February 24, 2024

Rams receiver Puka Nacua has taken full advantage of the absence of Cooper Kupp, setting records and performing like anything but a rookie.

But Nacua was almost absent himself from being awarded the game ball by coach Sean McVay on Sunday after catching a game-winning, 22-yard touchdown in the Rams’ 29-23 overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Now, that would have been a rookie mistake.

Caught up in on-field postgame interviews, Nacua was the last Ram to return to the locker room. McVay had already begun addressing the team, holding up the game ball and shouting, “Clutch production performance. Making big plays over the middle. Snap in and snap out. Ended up being able to close out the game. Where’s Puka Nacua?”

Well, he was making a mad dash through the tunnel to the locker room, his hair in a man bun, wearing a grin and carrying his shoulder pads and helmet. Someone yelled, “Take a bus, Puka!”

Again McVay said, “Where’s Puka Nacua at?” Several teammates tilted their heads back, cupped their mouths with their hands and shrieked, “PUUUUUUUKKKKKAAAA!”

Nacua made one last adroit cut to his left, juked past a security guard, joined his teammates and accepted the ball seconds before his absence would have been awkward.

A fifth-round draft pick out of Washington, Nacua has emerged as Matthew Stafford’s primary target with Kupp missing the first four games with a hamstring injury. Nacua had nine catches for 163 yards, and the touchdown was his first in the NFL.

A big game, but he had more catches in each of his first two games. Nacua had 10 receptions for 119 yards in his debut against the Seattle Seahawks and 15 for 147 yards in his second game against the San Francisco 49ers, becoming the first NFL player to have 10 or more catches in each of his first two games. He was held to five catches for 72 yards in the Rams’ Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but has 39 catches in 52 targets for 501 yards in four games, NFL records for a rookie after four games.

Kupp, a two-time All-Pro, is expected to return Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles at SoFi Stadium, giving Stafford back his favorite receiver for the first time since Game 9 of last season. Kupp has missed the last 12 games with injuries.

Based on the Rams’ gleeful reaction to Nacua’s postgame episode Sunday, the rookie is clearly a favorite in the locker room. And he’ll continue to give Stafford another potent option even with Kupp in the lineup.

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