Between the combination of Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin, the Rams have suddenly become a potent big-play offense. What they are not is consistently able to sustain drives. Their biggest problem here -- even bigger than their rising penalty count -- is a complete inability to convert third downs.
In the last three weeks, the Rams have converted only 4 of 39 third downs by their own merits. (Two more were converted by penalty.) This didn't stop them from beating Cleveland and San Francisco by a combined five touchdowns, but against a good team in the Minnesota Vikings, this startling ineptitude finally caught up with them.
What's going on? I took a close look at the last three games to find out.
What The Stats Say
Third downs by play-call
|2 of 6 (33%)||4 of 33 (12%)|
Of these third down passes over the past three weeks, 31 of 33 came from a shotgun set. Even when the Rams were attempting to convert short-yardage distances, Foles would drop back into the shotgun.
Cignetti has used the shotgun almost exclusively on third down, but rarely in other downs. In the last two weeks, Foles only threw 8 passes from shotgun on first or second down, compared to 24 on third down.
What's interesting is that the Rams' pass blocking held up fairly well. Foles wasn't sacked once on these third-down dropbacks.
But far more often than not, the play failed without even a yard gained. 20 of 31 passes Foles threw from the shotgun on third downs fell incomplete. Several drops figure in here. Moreover, every one of Foles' completed shotgun passes on third down was thrown short of the sticks. Only two of those was converted -- both by Tavon Austin.
Third downs by distance
|3rd and short (1-3 yards)||3rd and medium (4-7 yards)||3rd and long (8-12 yards)||3rd and impossible|
2 of 7 (28.5%)
3 of 12 (25%)
1 of 12 (8%)
0 of 8
At least by reputation, you would expect a Jeff Fisher team to pound the ball at every opportunity, so it might be surprising to see the Rams run the ball only once in seven 3rd-and-short tries. And they converted, of course.
In the crucially makeable 3rd-and-short and 3rd-and-medium passes, Tavon Austin is clearly Foles' go-to target. He has 7 looks among these 19 plays. Todd Gurley is next with 4, no one else has more than 3.
Oddly enough, when Foles gets into third-and-impossible situations, Stedman Bailey suddenly gets looks. 4 of Foles' 8 "impossible" throws went to Bailey.
Too much shotgun?
All this shotgun passing is not a natural fit for the Rams offense, nor for Foles, despite his experience in the Chip Kelly offense. Most notably, he has no opportunities for play-action passes or misdirection plays. And according to Pro Football Focus, Nick Foles becomes a radically different player with and without play action.
|With Play-Action||Without Play-Action|
|Passing||42-60 (70%), 642 yards (10.7 ypa)||86-160 (53.8%), 851 yards (5.3 ypa)|
|Passer Rating||116.1 (4th best in NFL)||66.4 (worst in NFL)|
All of this points to an undeniable conclusion, that their season-long stats back up: The Rams have two completely separate offenses -- their base offense ("Fisherball"), and their third-down offense ("Air Cignetti").
Their base offense is fairly good, and fits the Jeff Fisher identity that you'd expect. They run the ball 59% of the time and work off the threat of the run in the passing game, generating a fairly healthy 7.7 yards per pass attempt. Evidence that it's working? They have ripped off 27 explosive plays of 20 yards or more from their base offense on first or second down.
Their third down offense flat out stinks. Foles is asked to throw 84% of the time, has no play-action threat to decoy defenses with, and gets a measly 5.3 yards per attempt. Only 5 explosive plays have happened on third down.
This leads to a counterintuitive suggestion around these parts: the Rams could fix their third-down woes by sticking to what they do well.
In other words: All Fisherball, all the time.