk).  Todd Gurley also displayed his versatility as a receiver, when lined up in the slot he recorded 3 receptions, 72 yards, and a touchdown. The beauty of the Rams’ offense is how well Sean McVay is able to deploy Gurley.

Following the Rams 18-point onslaught, in which the Packers had squeezed in an Aaron Jones touchdown of their own, Rodgers would find rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 40-yard bomb to give the Packers a 27-26 4th Quarter lead. The Packers got the ball back in the middle of the 4th Quarter with the opportunity to add to their one-point lead. Unfortunately, on a crucial third down, Aaron Donald again reared his ugly head and sacked Aaron Rodgers for a loss of ten yards.

What proceeded was a series of unfortunate Special Teams events for the Packers.

The Donald sack lead to a meager 25-yard shank by JK Scott, giving the Rams the ball at the Green Bay 40-yard line, down 1, with 5:20 left in the game. Todd Gurley got the Rams in comfortable Greg “the Leg” Zuerlein range on a 3rd & 6 23-yard rush. Unfortunately, penalties left the Rams with a 2nd & 20 and Sean McVay decided to go the conservative route for the first time in his young life. McVay settled for two consecutive run plays and a Zuerlein field goal to give his team only a 29-27 lead.

We’ve all seen it before, #12 on the sideline, trailing a score or less, waiting for his kiss of death moment in the waning minutes of a game. McVay’s Rams were only up two points and were giving Aaron Rodgers the ball back with 2:09 left, fully equipped with one timeout and the 2:00 warning. It appeared the Rams loss column was in danger of having some company.

The fans never got another classic Aaron Rodgers moment though. Return man Ty Montgomery inexplicably took the kickoff out of the end zone and Ramik Wilson forced a fumble and recovered the ball. The Rams were able to eat the remainder of the clock thanks to a Gurley first down run right off the backside of Andrew Whitworth. Gurley voluntarily went down at the four-yard line instead of scoring a touchdown, simultaneously sending Fantasy Owners, Las Vegas, and the Red Zone Channel into a frenzy. Jared Goff in the victory formation sealed the narrow escape for the undefeated Los Angeles Rams.

Special Teams mishaps and the inability to build a larger lead while they put the clamps on the Rams offense are what inevitably did the Packers in. The Rams took a necessary punch and found a way to win a close one, which is a pre-requisite for Post Season success. This game played out like a classic January battle and for the sake of football enthusiasts a rematch down the road would be highly desired.