Wide receiver Robert Woods has been one of the essential pieces of the Rams' offense in 2017.
Through 10 games, he leads the team in targets (70), receptions (47), and yards receiving (703).
But now Los Angeles will be without him for the next couple of games, after Woods suffered a left shoulder injury late in Sunday's game against the Vikings. In a season where the Rams have stayed remarkably healthy, Woods' absence will certainly be felt on the offense.
"I think you feel good about what a nice job our training staff has done, trying to avoid the things that you can prevent," head coach Sean McVay said Wednesday. "I think when you look at the Robert Woods injury, it's an unfortunate one. Just being involved in this game, inevitably you kind of know some of these things are going to naturally occur and that's where the next man up mentality kind of comes from. Guys have to do a good job stepping up, lock in this week, because of how important Robert was to us."
And there's more to Woods than just his on-field production. McVay and players have constantly praised Woods throughout the season for how he's been a leader for the wide receivers group.
"I think that on the field you obviously have the numbers and all that stuff and his production's been great," quarterback Jared Goff said. "But I think off the field, what his presence is at practice is something that people don't usually see as much. So, it's kind of maybe the bigger part of it. Obviously we miss him on the field, but having him out there every day is huge."
"It's a very significant loss," wideout Pharoh Cooper said. "Obviously Robert is a very important receiver and a leader in our group and on our team. So it's going to be next-man-up mentality."
McVay has said that the Rams will turn to more than one player to fill Woods' production. Aside fro Woods, Los Angeles has six other wide receivers currently on the roster — Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, Tavon Austin, Pharoh Cooper, Mike Thomas, and Josh Reynolds.
Of those receivers Watkins and Kupp are entrenched as starters, though Watkins' share of the targets could certainly increase. But McVay has consistently said that he'll look to do that within the framework of the offense.
"Sammy is a special player," McVay said. "You always want to try to get guys like him involved, but we also try to make sure that it's my responsibility and then we never want Jared to feel like he's got to force the ball – let the coverage and let whatever the defense presents dictate your decision making process in terms of whatever concept it is that we're running. I think he's done a good job with that."
"I don't think he needs to do anything different than what he's been doing," Goff said of Watkins. "He's been doing a great job, practicing hard and really been good in games. We need to find some ways to get him the ball a little bit more and something that we'll definitely be conscious of."
Austin has the most experience of the group, though he's been more of a do-it-all offensive weapon than a pure wide receiver this season. After Austin was on the field for only two snaps during Sunday's game, McVay said he must find ways to keep the wide receiver involved in the offense.
Could that mean more snaps as a pure wide receiver? It's possible. And Austin said he'd welcome it, though he's most concerned with how the team performs as a whole.
"I'm just ready whenever my name is called," Austin said. "I don't really get into who's down and who's out. We've got phenomenal players on this team, other guys that can step in, too. Just ready to do my part whenever my name is called."
And then there's Cooper, who has seen a few snaps at wide receiver this season — he's made six receptions for 47 yards — but has mostly been used as a return specialist. He's excelled in that role, averaging 10.4 yards per punt return and 30.2 yards per kick return. That's why McVay said he has to evaluate how much he'll use Cooper on the offense.
"[H]e's been such a good, positive returner for us that's impacted and affected the game in the right way, so you want to make sure that you continue to allow him to be special in that area," McVay said. "But, he does deserve to be able to get on the field and do some different things, so that will be a factor in it. It's not the determining factor, but because of what a good impact he's made in the return game, it has something to do with kind of our overall flow and kind of the plan going in."
For his part, Cooper said he's comfortable at any spot in the offense.
"I've been working at 'Z' and 'F' all year," Cooper said, referring to two of the specific wide receiver spots. "I know all the positions. I know a lot of guys are going to be rotating in there. As far as how the game is going to start, I'm not sure yet. But, I'm ready to go."
It's only been one practice, but Goff said he felt like the Rams adjusted well to Woods' absence.
"We've got a chance to see some guys step up. I think today at practice we had a good chance to see some guys," Goff said. "I think I know it will be kind of a by-committee approach, but each guy will have their opportunity in there and it will be cool — a chance to see these young guys get a chance and [we] don't expect much of a fall off. I know Robert's really special and his production has been great this year, but we need these guys to step up this week for sure."
We'll see how it all unfolds on Sunday.