INGLEWOOD — As first hurdles go, some were more spectacular than others in SoFi Stadium’s debut with fans Saturday night.
First SoFi Stadium football crowd? 68,791 fans, not a sellout but good for a preseason game. First NFL game experience for many young Rams players? Call the results mixed. A literal hurdle of a tackler for a first down by Rams quarterback Bryce Perkins? It created the roar of the night from the fans and his teammates, and the single brightest memory from the exhibition against the Chargers.
“Usually when I’m on the field I can’t hear anything (from the sidelines),” Perkins said of his run. “But after that play it seemed like on I heard everybody.”
A Rams team of third- and fourth-stringers ended up on the wrong end of a 13-6 victory by the Chargers, in part because of mistakes by the offense and kicking team and the running game’s failure to break loose.
But with Rams coach Sean McVay holding all of his starters and most of his second unit out of preseason games to reduce injuries, this game was less about the Rams battling the Chargers than Rams players battling each other for roster spots.
Some of the young Rams played Saturday night as if they’d been anticipating the return of preseason games and fans to L.A.-area sports venues as long as the crowd.
There was Tutu Atwell, the tiny rookie wide receiver, surviving a hard early tackle, turning a short pass into a long gain and turning his first crack at a punt return into a people-pleasing burst.
There was running back Raymond Calais taking advantage of his first punt return to top Atwell with a 46-yarder.
There were Perkins and Trishton Jackson taking advantage of a short field by connecting on a pass for the Rams’ first touchdown of the exhibition season.
Atwell’s eased some doubts about the Rams’ decision to use a second-round pick, their first in last April’s draft, on a receiver who says he’s striving to bulk up to 160 pounds.
There’s still concern about what happens the first time a pro-size linebacker blasts him, but they’ll have to find him first.
“Those things were encouraging, to be able to get him a couple of touches early,” McVay said. I thought he did a good job popping up, because that was quite a hit that he took on his first catch.
“You can see the explosive playmaker that has us excited about his potential.”
A crowd like this might have liked to see Rams starters like quarterback Matthew Stafford, but at least they were forewarned about what to expect from McVay.
This was the first SoFi Stadium game with fans, after the Rams and Chargers played home schedules in front of 70,000 empty seats in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And this was the Rams’ first preseason game since 2019, after 2020 exhibitions were called off.
It was a good start for Atwell as he fights Trishton Jackson and others for a position on the roster behind wide-receiver regulars Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson and Van Jefferson, none of whom played Saturday.
It was a good start for Jacob Harris, a converted wide receiver looking for a roster spot at tight end behind Tyler Higbee and Johnny Mundt, who led Rams receivers with four catches for 43 yards.
It was a good night on defense for Justin Lawler, the outside linebacker finally healthy after a series of foot injuries, who often was in Chargers quarterback Chase Daniel’s face, finishing with two QB hits and a tackle for loss.
And it was a good start for Perkins in his effort to hold off Duck Hodges for the third quarterback slot on the roster behind Stafford and John Wolford.
Perkins, the 2019 undrafted free agent from Virginia who had yet to play for the Rams, completed 7 of 10 passes for 42 yards. That included the touchdown pass.
Perkins, whose legs are his best weapon, showed patience in the pocket and waited for Jackson to get open as the second option before lobbing the ball where the receiver could go down and get it at the back of the end zone.
That 12-yard run and leap for a first down in the fourth quarter is what fans will remember best.
“I was just trying to keep the chains moving,” said Perkins, who would have been short of a first down if he’d gone out of bounds. “Plays like that are just reactionary.”
Hodges, the former Steelers backup, had led the Rams out for their first and second offensive series and completed 6 of 8 passes for 39 yards. But 20 of those yards came on a short pass that Atwell turned into a 20-yard gain. The offense had to call time out before its second snap.
Hodges came back in after halftime and led a drive that ended with a missed field goal, and finished 11 for 19 for 85 yards with a drive-killing interception in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for the Rams, Perkins was their leading rusher.
There was no early winner in the competition to back up running back Darrell Henderson, which is also an effort by the backs on the current roster to prove the Rams don’t need to add running-back depth after Cam Akers’ Achilles’ injury.
Xavier Jones had 21 yards on seven carries, the longest going eight yards, and two catches for six yards, and rookie Jake Funk had 12 yards on five carries, plus one catch for negative yards.
The other early negative for the Rams was the kicking game, which they thought they’d figured out. Kicker Matt Gay missed an extra point after a penalty backed him up five yards. Second-string kicker Austin MacGinnis hit the right upright with a 40-yard field-goal attempt.
But that probably won’t change coaches minds about that position.
Other performances might at least set the terms for competitions to be continued when the Rams scrimmage against the Raiders twice in the coming week, host the Raiders in a preseason game next Saturday at SoFi Stadium, and face the Broncos in Denver in their last exhibition before the regular-season opener against the Bears at SoFi on Sept. 12.
Said Perkins, summing it up for everyone: “I’m not going to get too caught up on one play or one drive, because there’s more games to be played.”
Rams wide receiver Ben Skowronek, a seventh-round draft pick, fractured a forearm and will have surgery Monday, the team said.