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Rams’ Tutu Atwell, Puka Nacua catch 49ers’ eyes ahead of NFC West battle

Rams receiver Tutu Atwell makes a touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks. He topped 100 yards receiving for the first time in an NFL game. (Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

Tutu Atwell keeps the screenshots on his phone.

Most are critical social media comments. Memes. And other material posted after the Rams selected the receiver in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft. Atwell added to the collection during his first two seasons, when he struggled to find a role in coach Sean McVay’s offense.

Atwell has no plans to delete them, not after his first 100-yard game in the season-opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Not after Atwell and rookie Puka Nacua became the youngest pair of Rams receivers to eclipse 100 yards receiving in the same game since 1958.

“I just want them to keep doing it,” Atwell said of doubters and critics this week, “because they aren’t doing nothing but make me go harder.”

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With star receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury, Atwell, Nacua and Van Jefferson aim to continue filling the void Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford, a 15th-year pro who passed for 334 yards against the Seahawks, praised his receivers.

“You give those guys coaching points either in training camp or during the week, whatever it is,” Stafford said, “and those guys soak it up and really go out there and try to perfect their craft and go out there and play and have fun.”

Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers coach, told Bay Area reporters this week that the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Atwell is “as fast as anyone” and is “one of those premier play-action top-level guys,” that all teams running that type of offense desire, including the 49ers.

After making a catch, Rams receiver Puka Nacua is tackled by Seahawks cornerback Tre Brown.
After making a catch, Rams receiver Puka Nacua is tackled by Seahawks cornerback Tre Brown. Nacua surpassed 100 yards receiving in his NFL debut. (Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

The 6-2, 205-pound Nacua, Shanahan said, is a tough, physical player, and his performance in his NFL debut showed the game was not too big for him.

“And when you can put those guys in the right spots,” Shanahan said, “and you’ve got a quarterback like they do, it can be pretty lethal.”

For Atwell, 23, it’s been a journey since the Rams used the 57th pick in 2020 to select him after three seasons at Louisville. As a rookie, Atwell returned punts before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. He did not catch a pass.

In the latter part of last season, with Kupp sidelined because of an ankle injury, McVay began showing trust in Atwell. He caught 17 passes in the final eight games, including a 62-yard touchdown against New Orleans, and gained confidence from every opportunity.

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“I like to say ‘Youth is a disease, and its only cure is experience,’ ” receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “When Cooper went down last year, Tutu stepped up and was asked to do a lot of things, and that helped his maturity.”

During offseason workouts and training camp, Yarber gave Atwell the opportunity to play all three receiver spots. Stafford appeared noticeably more apt to celebrate Atwell’s play on the field and during news conferences.

Last Sunday, Atwell showed he was worthy of the praise, catching six passes for a career-best 119 yards, including one for 44 yards.

“I would feel confident putting Tutu in any of the three receiver spots and him knowing what to do on the majority, if not every single play, which is an awesome thing for a younger guy and a guy that in his first years wasn’t asked to do that,” Stafford said. “His ability to do that I think is going to be really good for him personally and for us as a team.”

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Atwell said his background playing quarterback in high school in Florida enabled him to grasp the concepts for multiple positions.

“Having the quarterback mentality, having a quarterback mind helps a lot as a receiver,” he said. “Learning every position makes it way more easier.”

McVay expects Atwell’s role to continue to grow.

“I’ve seen how conscientious he is, how coachable he is,” McVay said, “You see the rapport that he and Matthew have together.”

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Nacua, a fifth-round pick from Brigham Young, impressed coaches and teammates from the moment he arrived for offseason workouts. And it wasn’t limited to Nacua’s ability to catch passes.

“A lot of rookies won’t stop a play and say, ‘Hey, what do I have here?’ ” Yarber said. “He’s secure enough to say, ‘Hey, I want to get it right. What do I have here?’ And he won’t go out and get it wrong.”

Nacua, 22, was targeted 15 times against the Seahawks. He caught 10 passes for 119 yards, the most by a Rams player in his first game. But Nacua’s big performance started with a pass from Stafford that he was unable to haul in.

Rams receiver Puka Nacua can't grab this pass behind Seattle cornerback Riq Woolen.

Rams receiver Puka Nacua can’t grab this pass behind Seattle cornerback Riq Woolen. (Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

“He’s coming to me, and it’s going to be my very first NFL catch, and in the moment all those things are kind of coming together,” Nacua said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got to come down with the first one. And then it drops and it’s like ‘Ohhh.’

“One of the first things I did after was tell Matthew, ‘That was mine. We’ll be better. I’m not going to drop the next one.’ He helped kind of boost that train of thought with how encouraging he is.”

Jefferson, who caught four passes for 24 yards, also benefited from Stafford’s encouragement. Early in the second half, a wide-open Jefferson dropped a near-certain touchdown pass.

“I don’t want those plays to happen, but you know what? There’s going to be a time probably this season where he’s running free and I’m going to miss him,” Stafford said, “and that’s part of football.

“It’s an imperfect game. It’s played in the gray. I got a ton of trust in Van Jefferson, his ability to go out there and make plays. He’s done it for a long time for me and for this offense. So excited to see how he shows up and shows out on Sunday.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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