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LA Rams Film Room Preview: Week 6 at Detroit Lions

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Jim Bob Cooter is a real person.

NFL: Detroit Lions at St. Louis Rams Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams were not able to extend their win streak against the Buffalo Bills, but a game against the Detroit Lions is a perfect opportunity to rebound. Detroit does have advantage of their home field for the second week in a row, but they currently sit at 2-3, one of which wins was against a miserable Indianapolis Colts team. Los Angeles has had plenty of struggles this season, but Detroit has had their fare as well, making this a victory that is certainly up for grabs.

Rams Offense vs Lions Defense

Detroit’s defense is miserable. According to Football Outsider’s DVOA stats (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Lions defense is dead last in the NFL. Their pass defense is worse than any team’s except the New York Jets, while their run defense ranks 28th in the league. In fairness to Detroit, star defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has battled injury this season and their linebacker corps has been decimated. Injuries or not, though, the Lions defense has been straight up bad.

Unfortunately, the Rams offense is not any better than the Lions defense. Only the Houston Texans have a worse overall offense than the Rams do, per DVOA. DVOA also has the Rams passing offense at 28th in the league and the Rams rushing offense at 29th in the league. They are on an even playing field with the Lions defense.

This Lions defense is the worst defense that the Rams have faced this season, though. That is not to say that every defense the Rams have faced were menacing opponents, but they were at least a good tier above the Lions defense. A poor offensive outing versus this defense would spell disaster for the Rams. This offense is not good in its own right, but every offense is some degree of “good” against Detroit.

Preview Notes:

  • Detroit’s linebackers are a weak link for them. If Todd Gurley, or even Tavon Austin, can get themselves 1-on-1 versus a linebacker in this game, it’s Rams advantage every time. None of the linebackers can cover, either.
  • Coverage scheme is conservative. Play some man-to-man, but a good chunk of the coverage is a soft Cover 4. Defensive backs are good/smart enough to prevent big plays.
  • Most of the defensive linemen are “hit or miss.” Some big plays, some absolute meltdowns. Tyrunn Walker seemed the most immune to that issue.
  • Bears wide receiver Eddie Royal, a speedster with the quickness to match, caught seven passes for 111 yards and a touchdown versus Detroit two weeks ago. Could hint at a good match up for Tavon Austin.

Tyrunn Walker and Resetting the Line of Scrimmage

Quality players do not necessarily need to be playmakers to have value. The Rams have that in Michael Brockers, who, while outstanding, does more to open up for Aaron Donald than he does to make plays by himself. Detroit’s Tyrunn Walker has a similar presence, though he is nowhere near the talent Brockers is. Nevertheless, Walker is someone to keep an eye on.

Walker is not an explosive, individually disruptive player, but he constantly resets the line of scrimmage in the run game. Walker seldom loses ground unless he is caught off guard by a double team. Instead, Walker tends to be the enforcer, moving opposing linemen back a step or two to shorten the amount of time the running back has from hand off to lane decision.

Walker flows along the line of scrimmage well, too. He has a good feel for the way that run plays develop and can carry himself with linemen to stay ahead of the play. While someone of this nature won’t get immense credit for their work, players like this are essential for maximizing the playmakers on defense. Detroit does not have many defensive playmakers, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and again, just like a Lions linebacker finds a tackle for loss every now and again.

A reach block is a tough play for the center to make here, but it still takes a good player to do what Walker did, even if none of Walker’s teammates could take advantage of his efforts. Walker gets off the ball quickly and wastes no time in attacking Chicago’s center. With his initial punch, Walker walks the center back a couple of steps. Walker then continues to carry the center across the line of scrimmage into the path of the running back, forcing the runner to adjust his rushing lane. It’s not an outwardly eye-popping player from Walker, but these are the little plays that could be a problem for a Rams offensive line that is worse than what the Bears have.

Darius Slay is a Problem

Since being drafted in 2013, Darius Slay has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Slay is not quite on the level of the Richard Sherman’s and Desmond Trufant’s of the league, but he is safely in the next tier. It is easy to see why Slay has caught on the way that he has. He’s long, agile and has the north-south speed to match the NFL’s top speedsters. Slay has developed a knack for making big plays, too.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, it was Slay’s forced fumble and interception late in the game that sealed the victory for the Lions. Detroit needed someone to step up on defense to prevent the Eagles from coming back and Slay was the hero they needed. It is not just that he made the plays, though. It is the fashion in which he did it.

Slay has quietly turned himself into a master technician. This was the interception that put the Eagles away. To be fair, this was not a great decision or throw by Carson Wentz, but this ball still ends up on the ground one way or another versus many other cornerbacks.

On this play, Slay subtly keeps Nelson Agolor’s right arm pinned down. Slay does not grab, punch or exaggerate his move, he simply rests his arm over Agholor’s for just long enough to pin Agholor’s arm down when it comes time to fight for the ball. When the ball gets there, Slay’s hands fire up and snatch the ball out of the air with authority. Had this ball hit the ground, the Eagles would have still had over a minute on the clock to march down the field. Slay did not allow them that opportunity.

