Last May, about 50 minutes from Paycor Stadium, Miami Ohio unveiled a statue of Rams coach Sean McVay.
McVay, who led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl LVI, was enshrined in the school’s fabled Cradle of Coaches, an exclusive club of alums that features among others Super Bowl winners Weeb Ewbank and John Harbaugh.
On Monday night, McVay coached in Ohio for the first time since he and his trademark hair spike were immortalized in bronze.
And for much of the game, the Rams defense made injured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow look like a statue.
But Burrow found some footing in the second half and the Rams could not counterpunch in a 19-16 defeat before 66,158 and a “Monday Night Football” audience.
“There was just a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” McVay said.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford had two passes intercepted by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson and was sacked six times.
The Rams converted only one of 11 third downs, and they were forced to settle for field goals after penetrating several times inside the 20-yard line.
“Our defense played great,” said Stafford, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. “But we just didn’t do enough on offense, especially early in the game to kind of give ourselves a little bit of a lead there.”
The Rams are 1-2 heading into Sunday’s game against the Colts in Indianapolis.
It will be a short week for a team in desperate need of recovery time after left tackle Alaric Jackson and right guard Joe Noteboom left the game because of injuries.
Monday night’s game was the first game between the Rams and Bengals since Super Bowl LVI, when the Rams hung on for a 23-20 victory at SoFi Stadium.
That win made the Rams’ all-in, boom-or-bust mentality pay off for owner Stan Kroenke. The goal, after all, is to win championships, not to be a perennial contender that falls short.
That victory, however, came with a cost. The Rams no longer employ stars such as receiver Odell Beckham Jr., edge rusher Von Miller, safety Eric Weddle, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and tackle Andrew Whitworth, to name a few.
After experiencing the worst Super Bowl hangover in NFL history in 2022, the Rams pulled back financially and traded, released or chose not to re-sign more than two dozen players, many of whom played pivotal roles in the Super Bowl run. Bengals safety Nick Scott was among them.
Whitworth was in attendance Monday for former Bengals stars Chad Johnson’s and Boomer Esiason’s induction into the team’s Ring of Honor.
The Rams could have used him against a Bengals defensive line that features ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, especially after Jackson suffered a first-half thigh injury and was replaced by Zachary Thomas.
The pregame drama centered on Burrow and the right-calf injury that has hampered him since training camp. Coach Zac Taylor had said it would be a game-time decision, but with the Bengals facing the prospect of a dreaded 0-3 start, it seemed inconceivable that a player they recently signed to a $275-million extension would watch from the sidelines.
“He got paid all that money — he’s good with his feet, he’s great with his arm too and he’s real smart,” said Rams safety Jordan Fuller, who played with Burrow at Ohio State before the quarterback transferred to Louisiana State. “So he’s obviously a threat whether he can run or if he can’t.”
When the Bengals won the toss and elected to receive, there was no waiting to see how Burrow would respond.
Taylor gave Burrow a limited playbook, however, one devoid of rollouts or anything that would force Burrow to move laterally. Instead, he got rid of the ball as quickly as possible, which helped the Rams avoid having Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd running free in the secondary.
For the first half anyway.
Burrow completed 17 of 31 passes for 144 yards in the first half but never appeared to really set his right foot to unleash passes. Many sailed high.
“He really wasn’t moving too much,” said Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who had one of the Rams’ two sacks. “He was standing still and just getting the ball out quick.”
Said linebacker Ernest Jones: “We could tell that he just wasn’t moving the way that he normally does … but he did a good job of getting the ball out of his hand quick and putting the ball where it needed to be.”
Burrow found a rhythm midway through the third quarter and helped give the Bengals their first lead — and victory — of the season. Burrow completed 26 of 49 passes for 259 yards, with one interception. Chase caught 12 passes for 141 yards, both totals more than he had in the first two weeks combined.
Evan McPherson kicked four field goals and Joe Mixon rushed for a touchdown.
That was enough to beat a Rams team that gained only 292 yards. After the Bengals’ second interception, the Rams went three and out on their next three possessions.
“There were a lot of things that just weren’t good enough,” McVay said.
The score was tied, 6-6, at halftime as neither team could manage anything other than a couple of field goals.
The Rams came out and moved down the field quickly on passes from Stafford to tight end Tyler Higbee and Kyren Williams. A facemask penalty against the Bengals helped the Rams move to the 21-yard line but a third-down sack by Hendrickson forced the Rams to settle for another field goal and a 9-6 lead.
Then Burrow seemed to come alive.
He connected with Chase, shook off a violent hit by Aaron Donald, found Chase two more times and then completed a pass to Higgins before Mixon ran for a 14-yard touchdown and a 13-9 lead.
Stafford answered with a 46-yard pass to Van Jefferson, but Wilson intercepted his next pass at the 22 yard-line.
Burrow’s 43-yard pass to Chase helped set up another field goal, extending the lead to seven points.
Rams cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s interception with just more than 10 minutes left positioned the Rams for a possible comeback but the Bengals sacked Stafford twice, ending the threat.
The Bengals added another field goal before the Rams launched a final push.
With 3:34 left, Stafford drove the Rams 61 yards and completed the drive with a one-yard, third-down touchdown pass to Tutu Atwell with 1:06 to go.
The Rams failed to recover the onside kick, however, and the Bengals ran out the clock.
The Rams exited the stadium for a ride to the airport and late-night plane ride home. They will be back on a plane in five days. The short turnaround forces the Rams to put the outcome behind them even quicker than usual.
That could serve the Rams well, according to Stafford.
“Nothing better than that,” he said. “Just get back out there and go play again.”