Team effort lifts Rams over Cowboys in debut at sparkling SoFi

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The signage in the lower bowl was large and bold. It didn’t blink or rotate like other messages on the digital boards or the massive video screen in the Rams’ new $5 billion palatial home, hanging instead over a railing above the lower seats. Succinctly it said:

IT TAKES ALL OF US.

The message was a reference to social unrest in the streets and what it will take to make positive change. But perhaps fittingly it applied to the Rams’ performance on the field, as well, as Los Angeles relied on young and old, holdovers and newcomers, stars and relative unknowns for a 20-17 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys in SoFi Stadium.

It likely will have to be this way if the Rams are to return to the postseason after missing out last season. Two years ago, they rode the legs of Todd Gurley, the arm of Jared Goff and the dominance of defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a Super Bowl appearance, but last night’s opener looked dramatically different for different reasons.

Gurley is now gone, taking handoffs from Matt Ryan in Atlanta. And while Goff is still at the trigger, the approach he took in the passing game was safer and more conservative. The chunk plays for which they were known was absent, as Goff relied on a lot of misdirection, bootlegs and quick passes rather than looking downfield.

If nothing else, perhaps it was confirmation to them that success can be achieved in different ways. The Rams got significant contributions from the likes of Malcolm Brown, who ran 18 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns, including the first ever in SoFi Stadium; rookie safety Jordan Fuller, who led the team with eight tackles and had a fourth-down stop of wideout CeeDee Lamb early in the fourth quarter to prevent a go-ahead touchdown or a tying field goal; rookie kicker Samuel Sloman, who missed his first attempt but converted field goals from 35 and 31 yards; free-agent linebacker Leonard Floyd, who had a sack; and rookie receiver Van Jefferson, who had a 31-yard reception.

They were among the contributions that made for a memorable night for the Rams, who christened owner Stan Kroenke’s Hollywood-worthy project before an absent audience due to COVID-19 restrictions. The atmosphere was so surreal that coach Sean McVay said the silence was one of the memories he would carry from the game. Donald said it felt like a Little League contest, but without his mom and dad screaming, “Aaron! Aaron!” from the stands.

Donald led a unit that many thought would be the straight man to Dallas’ comedically rich offense. Glance across the lineup and there appear to be no holes. The line is one of the best in the league, the receivers include three potential 1,000-yard performers, running back Ezekiel Elliott is among the best at his position, and quarterback Dak Prescott is playing on a $31 million franchise tag.

And yet Los Angeles would have none of it. It yielded two first-half touchdowns but only a single field goal over the final two quarters. Twice it came up with fourth-down stops in the second half, including Fuller’s tackle of Lamb early in the fourth. It was curious that new Dallas coach Mike McCarthy chose not to kick the field goal to tie score, but perhaps he wanted to show confidence in the unit and set a tone. Problem was, tight end Dalton Schultz did not run his route deep enough to allow Lamb to cross underneath beyond the first-down marker.

“The conservative play is to kick the field goal,” McCarthy said, “But I felt really good about how we were moving the football. They made a hell of a play on the throw and catch.”

“Unbelievable play,” said McVay. “That flipped the whole momentum of the game. … That was the play of the game, arguably. Can’t say enough about Jordan Fuller’s maturity as a rookie. Outstanding.”

The Rams surrendered 127 yards from scrimmage to Elliott — 96 rushing and 31 receiving, with a score each way — but for the most part they found a hardened backbone at critical moments. Despite allowing Dallas possessions of seven, eight, nine (3x) and 10 plays, the Rams held the Cowboys to only 3 of 12 on third down, surrendered just 380 total yards (Prescott threw for 266 and one touchdown) and limited them to 24:22 in time of possession.

L.A.’s most important stand was its last one. Dallas took over at its own 9 with 2:28 to play, trailing by a field goal. Prescott found Amari Cooper for 5, 7 and 4 yards, then was sacked by Floyd. He recovered with a 12-yard scramble and 4-yard run by Elliott. Two incompletions set up a third-and-10 from the Dallas 34.

Prescott faked the handoff to Elliott, stood tall in the pocket and launched a deep pass down the left sideline, where Gallup pulled it in before falling. There was contact between him and Ramsey as they ran down the field, but it appeared debatable which way the call would go when the flag was thrown.

“Just watching it live, it looked like two guys hand-fighting,” said McCarthy. “I thought it was well-executed. I was surprised there was a call there either way. Obviously disappointed in the call, particularly at that point in the game. I thought they let both teams play tonight. You just don’t usually see that [call], particularly at a critical point in the game.”

Equally painful for McCarthy was that he lost two key players in the game: Tight end Blake Jarwin injured a knee and reportedly could be lost for the season, and inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch broke a collarbone.

“It’s tough to see guys, particularly some of your key guys, to start the season that way,” McCarthy said. “Tough loss, to say the least.”

The Rams would have said the same had the game fallen the other way, considering they never trailed. But they prevailed because of contributions from everyone. That might not have been the meaning behind the signage in the lower bowl, but it was appropriate all things considered.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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