If Rams’ WR Van Jefferson can’t play against Bills, what happens in his place?
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Often overlooked, Rams receiver Van Jefferson added 800 yards and a cool 16.0 yards per catch to their high-profile offense in 2021. Jefferson even opened this season with a highlight-reel deep catch for a touchdown against Chicago, the Rams’ first goal of a Super Bowl season.
But the dependable third-year wide receiver may not stand a chance of repeating that moment Thursday night against the Bills when the Rams begin their 2022 season.
Jefferson had the second of two separate off-season knee surgeries when training camp opened in late July. While he’s stayed on track with his rehab – which initially forecast a return at this precise time – the Rams have maintained that he’s “commonplace” and agreed internally that they won’t push him back, hoping he is healthy and available for the entire season (even if that means missing the start). Jefferson has been able to work with athletic trainers during training and has taken on reps on the JUGS machine post-workout.
However, since Jefferson didn’t actually train until Monday of the short week, there’s a real possibility he’ll be ruled out for the September 8 opener.
“Like I said, we’re just taking it one day at a time,” said head coach Sean McVay. What happens to receiver #3 when Jefferson isn’t on the field?
Since his absence began, the Rams have approached the position “by committee,” meaning a few different receivers took over from Jefferson’s quick assignment at training camp and joint drills against the Bengals in late August.
Sophomore recipients Ben Skowronek and Tutu Atwell have both emerged as options in that regard. Both were drafted by the Rams in 2021 (Atwell in the second round and Skowronek in the seventh), and both players’ rookie seasons have been tough. Atwell missed the start of training camp while recovering from COVID-19 and suffered a shoulder injury late in the season, while Skowronek, who initially played mostly on special teams, went on offense late in the season and after the season due to injuries to other players changed – but also worked through consistency problems.
Both players have come under scrutiny from the fan base after adverse moments in 2021.
But at camp, the two young recipients kept popping up as their snap percentage increased.
“Ben gives you a bit of that ‘Robert Woods’ vibe in terms of the way he can compete, all the effort (and) the way he’s both with and without throughout the game football competes. His knowledge on offense, I mean, he’s playing fast right now, too,” said offensive coordinator Liam Coen, giving Skowronek a huge compliment by comparing him to the Rams’ former ultra-reliable, ultra-physical veteran receiver.
“He doesn’t just block boys. He is currently playing at a high level in the receiver position. He plays fast. He’s a guy who can really keep his speed in a straight line. He’s really gotten better at following football I think during training camp and he’s playing with a lot of confidence now.
Skowronek understands the Rams want to play at the pace, and that means becoming a full receiver. It’s one thing to know the full course trees, but quite another to be able to stay on the field even during running games so the team doesn’t have to stop time for substitutions.
“It was really an everyday thing,” Skowronek said the athlete on Monday, his growth through training camp and the pre-season. “Getting better every day: that was my attitude throughout the camp. The coaches believed in me, really coached me… I feel like I was capable of that and I’m really looking forward to my chance on Thursday.
“Just being able to know offense – playing every position, doing everything – obviously everyone on that offense knows there’s a lot that receivers have to do in the running game. Being willing and able to do that is, I think, a skill for me and I’m very proud of that.”
Skowronek – who weighs 6-2 and 225lbs – is relishing the thought of punching someone properly for the first time in months. He’s also on the joke: The Rams run a lot of tight-end concepts (or “12-staff”) from 11-staff looks, which she and he sometimes refer to as “11.5-staff.”
“I remember writing in my notebook at Notre Dame, ‘Be the best blocking tight end in the country.'” Skowronek laughed when he noticed his slip. “Or ‘be the best blocking receiver in the country.’ Same thing.”
Meanwhile, Atwell’s consistency in tracking shots and at the point of capture has visibly improved, especially when getting behind cover. His size and stamina will be questioned until he puts together more consistent work against actual opponents – Atwell is 5-9 and around 155lbs if that is the case – but he’s ready to prove he can contribute in a number of ways.
“It’s always been there, I just needed to get a feel for it and do what I do best for that confidence to come back,” he said the athlete. “I feel great just being part of the game plan and knowing I’ll have the opportunity to show (what) I can and I’m just excited and ready to go.”
Atwell said he reached out to No. 1 wide receiver Cooper Kupp during the offseason and asked if they could hold additional study sessions together, which he said had yielded results.
Coen indicated Atwell’s knowledge of offense has come a long way since his rookie season, and the Rams will need that to manifest if the more experienced Jefferson can’t help against a built-up Buffalo defense — through the extreme frequent use of the nickel package – to counteract an 11-strong team.
“Tutu, speaking of confidence, it stays trending (points up),” Coen added. “Tutu is a guy you see (as) a little guy, maybe just (a downfield guy) but he knows our offense. He gives us the ability to manipulate coverages in different ways just because of his top speed, but he also knows the system. He can play a few different positions. He just gives us some flexibility, which Ben has, but in a different way.”
(Top Photo by Ben Skowronek: Jevone Moore / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)