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Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Rams’ Puka Nacua sets rookie records in win vs. 49ers

Jan 7, 2024 at 4:34 PM

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The Los Angeles Rams, despite securing themselves a playoff berth in Week 17, needed a strong run after a lackluster start to the year. One of the players that helped LA through that early-season funk was rookie WR Puka Nacua, a 5th-round pick who exploded onto the scene much like TE George Kittle once did. Back in 2018, Kittle needed a strong showing in a meaningless season finale to set the single-season tight end receiving yards record. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan responded by relentlessly directing the ball to Kittle, which resulted in this historic play:

On Sunday, Nacua and the Rams faced a similar situation. With a 17th game on the schedule, Nacua needed only 4 catches and 29 yards to set the records for yards and catches by a rookie. But with both teams almost completely locked into their playoff seeding, most of the stars on either side were given rest weeks. Players like QB Brock Purdy, RB Christian McCaffrey, and DL Arik Armstead sat out for SF, while QB Matthew Stafford and DL Aaron Donald remained inactive for the Rams. Nacua entered the game as a starter, but the clear plan was to remove him as soon as he bagged the records.

San Francisco's defense didn't make it an easy task, though. On the Rams' first drive, QB Carson Wentz capped off a touchdown drive with a 19-yard toss to Nacua that left him one shy of tying the reception record. It looked as though that record was imminent on the final possession of the first half, with the Rams receiving the ball on their own 25 yard line and only 11 seconds left in the half. The next four plays, which saw an incomplete pass, a timeout, and a defensive penalty for a final untimed down, gave Nacua the spotlight for his final achievements of the season. But 49ers CB Deommodore Lenoir, himself a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, covered him well, and the half bled out on a 2-yard scramble from Wentz.

Fortunately for LA, they received the ball coming out of the break, and on the fifth play of the drive, Wentz targeted Nacua on a delayed screen pass. Nacua gathered in the ball and pushed ahead 7 yards for the first down and the rookie receiving yards record. On the very next play, Wentz tossed a short pass to Nacua for the 105th and final completion of his rookie season.

With 105 catches, Nacua surpassed Jaylen Waddle's 104 catch mark, set with Miami in 2021. The yards record is even more impressive, outpacing Bill Groman's 1,473 yards as a rookie receiver with the Houston Oilers in 1960 with 1,486 yards of his own. While Nacua was sent to the bench after clinching his achievements, the Rams were able to mount a late comeback to beat the Niners 21-20 on the road, which ensured LA the 6th seed in the playoffs and snapped a 9-game regular season losing streak to SF.
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