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Week 8 Preview: Offense rolling, defense opportunistic as Rams head to Houston to take on Texans

For the second week in a row, the Los Angeles Rams take on an opponent riding a six-game losing streak.

Last Sunday, they had to scratch and claw to put away the Lions.

Next, the lowly Houston Texans – bringing up the rear in the worst division in the NFL.

As the Rams found out against Detroit, facing a desperate franchise with nothing to lose can be a frightening prospect. But this Halloween, the visitors should strike fear in the heart of their opponent.

Six Wins, One Loss, Zero Separation

As the Rams prepare to travel to AFC territory, look at the disparity in records between the contenders atop each conference.

In the NFC, L.A. is one of five teams with just a single loss.

In the AFC, even the top seeds have at least two stumbles.

Thus, despite all their great work through two months, if the postseason were to begin today, the Rams would go on the road as a five-seed and a Wild Card team.

Normally, playing an eighth game represents a midway point. In 2021, things are just getting started.

Here Comes the Boom

If Andrew Whitworth cannot go with a knee injury this weekend, it would be yet another valuable opportunity to evaluate his backup – and heir apparent? – Joe Noteboom.

One of several Texas natives on the roster, Noteboom got a nice, consistent stretch of nine starts last season. He graded out well in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus, but ranked 92nd among tackles for the season.

If 2021 is the last hurrah for Whitworth, then the Rams have a crucial need to address in 2022. And Noteboom isn't under contract beyond this season.

Lone Star

Speaking of Texans, Matthew Stafford has roots in the Lonestar State, but hasn't found much success there as a professional.

He's 1-4 career in the state, including playoffs, and 0-3 versus Houston in his career. As we documented last week, here is another chance to inch closer to NFL Bingo.

Deeper Than the Deepest

On to the Cooper Kupp portion of the program. What new is there to write about the NFL's leading receiver?

How about the fact that not only do his stats scream Number One Receiver, so do his depth of target and percentage of deep targets – both of which are at career-high levels.

In fact, according to NFL Research, Kupp is one of six players in the Next Gen Stats era to have a deep reception in seven consecutive games within a season – one shy of the record. He also leads the NFL with nine catches on deep balls this season, two more than all Rams receivers had combined in 2020 (seven).

It gets better: Stafford tops the league with 21 yards per attempt on deep shots, and the Texans allow a 145.8 passer rating on such targets, ranking as the NFL's worst secondary at preventing explosives.

Grass is Always Greenard

There isn't much the Texans do particularly well, but a group that just sacked Kyler Murray four times will get your attention.

And Houston's front definitely has Stafford's.

"They've got a bunch of guys … they kind of rotate through that really are just playing with outstanding effort," the Rams quarterback said this week. "You see it all across the tape. They played really well against (the Cardinals)."

Two of those sacks belonged to second-year edge defender Jonathan Greenard, who has "been a bright spot" according to his head coach David Culley.

Staying Grounded

For all the above verbiage about slinging it downfield, coming off a game in which the Rams totaled a season-low in rushing yards and averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, I'd expect better in Houston.

Perhaps the loss of tight end Johnny Mundt was even more impactful than we anticipated. The offense lived in 11-personnel last week with Tyler Higbee playing all 65 snaps and Van Jefferson, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods each accounting for 94-plus percent of reps. That doesn't feel sustainable or prudent, though I understand why it was necessary in the context of last week's Lions game.

Just because the Rams don't have a second proven option at tight end, though, doesn't mean this offense can't run the football efficiently, no matter the personnel grouping. For what it's worth, the Houston defense ranks 30th against the run.

The Texans weren't any better running the ball last week in Arizona. They rushed for a total of 42 yards at a clip of 2.8 yards per carry.

And that was before they traded their lead back Mark Ingram back to the Saints on Wednesday, drawing the ire of Brandin Cooks.

What's Cookin'?

Checking in on the former Rams wide receiver, he's being relied upon heavily – almost exclusively – in the Texans passing game.

Now 28 years-old, Cooks is accounting for more than 31 percent of his team's targets.

And despite deficient and inconsistent quarterback play, he's tied for the NFL lead with 15 third-down receptions for 230 yards.

The Texans No. 2 receiver by targets is rookie Nico Collins, who's amassed a total of eight grabs for 111 yards this season.

It will be interesting to see how Raheem Morris arranges the Rams coverage, accordingly.

Neon Deayon

If everything goes according to plan, this will be the final game of cornerback Darious Williams' absence on short term injured reserve.

In his place, fan-and-locker-room favorite Dont'e Deayon has been thriving. The 27-year old has played more than 60 snaps in each of the Rams last two wins, at New York and versus Detroit. And according to Pro Football Focus, he's graded out quite well, with a 2021 coverage grade of 74.8 to this juncture – good for 20th among his peers (minimum 75 coverage snaps).

The question becomes, will that be enough to secure his place on the active roster for the remainder of 2021?

"I want nothing else," Deayon told us on Rams Revealed. "It's go time. Either you're contributing to a team winning a Super Bowl or you're not. And that's my goal is to do whatever I can to help this team – contribute to make it to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl."

Quick Fix

I asked Sean McVay this week whether resolving the issues in the kicking game – where the Rams currently rank 29th in the league in DVOA – is a matter of working harder or smarter.

"Know what to do, but also go play fast full speed," McVay said of his hopes for the players in those roles. "Sometimes you can overthink things. Sometimes you've got guys that are so conscientious that it inhibits your ability to just let it go, man.

"It's easy for me to hold the clicker in my hand and say, 'Oh you should've done this and that.' But when you're making those full-speed decisions… I want to see guys go full speed, no fear of failure… and I think that's going to lead to better success."

Let's see if the Detroit conversions from last Sunday snap the Rams out of whatever third-phase funk they've been in for far too long, now.

Zero to 50

Meantime, McVay is a win away from his 50th victory, still shy of the midway point of his fifth season (not to mention his 36th birthday). When he gets there, he'll be the youngest coach since the Great Depression to reach that milestone.

Here's to hitting the mark on Sunday, and to the next 50 beyond, as well.

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