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Diagnosing the Rams Woes in the Run Game

The Rams can’t move the ball on the ground. Why is that so, and can they fix it?

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Over the course of the first seven weeks of the season, Rams fans and general NFL enthusiasts alike have been wondering the same thing: why isn’t Todd Gurley, a top ten pick and apparent superstar, running well this season?

Everyone has been searching for one main culprit, a clear entity to blame. The truth, rather, is that Gurley’s struggles as a runner this season are the product of collective failure. Gurley himself doesn’t look like the player he was a year ago. The offensive line, comprised of the same players it was last season, looks worse than expected, both physically and mentally. The coaching staff is to blame, too, considering how poorly they seem to have prepared these players, especially the offensive line.

With all that in mind, is there any hope for the Rams rushing attack moving forward?

Todd Gurley

It’s easy to put the blame on Gurley. When a team can’t throw the ball well, it is the quarterback who receives the first wave of flak, and this is no different. The Rams can’t run the ball right now, so the immediate response has been to strip Gurley of his crown as the next great NFL running back.

In the case of Gurley, that is not a baseless approach, though. For as bad as the factors around Gurley have been, he’s not done everything in his power to counteract the instability of his surroundings. Gurley has gotten this far in his football career because of his deceptively nimble feet in tight spaces, coupled with explosive athletic ability that could be unleashed for a 20+ yard run at any time.

Gurley hasn’t been playing like that. A majority of the time this season, Gurley has shown little patience, flexibility or explosive ability. Gurley has averaged a pedestrian 3.0 yards per carry thus far, which is inexcusable even behind this offensive line. On top of that, Gurley does not have a single rushing attempt over 20 yards and has only eclipsed ten yards on six occasions this year. Gurley has been neither efficient or explosive.

By all accounts, Gurley hasn’t been the same player the Rams originally drafted. He has rapidly regressed from his budding superstar status—a time where it felt like something magical could happen any time he touched the ball—into a plodding runner whose net function is to mostly be a battering ram. Thankfully, Gurley still gives us rare reminders that he is a special player.

It’s not a jaw dropping 60 yard run, but this is vintage Todd Gurley.

As per usual, the line of scrimmage gets clogged up immediately and fails to sort itself out. More often than not, Gurley plunges straight ahead and simply tries to power through the garbage for as many yards as he can. It’s costed him plenty of yardage this season, but, with this offensive line, it’s hard to blame a player for mailing it in a little bit when he is constantly being battered without reward.

Gurley took matters into his own hands on this play. Instead of trucking forward into the pile up, Gurley does his best to let the play develop as much as it is capable of. With tight end Lance Kendricks not totally out of his way yet, Gurley takes a little hop step to get between Kendricks and the pulling guard, Cody Wichmann.

The level of flexibility, explosion and decisiveness it takes for Gurley to do what he did after getting by Kendricks is insane. It’s tough to truly quantify, but there are not many running backs who would have finished the play the way that Gurley did. Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliot, maaaaaaybe LeSean McCoy and maaaaaaybe Christine Michael are the only other running backs in the league who could match what Gurley did on that play.

That run is the epitome of making the most out of a bad play. Gurley needs to be that guy more often.

Offensive Line

An offensive line does more to help or hurt the running back than vice versa. That’s not to diminish the value of a good running back. Good running backs are still incredibly valuable, but a quality offensive line can go a long way in terms of making or breaking a running back.

A large chunk of the blame for Gurley’s sophomore slump can be directed toward the offensive line. Rodger Saffold is now back from injury after missing most of last season, and Greg Robinson is in his third season and Rob Havenstein is in his second season, but the offensive line has somehow taken a step back.

There are a number of problems along the offensive line. Some of the issues are a collective shortcoming, while other issues can be pinned on an individual. It is rare for the Rams to get through a running play without hurting themselves with at least one issue.

(Note: The two players who will be highlighted individually are not the only two with individual issues. Rather, their issues are the most common and recognizable.)

