The Los Angeles Rams host the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night in the NFL’s kickoff for the 2022 season. The last time the Rams played a game, they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, winning 23-20 to secure the franchise’s second Super Bowl win and the first as a Los Angeles-based team.
As the defending champs, LA hosts the NFL’s annual kickoff game, and while the league doesn’t always put the first matchup of its season at the home of the defending champs, it has done so often over the last 20 years. In 16 kickoff games including the defending Super Bowl champion since 2002, the prior year’s Super Bowl winner holds a 13-3 record. Only the 2012 New York Giants, 2013 Baltimore Ravens, and 2017 New England Patriots lost a kickoff game as a defending Super Bowl champ.
If the Bills are going to make the Rams the fourth such defending champion to lose its opening game, they’ll have to account for one of the league’s most talented rosters. Here are our five players to watch in this week’s contest.
QB Matthew Stafford
The former No. 1 overall pick had his most successful season in his first one away from the Detroit Lions, leading the Rams to a Super Bowl win in his fourth career postseason. Stafford led the NFL in interceptions last year with 17, but he also threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns over 601 attempts. He still has a fantastic arm, he’s still plenty accurate, and he is a great fit in head coach Sean McVay’s offensive system. Chances are good that Stafford will eclipse the 50,000-yards passing mark on his first completion of the season, as he enters play this year with 49,995 yards over the course of his 13-year career. Stafford took 30 sacks last year, the eighth time he’s been sacked at least that many times in a season. If the Bills can pressure him, hit him, and move him off his spot, they’ll have a great chance at victory on Thursday night.
RB Cam Akers
The third-year man made an incredible return from a torn Achilles’ tendon last year, coming back in December after tearing the Achilles on July 20. He led the Rams in carries and rushing yards in the postseason, carrying 67 times for 172 yards. That comes out to just 2.6 yards per carry, though, so he wasn’t very efficient. He did not play in any preseason games this summer, so it’s yet to be seen how explosive he’ll be in 2022. Buffalo struggled at times last year against the run, but after overhauling their defensive tackle group by adding DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, and Jordan Phillips, the team hopes to be much better up front. For all the passing accolades in McVay’s offense, he does love to run the ball. Setting the Rams up with long second and third downs makes them more one-dimensional, and it makes Buffalo’s stellar defense that much better. Clamping down on the running game is the key to that, and stopping Akers is the main goal.
WR Cooper Kupp
Stopping Cooper Kupp would be nice, but let’s be realistic: you can really only hope to contain him, as Kupp was one of the best football players in the league last year regardless of position. Kupp led the league in targets (191), receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947), and receiving touchdowns (16) while finishing third in MVP voting and first in Offensive Player of the Year voting. In the postseason, Kupp continued to rampage through opposing defenses, and he led the league in targets (42), receptions (33), receiving yards (478), and receiving touchdowns (6) in the playoffs, too. Kupp had at least six catches and 92 receiving yards in all but two of his games last year, both of which came against the Arizona Cardinals (in Week 4, he caught five passes for 64 yards in a 37-20 loss, and in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, he caught five passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in the Rams’ 34-11 victory). Kupp is probably going to see a combination of Taron Johnson and one of Buffalo’s two safeties, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, among other bracket helpers in zone coverages. If Buffalo can force Stafford to throw outside the hashes to players like Allen Robinson II and Van Jefferson, who are fine players, it will be a win for the Bills. Limiting the damage Kupp does is essential to victory.
DT Aaron Donald
Speaking of players who can’t truly be stopped, but can hopefully be contained, there isn’t a force like Donald playing defensive tackle anywhere. Arguably, Donald is the best pass rusher to ever line up at defensive tackle, though one could make a case that John Randle holds that title—for now. Randle retired with 137.5 sacks as a defensive tackle over 219 career games. Donald has 98 career sacks in just 127 games. Donald finished with 12.5 regular-season sacks last year, adding 3.5 more in the postseason. Mitch Morse and either Rodger Saffold or Ryan Bates will certainly have to double-team him, and it’s possible that the Bills will commit one of the running backs to staying home as Josh Allen’s personal protector at times to keep him clean. If the Bills can move the pocket and force Donald to work to catch Allen, then he can become frustrated, and when he becomes frustrated, he has been known to lose his composure. He’s been First-Team All-Pro for seven consecutive years for a reason, though, so the Bills will have to do everything in their power to try to limit him in this one.
CB Jalen Ramsey
Ramsey is a long, physical corner who has caught the ire of Bills fans before, making disparaging remarks about Allen in a GQ interview back in 2018. That storyline isn’t really relevant anymore given how much time has passed, but it always comes up when Ramsey and Allen cross paths—and probably will for the foreseeable future. Ramsey had another phenomenal year in 2021, making First-Team All-Pro for the third time in his career. He intercepted four passes, broke up 16 more, and had 77 tackles in the regular season. He added four postseason pass breakups to his ledger. He’ll probably spend a lot of time on Stefon Diggs, which leaves Troy Hill to cover Gabe Davis. That’s a matchup in Buffalo’s favor, but don’t think that the Bills won’t be able to target Diggs just because of Ramsey's presence. When the two squared off against one another in Week 3 of the 2020 season, Diggs had four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown in the contest. The Ramsey vs. Diggs matchup is going to be a spotlight from start to finish.