Unheralded Los Angeles Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua keeps breaking tackles and breaking records on his way to a historic rookie season that could end with the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Nacua totaled nine receptions for 164 yards and a touchdown as the Rams held off a late rally by the New Orleans Saints to secure a 30-22 victory in a Thursday night contest at SoFi Stadium.
The win was the Rams’ fifth over the last six games, improving their record to 8-7 on the season — that currently has them sitting at the No. 6 seed in the postseason, while the Saints dropped to 7-8 on the year.
But the star of the show for the Rams was the team’s hard-charging rookie, fifth-round draft pick in Nacua, who had a tough, 7-yard run on a jet sweep for a first down late in the game and a recovery on an onside kick that helped seal the win for the Rams.
Nacua finished his fourth game of the season with 150-plus receiving yards — the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era — and passed Michael Thomas (92) for the third-most catches by a rookie in a single season in NFL history. The memorable night for Nacua included new Los Angeles Dodger Shohei Ohtani in attendance, wearing the BYU product’s No. 17 jersey.
“[C.J.] Stroud has had a great year, but this guy is — he would get my vote,” Rams head coach Sean McVay told reporters after the game. “He’s really special. But the best part about him is he doesn’t worry about those things. He worries about just being a great teammate, continuing to improve his game, and sure love this team. And he’s one of those guys that you really love.”
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Nacua’s versatility allows McVay to move him all over the formation to create mismatches for big plays. According to Next Gen Stats, Nacua was used in shift or motion on 21 of his 66 snaps (31.8%) against the Saints, gaining 107 yards from scrimmage when going in motion, the second most by any player in a game this season.
Nacua’s 1,327 receiving yards is second only to Tyreek Hill (1,542). He has 96 receptions and five total touchdowns this season. Nacua also has rushed for 70 yards. He needs just 129 receiving yards to break Ja’Marr Chase’s rookie record in a single season (1,455 receiving yards) and nine catches to break Jaylen Waddle’s rookie record for receptions in a single season (104).
Along with his ability to come down with tough, contested catches, Nacua’s knack for making smaller defenders miss is unique — reminiscent of another physical receiver with the ball in his hands in Deebo Samuel. Nacua’s 553 yards after catch is also second to Hill (628).
“I’m blessed to be around the guys in this locker room, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Nacua said, when asked about his sustained success this season. “They help support me and give me confidence to do what I can. And they trust me to make the plays, so there is no pressure. So, being able to go out there to make the plays and play free comes easy.”
Like Nacua, quarterback Matthew Stafford had another big night, finishing 24 of 34 passing for 328 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Over the last five weeks, Stafford has thrown for 14 touchdowns and just one interception, with at least two passing touchdowns a game during that stretch.
Along with Nacua, Stafford found another weapon on offense in Demarcus Robinson. The 29-year-old veteran receiver finished with six receptions for 82 yards and a score. Over the last five games, Robinson has 19 receptions for 264 yards and four touchdowns on 28 targets.
Matthew Stafford, Rams destroy Derek Carr, Saints
Second-year pro Kyren Williams continues to provide balance on offense. The Notre Dame product eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season, finishing with 104 rushing yards on 22 carries and a score. Williams topped 100 rushing yards for the sixth time this year, tying Todd Gurley’s record set in 2016.
Defensively, the Rams held the Saints to 22 points and 339 total yards, sacking Derek Carr twice and forcing him into an interception.
While the Rams are playing well on both sides of the football, they are still struggling on special teams. Kicker Lucas Haverisik missed another field goal, this one from 47 yards. Haverisik is 15 of 20 on field goals this season, including 2 of 6 between 40 and 49 yards.
Punter Ethan Evans also had a punt blocked, which led to a New Orleans touchdown.
“There’s so many moving parts on every single snap and we’re interested in being solution-oriented,” McVay said about the special teams miscues. “And so, there’s going to be some things that we can look at, we’ll clean up, and then we’ll figure out what that means as we move forward.”
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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