NEW ORLEANS — Marcus Peters could have tried to come up with some kind of excuse. But the Los Angeles Rams cornerback saw no point.
He got beat early, often and late while matched up with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. The 72-yard touchdown catch that Thomas hauled in with roughly four minutes left to play – dusting Peters as he sprinted the remaining 45 yards to pay dirt – represented the knockout punch in New Orleans’ 45-35 victory. The result snapped the Rams’ eight-game unbeaten streak and established the Saints as the NFC’s front-runner.
Peters was asked for clarity on his struggles. Had he expected help from a safety on the long touchdown? Was ankle injury that hampered him early in the year still a factor against Thomas, who caught 12 passes for a franchise record 211 yards?
Peters, however, wasn’t in the mood to search for an explanation.
“(Expletive) happens like that in football. … I got beat on the play. I can stand up and own it,” he said, an edge in his voice as he fought to contain his emotions. “I been playing (expletive) these last couple weeks, and that’s just being honest. But me, I’ll just continue to fight. That’s the type of player I am. Who gives a (expletive)? You’re going to get beat in football. You go out there and compete to the highest of your ability, but (expletive) happens.
“Coach wouldn’t have me out there if I wasn’t healthy. I own up to that,” continued Peters, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and all-pro in 2016. “Like I said, I’ve had a bad few weeks. I know I’m a top (expletive) corner in this league and I ain’t been playing like that. I put that (loss) on me.”
Peters’ teammates refuted his claim that the defeat fell squarely on his shoulders. But like the cornerback, they view the outcome as merely a speed bump rather than something that would derail their season.
“Everyone got to be humbled, and today was our day,” said running back Todd Gurley, whom the Saints limited to 68 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Despite their frustration, the Rams understand that a loss doesn't have to be devastating. The defeat does give the Saints a leg up in the pursuit of home-field advantage. But, as Peters said, stuff happens. There’s a reason why the 1972 Dolphins perfect campaign remains the only of its kind: Perfection in the NFL is virtually unattainable.
For Los Angeles, it’s the response to the defeat that matters most now.
Some Rams players expected to actually feel a degree of relief in the coming days now that the quest for perfection has ended.
Others, relaying the post-game message from coach Sean McVay, said that the challenges of the last two weeks (rallying and then hanging on late to defeat the Packers and coming back from 21 down to tie the Saints before falling short) will eventually prove beneficial.
Sunday revealed multiple deficiencies for Los Angeles' defense. Sure, Peters got toasted by the Saints. And coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game, “They were going to travel Marcus to (Thomas), and that was fine by us. We thought we really liked that matchup — a lot.”
But this defense has fallen short of expectations. The Rams rank a pedestrian 14th against the pass (243.3 yards per game) and are tied for 13th in sacks (22). Aaron Donald can’t be the only guy consistently getting after the quarterback, which is a big reason why L.A. traded for Dante Fowler. And the Rams can’t just expect the healthy return of top corner Aqib Talib to magically fix things either. All of their defensive backs must raise their level of play. The same goes for the linebackers, who struggled to cover both do-it-all running back Alvin Kamara (four catches for 34 yards and a touchdown) and tight end Benjamin Watson (three catches for 62 yards and a score).
There’s no questioning the continued growth of third-year quarterback Jared Goff, who shrugged off setbacks against New Orleans and kept attacking downfield. Offensive players drew encouragement from their ability to work through rough patches and rediscover their rhythm like they did in the second half against the Saints.
But after Sunday’s defeat, it’s more evident than ever that if the Rams expect to make their Super Bowl aspirations a reality, they will need much more out of a defensive unit that has surrendered an average of 31.4 points and 424.4 yards per game against opponents with records of .500 or better.
“Adversity is necessary in this league,” safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “Especially games like this when it’s the type of opponents you’re going to see in the playoffs. It’s good to get that adversity early and know how you can get better as a team.”
Peters agreed and made a prediction.
“It’s actually going to be a good thing for us,” he said. “We get to go back to work and have an extra hunger.”
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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