As Tyler Higbee, DeSean Jackson emerge, injured linebacker Justin Hollins exits

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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 12: Justin Hollins #58 of the Los Angeles Rams.
Rams linebacker Justin Hollins jogs on the field during a season-opening win over the Chicago Bears on Sept. 12 at SoFi Stadium. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The Rams came out of their victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers buoyed by the emergence of receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end Tyler Higbee as weapons in an ever-expanding offense.

But the Rams lost a starter on defense going into their NFC West opener against the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals.

Coach Sean McVay said Monday that outside linebacker Justin Hollins, who has two sacks, will have surgery Tuesday to repair a torn pectoral muscle.

Terrell Lewis, a third-round draft pick last season, is expected to step into a larger role after playing a career-high 34 snaps against the Buccaneers. Obo Okoronkwo also is eligible to be activated from injured reserve.

“Justin Hollins had done such a great job really solidifying that spot opposite Leonard Floyd over these first few weeks,” McVay said during a videoconference with reporters. “But to see Terrell be able to do what he did was really encouraging.

“You can't have enough good players that can apply pressure to the quarterback and be able to set edges and make the plays that he did. So, he's definitely going to be a big factor and you can look for him to play a lot more snaps moving forward.”

Under McVay, the Rams have dominated the Cardinals. They are 8-0 and have scored at least 31 points in all but one game, last season’s 18-7 regular-season finale when John Wolford started at quarterback in place of injured Jared Goff.

The Rams anticipate a tougher test Sunday at SoFi Stadium from a Cardinals team that features quarterback Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins and three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt.

No Rams player might be more eager to play the Cardinals than Higbee. He has 28 career catches against them — four for touchdowns — his most against any opponent.

“The last few meetings, the ball’s found me a little bit more,” Higbee said Monday. “I’m just trying to make the most of my [opportunities].

“Hopefully, it’s another one.”

In Sunday’s 34-24 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, Higbee caught a touchdown pass and several key third-down passes that led to touchdowns. He finished with five receptions for 40 yards, increasing his season total to 11 catches for 116 yards.

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee is upended by Buccaneers Antoine Winfield after a reception in the second quarter.
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee is upended by Buccaneers Antoine Winfield after a reception in the second quarter. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“He's an unsung guy for us,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He does everything.”

Higbee, 6-feet-6 and 255 pounds, joined the Rams in 2016, when they selected him in the fourth round of the draft.

In September 2019, the Rams gave Higbee a four-year, $29-million extension that included $15 million in guarantees. That was market rate at the time but by the end of that season it looked to be a bargain.

He caught a career-best 69 passes for 734 yards and three touchdowns, elevating into the elite tight end conversation by closing the season with four 100-yard receiving efforts in the final five games. The streak started against the Cardinals, when Higbee caught seven passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.

With tight end Gerald Everett sidelined because of a knee injury, Higbee capitalized on his opportunities.

“We got a really good glimpse of his capability and the upside of Tyler Higbee in that stretch of games,” McVay said.

Higbee started fast in 2020, catching three touchdown passes in the second game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but a hand injury and other issues caused his production to slip. He finished with 44 catches for 521 yards and five touchdowns.

“I pride myself on trying to work through some of those injuries and being available for my team and my teammates,” he said. “Battled through some stuff but I’m all good now.”

After last season, the Rams did not re-sign Everett, a second-round pick in 2017. Everett subsequently signed with the Seattle Seahawks, where former Rams tight ends coach Shane Waldron is offensive coordinator.

Everett’s departure has enabled Higbee to almost never leave the field.

“Something I always prided myself on is trying to be a three-down tight end, a guy who can do it in all phases of the game,” Higbee said.

Higbee’s six-yard touchdown catch against the Buccaneers gave the Rams the early lead. He also made a clutch third-down catch that extended another scoring drive.

Higbee lamented a first-quarter fumble that was recovered by Rams lineman Andrew Whitworth, but he made up for it with his touchdown catch to finish the drive.

“Stafford’s back there spreading the ball around,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my part when it’s my turn to make a play and I’m the first read in the progression.

“Trying to get open for Matthew and do what I can for my team and move the chains.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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