By Dave Campbell
The Los Angeles Rams arrived in Minnesota with the NFL's highest-scoring offense, a machine averaging 33 points per game and making the team the talk of the league with this sharp turnaround under new coach Sean McVay.
Their four-game winning streak was tossed aside by a determined Vikings defense in a 24-7 defeat on Sunday in this matchup of NFC division leaders.
After a 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, the only tangible production by the Rams was extra punting practice for Johnny Hekker. The Rams totaled just 254 yards, with 54 yards coming from on a garbage-time possession at the end of the game against mostly Vikings backups.
“We can play a lot better than we performed,” said Jared Goff, who had guided the Rams to a 144-41 scoring advantage during the streak with 1,025 passing yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception.
The Vikings started the second half by forcing four punts in a row by the Rams (7-3), who also led the league entering the week with a third-down conversion rate of 46.7 percent. They moved the chains just three times in 11 opportunities against the Vikings.
“They had some good tight coverage. They had some disguises, some different things that disrupted our timing and our rhythm,” said McVay, who declared his team “humbled” by the Vikings throughout the course of the afternoon at daunting U.S. Bank Stadium.
With the crowd noise reverberating off the translucent roof to give the defense, which ranked fifth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed, an even greater advantage, Goff often had to walk back and forth to tell his wide receivers the plays before the snap to keep McVay's fast-paced, no-huddle scheme going.
Goff finished 23 for 37 for 225 yards and no turnovers, taking only one sack.
He didn't force any dangerous throws or take any huge hits, but the unpredictable pressure the Vikings sent at him from all position levels added up over time and clearly took the second-year quarterback out of his element. Hekker was forced to punt six times, the second-highest total of the season.
“It'll be good to see what this adversity will do for our team,” Goff said. “We responded to every bit of adversity we faced so far and expect no different.”
The defense was stout in the first half, forcing punts by the Vikings on two of four possessions, and the Rams were in position to take a one-touchdown lead late in the second quarter. Rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp caught a pass over the middle on third-and-4 from the 11-yard line and reached the 1, before Vikings safety Anthony Harris stripped the ball out and recovered the fumble with 4:03 left before halftime.
“That's seven points coming off the board there. You never know what happens if they go up 14-7,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said.
What has made the Vikings defense so difficult to play against this season, as the Rams found out, is the improvement in stopping the run.
Rushing the passer and solid coverage in the secondary have long been hallmarks of coach Mike Zimmer's scheme, but the Vikings have been just as tough this year when the ball stays on the ground. After Todd Gurley capped the opening possession with a short touchdown run, the NFL's fifth-leading rusher had only 17 yards on 11 carries the rest of the game.
“If you want to play after the regular season, if you want to play late in the year in big games,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, “this is the atmosphere you're going to have to learn how to play and win in.”
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