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Woods steps up as Rams unselfish leader

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In Buffalo, you didn’t hear much about Robert Woods other than his potential, which was largely stifled by the fact the Bills could not find a competent, consistent quarterback to get him the ball.

The former second-round pick never caught more than 65 passes or totaled more than 699 yards in any of his four seasons with Bills, but those numbers are actually quite impressive when you consider Buffalo’s quarterbacks during that stretch (2013 through 2016) were EJ Manuel, Kyle Orton and the vertically-challenged Tyrod Taylor.

For Woods, signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 was like a young toddler taking the training wheels off his bike for the first time. Under the guidance of head coach and offensive whiz kid Sean McVay, the ex-Bill has flourished in the Rams’ system, setting a new career high with 781 yards and then obliterating that total in 2018 with 1,219 yards to help lead Los Angeles to Super Bowl LIII.

There were some who thought the Bills might’ve wasted that second-round pick – 41st overall – when they drafted Woods in 2013, perhaps not considering the team never put him in the best position to succeed with its revolving door policy at quarterback. Woods silenced the critics this year with eye-popping totals during the regular season and continued to thrive in the playoffs, catching six passes in wins over Dallas and New Orleans.

And he’s as honest as he is unstoppable; while he’s no doubt grateful for his time in Buffalo, Woods acknowledges the doubters and detractors were in the back of his mind each week he took the field, motivating him to be even better and more impactful in 2018.

“Just every opportunity, every team that passed me up even in the draft, free agency,” Woods said. “Just showing them and showcasing what I can do — having the ability to break a thousand yards, 80-plus catches. I think the biggest thing, just coming from Buffalo was just having an opportunity to showcase this with the ball in my hands, whether it’s on the ground or in the air. But it's really nothing against Buffalo, but just showcasing my ability as a receiver.”

Woods’ breakthrough season deserves a closer look under the microscope. The Rams entered the season with a three-headed monster at the receiver position that featured Woods, ex-Patriot Brandin Cooks and the versatile Cooper Kupp. Quarterback Jared Goff’s production soared with all three on the field, but Kupp missed Weeks 6 through 8 with a knee sprain and then went down for the season in Week 10 with a torn ACL. Goff’s completion percentage and passer rating dipped without Kupp, but from Weeks 11 through 16 (and the postseason) Woods stepped in admirably, assumed Kupp’s role as a slot receiver and picked up the slack.

After failing to catch a touchdown for six consecutive games, Woods caught three over the final six weeks of the regular season and also averaged more than five catches per game during that same stretch. Though was not as explosive as he was when he played on the outside while Kupp manned the slot earlier in the season – he posted 100 or more yards in three of four games in September and October – Woods’ value was immeasurable in the eyes of McVay, who applauded his star receiver for consistently doing whatever the team asked him to do with zero complaints. Woods did it all, whether he was fighting for separation in man-to-man coverage or carrying the ball on jet sweeps.

“I can’t put into words how valuable he is,” McVay said.

With Woods’ selfless attitude, the Rams stayed the course despite losing Kupp and won their final two regular season games to hold onto the No. 2 seed in the NFC. In Week 16 against Arizona – a big game the Rams coming off back-to-back losses – Woods hauled in six catches for 89 yards, caught a touchdown pass and ran for one in a 31-9 laugher.

When he signed a four-year deal with the Rams, Woods not only moved from the frigid, frozen temperatures of upstate New York to the tropical, balmy climate of California, but he improved his chances of winning a Super Bowl, too. He’d love nothing more than to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Los Angeles and give his fallen teammate something to smile about on Super Bowl Sunday.

“We’ve got to get him a ring,” Woods said.

Covering all bases

There’s no telling where the Patriots will line up their defensive backs Sunday against the Rams. Head coach Bill Belichick has been as unpredictable as ever in the postseason; for example, he utilized Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who primarily covers the opposing team’s No. 1 outside receiver, in the slot on nearly half of his defensive snaps in the divisional round against the Chargers to slow down Keenan Allen.

There’s a good chance Gilmore could play more in the slot again in Super Bowl LIII with Woods assuming Kupp’s role at that position, which could create a potential mismatch on the outside with whoever is assigned to cover Cooks. The ideal plan for the Rams is to target Cooks if and when rookie defensive back J.C. Jackson shadows him. Jackson has had a fine rookie season and is quickly following in the footsteps of another well-known undrafted rookie in Belichick’s system (remember Malcolm Butler?), but he has the tendency to get a bit “hands-on” defensively, which leads to costly penalties, and few receivers in the league are better at drawing flags than Cooks.

Last year, in his only season with New England, Cooks averaged 16.6 yards per catch and drew an additional 141 penalty yards, which ranked fourth in the NFL. He came up big in the AFC Championship Game that year, drawing two penalties for 68 yards, including a 32-yard pass interference penalty at the end of the first half that led to a touchdown.

On the flip side, Jackson is coming off a nightmarish performance in this year’s conference title game against the Chiefs in which he committed three pass interference penalties and struggled to cover Sammy Watkins (Jackson led the team this year with nine penalties for 102 yards). In fairness, the 6-foot-1 rookie played well enough to eventually earn a role opposite Gilmore on the outside, pushing Jason McCourty to the slow, but Goff should be licking his chops if Jackson is lined up one-on-one against Cooks, even with inevitable safety help over the top.

Remember the name

When sharing the same stage as future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, it’s difficult for any other tight end to get his proper due this week, but former fourth-round draft pick Tyler Higbee could be a key to keeping the Rams’ juggernaut offense on track Sunday.

Higbee’s third-quarter touchdown in the NFC Championship Game helped the Rams overcome a double-digit deficit in New Orleans and, much like Gronkowski in the AFC title game, his blocking at the line of scrimmage was superb. On one particular play, Higbee faked a block on the inside and then wormed his way to the edge to help free up receiver Josh Reynolds on a key 16-yard reverse.

The Rams, in an effort to do what no one else has done this postseason by winning the battle in the trenches against New England, will need Higbee to be as versatile as usual Sunday. The former Western Kentucky standout, a projected second- or third-round pick whose stock dropped on draft day due to off-field issues in college, may not draw as much attention as Cooks, Woods or even Todd Gurley, which could leave him in a position to be the unsung hero again in Super Bowl LIII.

“People keep telling me to enjoy the experience and make sure you’re enjoying everything and taking it all in,” Higbee said. “I’m trying to, but at the same time it’s just another game and if we play our game, we’ll be all right.”

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