Rams Defense vs Lions Offense

Detroit’s offense is far from spectacular, but they are a scary match up for the Rams personnel, especially if Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn can not play again. Detroit’s offense is predicated around getting the ball to their running backs in space and feeding their tough, physical receivers over the middle of the field. That type of offense is going to put a lot of stress on a Rams defense that is missing their only good cornerback and has a corps of linebackers that have struggled mightily this season.

The Rams have one clear advantage, though. Even if Brockers and/or Quinn can not make their way back to the field this weekend, Los Angeles has a clear advantage in the trenches. Right tackle Riley Reiff has no interest in being physical, center Travis Swanson struggles with his coordination and the rest of the offensive line is a roller coaster. The group has their moments, but they are largely subpar and the Rams should be able to abuse the Lions up front.

Preview Notes:

  • Running back Theo Riddick is a menace in space. He’s an excellent route runner who can line up as a true receiver and make plays there. If he gets a Rams linebacker 1-on-1 in space, he’s juking them out of their cleats.
  • Detroit’s passing combos feature Marvin Jones, mostly on short to intermediate in-breaking routes. Slants, curls, digs; those sorts of things. Anquon Boldin is used largely the same way, though he is not featured as much. Their physical presences will be a problem.
  • There is no downfield threat on the Lions roster. Golden Tate has some value there, but not enough to be considered a true deep threat. The Lions passing offense is centered around getting solid chunks of yards with physical receiver play and shifty running backs out of the backfield.
  • Defensive end Devin Taylor is largely inept as a run defender. Attack him.

Creativity in the Backfield

To this point in the season, Golden Tate has not gotten the ball as much as the Lions would have liked him to. Against the Eagles, Detroit made it more of a point to get him the ball by lining him up in the backfield. If starting running back Ameer Abdullah were healthy, the Lions might not be doing this, but with him still injured, they have to keep defenses on their toes.

Tate is lined up directly behind quarterback Matthew Stafford in this formation. To Stafford’s left is running back Theo Riddick. Detroit used this formation a handful of times against Philadelphia and it did its job in deceiving the Eagles into conceding a touchdown.

The first time Detroit came out in this formation, Stafford pitched the ball to Tate on a toss play that went for a solid gain. That play’s main job, though, was to bait the Eagles into thinking the next play out of that formation would be the same play or something similar. The Eagles were fooled as Detroit fake a pitch to Tate, only for Stafford to turn the other way and dump the ball off to Riddick on a screen pass. The Eagles were caught entirely off guard.

As the Lions tried this formation more throughout the game, the Eagles defense eventually learned their lesson, but the Lions got a score out of it early on. If the Lions skill players beat the Rams defenders in space, that is one thing, but the Rams defense can not surrender a touchdown via their own foolishness the way that the Eagles did. The Rams defense can not afford a mistake like that.

Don’t Give Stafford Time

Throughout his career, Matthew Stafford has been one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the league. His physical tools are clear, but his gunslinger mentality has gotten him into some trouble and he lets a few too many passes simply get away from him. Nevertheless, Stafford is a quality quarterback who has adjusted very well to the new offense that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter installed about half way through last season. Stafford is getting the ball out quickly on shorter throws, he is generally making better decisions than in year’s past and he still has big play potential. The Rams can’t allow him time, both in and out of the pocket.

Stafford does not have a receiver group that allows him to scramble and make the same deep throws that he once did, but Stafford can still move around and find plays. He’s tough to bring down because of his size, functional athleticism and relentlessness. The Rams can not afford to give Stafford time like this in the red zone. Detroit used a moving pocket, yes, but someone has to break that line and force Stafford to get the ball out earlier. If the Rams can not do that, Stafford will dice them up every which way.

That being said, Stafford is still good if he is moved off of his spot. It can not be a solo effort up front, it must be a collective barrage on Stafford that collapses the pocket on him from all angles. The Rams did a fine job of getting to Tyrod Taylor last week, but Taylor does not quite have the brass and confidence as a passer that Stafford does. Stafford needs less room to operate, so the Rams front has to make sure he has no room to operate. That would be the case in any week, but it rings especially true considering Trumaine Johnson will not play this week.

Conclusions

In spite of the lack of an explosive speed threat, the Lions offense likely has too much offensive talent for the Rams to keep them under 21 points. The myriad of injuries on the Rams defense is going to prove to be a problem versus an offense with three quality receivers, a shifty running back and a good quarterback. The pressure of this game then falls on the Rams offense.

The Rams offense needs to attack the middle of the field as often as possible. Detroit’s linebackers are their weakest link on defense and abusing them is how the Rams can keep up in score with the Detroit offense. Luckily for the Rams, this is the worst run defense they have played this season and will be a good opportunity for Todd Gurley to really get going. If he can not do so against this defense, he might not for the rest of the season.

There’s an argument to be made against Detroit because of their miserable defense, but the Detroit offense is more impressive than the Rams offense currently is and they should be able to outscore the Rams offense.