Generating Push

The most glaring wart on Los Angeles’s collective run blocking effort is their inability to generate push. Left tackle Greg Robinson, left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Rob Havenstein have random (read: rare) moments of nastiness where they clear a path, but nobody on the offensive line can be counted on to consistently win the physical battle. Even when the Rams try to assert themselves with clear double teams, the line can’t move anybody off the ball.

The Rams double teamed both the 1-tech (between guard and center) and the 3-tech (between guard and tackle) on this play. Neither double team was a delayed effort; both double teams were two offensive linemen blocking the closest defensive tackle. At least one of these two double teams should have worked.

The double team on the 3-tech, Gerald McCoy, did not work one bit. McCoy got lower than the two offensive linemen did and he held his ground. McCoy didn’t budge an inch.

Against the 1-tech, Saffold was able to knock Akeem Spence off of his spot a little bit, but then had to climb to the second level. That being said, Saffold delivered a mean punch and forced Spence to reset his feet. The help from Saffold should have been all that center Tim Barnes needed in order to win the block and push Spence off of the line of scrimmage. Alas, Barnes didn’t gain any ground against Spence.

There are a couple of factors as to why the Rams offensive line can’t seem to out-fight their opposition. First, this offensive line is lethargic. There’s no fire, no extreme will to punish the opponent. It’s rare to see a Rams lineman play with the nastiness that the position requires. “Playing through the whistle” is a tired cliche, but it is a legitimately valuable trait to have, and it’s tough to find Rams linemen consistently doing it.

The Rams offensive line also doesn’t punch well. Saffold and Robinson delivers nasty blows every now and again, but on a play to play basis, the Rams don’t punch well. The punch is the initial contact point of any block and it can set the tone for the rest of the play, or even the rest of the game. A good punch can force a defender off balance and give the offensive lineman a window to drive the defender back. On the other hand, a bad punch—or no punch at all, where a blocker will instead try to absorb the contact—can have the opposite effect. The Rams tend to show the latter.

Tim Barnes (center)

Barnes was never a Pro Bowl level player and there should be no expectation for him to be that. At most, the expectations for Barnes coming into this season should have been that he can be a functional piece in the run game and not be a turnstile as a pass blocker. It’s not a high bar, but for a journeyman center, that would have sufficed. Barnes has not even played up to those standards.

For whatever reason, Barnes has lost his edge. Barnes had moments last year where he completely cleared players out of the way. Granted, he was still an inconsistent player, but his peaks gave him value. Barnes has now slid to the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of being an inconsistent player who had flashes of dominance, Barnes is now an inconsistent player who allows himself to be abused far too often.

Barnes has been beaten like this all year. On this play, neither Barnes or the defensive tackle have an advantage with the angle they can take. The defensive tackle is lined up directly over Barnes. In theory, the two are on an even playing field.

After he gets the snap off, Barnes is a tick slow to get out of his stance and into the defensive tackle’s frame. Barnes sluggishly rolls out of his stance and punches at the defender with pillow hands. Barnes didn’t put any power into his punch, instead allowing the defender to get the advantage in this condensed game of tug of war. As a result, the defender worked Barnes directly into Gurley’s running lane.

Rob Havenstein (right tackle)

Physical ability is not the issue with Havenstein. At 6’7”, 321 pounds, Havenstein is the ideal mauling right tackle, and there are times where he plays the part. Havenstein has moments of dominance where he drives a defender into oblivion, but he so rarely puts himself in position to do so. Havenstein repeatedly engages blocks in sloppy fashion and, well, he reaps what he sows.

Havenstein just looks disinterested on this play. Off the snap, Havenstein doesn’t properly engage Ed Stinson, the defensive end. Havenstein tries running by Stinson as if he doesn’t exist. The lacksidaisical one-armed blocking attempt is there, but Havenstein never even looks at Stinson. The entire approach is lackadaisical.

Even when Stinson is clearly engaged with Havenstein and trying to run through him, Havenstein doesn’t stop to turn around and pin Stinson from the play. Havenstein instead continues to climb to the second level to block a linebacker that he must have thought was his assignment.

