Rams, Chargers ready to open NFL season this week

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

One team has a veteran quarterback making his debut with a new team.

The other has a young, second-year quarterback hoping to prove his rookie year was no fluke.

The National Football League is a quarterback-driven league so Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert will be the focal points when the Rams and Chargers begin the 2021 NFL regular season Sept. 12.

The Chargers open the season on the road in Washington, while the Rams will have the eyes of the nation on them against the Chicago Bears in the Sunday Night Game of the Week on NBC.

The Rams hope the veteran presence of Stafford will be able to get them back to the Super Bowl after a two-year absence. In the offseason, they traded last year’s quarterback Jared Goff and three draft picks to the Detroit Lions for Stafford, who until the trade was probably best known in Los Angeles for being a high school teammate of Dodgers’ pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

Stafford toiled in near anonymity in Detroit. In 12 years, he passed for more than 45,000 yards, good enough for 16th on the career yardage list, and 282 touchdowns.

But Stafford played in only three postseason games in those 12 years with the Lions and was a loser in all three.

He could equal three postseason games this year if he can get the Rams into the playoffs.

The Rams were a wild card playoff team last year, but general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay weren’t happy with the offensive production with Goff and have made some changes in the offseason to make the offense more potent.

In addition to trading for Stafford, the Rams signed speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson and after running back Cam Akers went down with an Achilles injury before training camp, Snead traded for Sony Michel.

The offensive line is still sturdy and Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp return at wide receiver to give Stafford plenty of targets.

Defensively, the Rams still have Aaron Donald anchoring the middle of the defensive line and Jalen Ramsey playing corner. Those are two players any team would be happy to build a defense around and the Rams should be as solid on defense as they will be explosive on offense.

The only thing potentially preventing a run deep into the postseason is the competition in the NFC Western Division. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers both consider themselves capable of reaching the postseason as well.

The team that stays healthiest over the now 17-game schedule is likely to come out on top come January. Once in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The Chargers, who share SoFi Stadium with the Rams, also have high hopes for the 2021 season.

Herbert returns at quarterback after winning Rookie of the Year honors last season when the Chargers finished 7-9 in third place in the AFC West. Herbert took over the reins of the offense in the second week of the season and ended up setting league records for most completions (396) and touchdown passes (31) by a rookie quarterback.

Of the team’s nine losses last season, five were by five points or less and the team ended the season on a four-game winning streak after getting flattened by the New England Patriots, 45-0 in week 13.

The Chargers replaced Anthony Lynn as head coach with Brandon Staley, who the defensive coordinator of the Rams last season.

The Chargers have rebuilt the offensive line to provide Herbert with more protection.

The Chargers were a mess on defense last year, mostly because their best players were hurt.

Staley hopes that safety Derwin James, who has missed most of the last two years with injuries, will be healthy all year and able to play at an all star level. The same is true for edge rusher Joey Boza.

Staley also must improve the Chargers’ special teams’ play, which was horrible last year.

Like the Rams, the Chargers must contend with a divisional foe standing between them and a playoff berth.

The Kansas City Chiefs are among the best teams in football, meaning the Chargers are playing for a wild card berth from the start.

They have the potential of going 10-7 if Herbert matures into the quarterback everybody thinks he can become and if Staley’s defensive scheme improves play on that side of the ball.

The NFL season ends in February with the Super Bowl in SoFi Stadium. The season begins with both the Chargers and Rams hoping to be there.

The Rams have the best chance of fulfilling that dream this year.

A-PLUS EFFORT: It may have taken longer than most of us expected, but Chip Kelly may have had the right idea all along.

The Bruins played their best game since Jim Mora was head coach Sept. 4 when they defeated Southeastern Conference powerhouse LSU, 38-27 in front of the biggest crowd for a UCLA home game in many years.

More than 20,000 LSU fans made the trek from the land of hurricanes only to meet up with another disaster.

Less than two years removed from a national championship team, the Tigers took a 7-0 lead over the Bruins in the second quarter and never led again. Transfer running back Zach Charbonnet once again led the Bruins offense, gaining 117 yards on 11 carries and scoring a touchdown.

Brittain Brown, another transfer, gained 96 yards on 17 carries as the Bruins rolled up 210 rushing yards.

In two games, Charbonnet has gained 228 yards on only 17 carries and scored three times.

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw only 16 passes, but gained 260 yards through the air. Three of his nine completions went for touchdowns, including a 75-yard pass to tight end Greg Dulcich in the first half.

The Bruins defense held LSU to 49 yards rushing.

Max Johnson completed 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns to Kayshon Boutte, but the Bruins played tough defense down the stretch when everybody was expecting the Bruins to wilt.

The Bruins are off this week, preparing for their final non-conference game with Fresno State Sept. 18 before opening the Pac 12 Conference season Sept. 25 against Stanford.

With any luck, the Bruins, who moved into college football’s top 25 for the first time in forever this week, could be 7-0 when they face Oregon Oct. 23. They may give USC a run for the Pac 12 Southern Division title this year.

TROJANS PASS TEST: Speaking of USC, the Trojans passed their first test of the 2021 season Sept. 4 with a 30-7 win over San Jose State that was closer than the score indicated.

USC’s lead was only 13-7 early in the fourth quarter when defensive back Greg Johnson picked off a Nick Starkel pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.

The Trojans then added 10 more points to make the margin of victory respectable.

Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis was ordinary at best. He completed 24 of 36 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, with Drake London obviously his favorite target. London caught 12 passes for 137 yards.

The Trojans did get some production from the running game. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram gained 86 yards on 15 carries and Vavae Malepeai added 65 yards on 14 carries, but the Trojans will have to move the ball more consistently against Stanford this week.

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