Be it at the line of scrimmage or in space, Havenstein has poor engagements like this on a multiple-times-per-drive basis. If he’s not halfway trying to avoid the block like in the play above, he’s easing up before he makes contact with second level players or lunging at defenders before closing the gap.

If Havenstein does properly makes his way to his assignment, there is always the possibility of him engaging without the right mechanics. Often times, Havenstein’s issue is that he will place his helmet on the wrong side of the defender’s helmet.

For instance, if a running play is going to the right and Havenstein needs to pin someone inside, he should be engaging his helmet to the right of the defender’s helmet. Here’s an example of Havenstein engaging poorly.

Here, Havenstein gets help from a double team that should have given him time to get his helmet to the right of the defender’s helmet. Havenstein got sloppy and let his body flail all over, giving the defender an easy opportunity to shed him and make a play. Havenstein can’t keep doing this.

Coaching Staff

The players are the ones on the field making (or not making) the plays, so it’s easy to burden them with all the blame. While many of the players are responsible for the demise of the running game for their own reasons, they have not been set up well to succeed. Head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive line coach Paul Boudreau have had five years to build their offensive line and install their blocking schemes. This dismal group should not be the product after five years.

Something about the way the offensive line functions is wrong. The root of the problem is tricky to identify, but the Rams offensive line is constantly botching their assignments or being asked to carry out assignments that they physically are not capable of. Is it poor reinforcement from the coaching staff? Is it an outdated or shoddy blocking system? Whatever it is, it is costing the Rams yards on the ground.

This play may be the most glaring example of some sort of schematic meltdown. Center Tim Barnes has a defensive tackle shaded over him to his right, but flows down the line of scrimmage to help with the 3-tech. Barnes doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the defender shaded over him. Right guard Cody Wichmann is then left holding the bag.

100 out of 100 times, Wichmann will not make this block. No matter who you stick at right guard, asking them to reach to a shaded nose guard like this is a tall order. With no immediate threat to Barnes’s left, there should be no reason for Barnes to flow to the left and not give any assistance to Wichmann. Barnes doesn’t need to engage the shaded nose guard and double team with Wichmann for the entire play, but he needs to punch him off the snap and give Wichmann a chance. Barnes failed his comrade.

The interesting part, though, is that this play is not any sort of aberration. This exact fault has happened time and time again this year. If Barnes has a 1-tech aligned to the back side of a play, Barnes directs all of his attention toward getting to the 3-tech on the play side. There’s no telling whether that is his fault, the coaches’ faults or some mixture of both, but it’s a consistent problem that needs to be troubleshot.

Even in the example given during Barnes’s solo examination above (vs Cardinals), left tackle Greg Robinson is asked to reach to Calais Campbell. Campbell can abuse Robinson in a head-on situation, let alone when he has a clear advantage with his angle. Robinson got no help from left guard Rodger Saffold, thus allowing Campbell to rumble into the backfield and completely negate any possibility of a cut back.

Is There a Fix?

The short, painful answer is “no.” Nobody on the Rams roster is going to provide any sort of improvement aside from a healthy Jamon Brown. Even then, while Brown is better than Wichmann at right guard, Brown is still a below average player. There isn’t anybody left on the open market, either. The only possible personnel fix would require a trade, but the Rams don’t have the remaining draft capital to do any more trading.

Solutions on the coaching end don’t seem likely, either. Fisher and Boudreau have had control of this offensive line for five years and they have nothing to show for it. They did not collect a quality personnel group, nor have they given this personnel group much of a fighting chance with their blocking scheme and tendencies.

The offensive line may make marginal improvements over the course of the season, and they have already done that a little bit over the past few weeks, but this offensive line won’t ever play to the level that they need to. There needs to be a major overhaul, both personnel wise and coaching wise. How or when that will happen is uncertain, but it may not matter in regards to this season.

The Rams running game is broken this season and there doesn’t appear to be a fix.