The Rams have won their third game in a row. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost tough to write about what is going on, especially after kicking the season off with a miserable shutout loss on prime time television. Each game since the opener has been its own clunky journey and this week was no different. With the help of a late-game injury to Carson Palmer, the Rams survived their trip to Phoenix, holding onto their NFC West throne for at least another week.
Just to reiterate, the Los Angeles Rams are now 3-1. Three and one.
Rams Offense vs Cardinals Defense
The Rams are starting to form their identity on offense. It’s not a good identity or one to be proud of, but it is distinct nonetheless. Many, myself included, expected the offense to revolve around making the ground game work and finding ways to enable Tavon Austin. The offense has not strained itself to do either of those things yet. Austin has still caught plenty of passes and seen a few carries, but he’s been fairly normalized in the offense this year.
Todd Gurley and the rest of the rushing attack is the mystery. Instead of forcing the running game and praying for a big play because math eventually has to concede one, the Rams have opted to go more to the one-read and short step passing game. Case Keenum is not a good quarterback, but he can at least function under those conditions and provide slightly more success for the offense than whatever the rushing attack is providing.
All of those things came to light against the Arizona Cardinals, but a couple of key touchdown passes, both to Brian Quick (!!!), gave the Rams just enough to get ahead and let the defense hold the lead.
- It’s uncomfortable to determine what is and is not real with Brian Quick, but it is fact that he has three touchdowns, two of which were long plays and the other was in crunch time. 90th time might be a charm with Quick.
- Case Keenum simply is not a good quarterback. He’s a quality backup to have, sure, but he’s severely limited the play in, play out potential of the Rams offense.
- Rodger Saffold has lost what ability he had left in the tank last season. He looks slower and weaker. Saffold was supposed to anchor the interior and provide some hope for the running game, but he has not been able to.
- Greg Robinson is certified terrible as a left tackle. Addressing it during the season may be tough, but he has got to be moved.
- Gurley was featured in the passing game more this week than in the past three weeks. That is something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Easy Passing Yards
Many of the passing concepts that Keenum is throwing are simple. Some concepts are more simple than others, but he is not asked to do near as much as other quarterbacks around the league and he is asked to throw a lot of easy passes. It’s a strain on the offense, but Rob Boras has found ways to make it work and open up easy throws for Keenum underneath. The offense has to operate with a mostly short route tree and Boras has maximized what that type of passing offense is capable of.
Arizona’s blitz puts their own defense in a 3 vs 2 situation to the right side of the field, but the route combo is still slick. Tyler Higbee, who lines up outside of Lance Kendricks on the line of scrimmage, runs a curl route over the top of Kendricks and boxes out the defender covering him. Kendricks runs a short zig-out route under Higbee. Because Higbee boxes out the defender as he rounds off his curl route, Kendricks is able to catch and run without any contention.
The GIF is cut short, but Kendricks runs for a good chunk of yardage on this play because of the space Gurley’s route creates. The defensive back to that side, Tony Jefferson (#22) starts the play with concern for Higbee, but then trails backwards as Gurley shoots vertically up the field. Gurley clearing out Jefferson allowed for easy yards after catch.
A play like this is perfect against an aggressive defense like Arizona’s. If they’re going to blitz, it makes sense to target the short areas of the field where there bltizers are vacating. It makes life easier on Keenum and gives the skill players chances to run free.
Are the Running Game’s Issues Only On the Offensive Line?
The short answer: no. Gurley does not look like the explosive, dynamic runner that he was drafted to be and was for a short period at the beginning of his Rams career. For whatever reason - it might be frustration with the offense - Gurley has lost his spark. The offensive line has done him no favors, especially this year, but Gurley is not free of fault. He’s less physically dominant, his patience is beginning to be nonexistent and his vision should be in question. Gurley is still less to blame than the offensive line, but it’s time to start worrying about him.
First, we’ll start with the line. It has not been good at any point this year. They can not generate push, they can’t hold blocks and god forbid they understand their assignments for more than one or two plays in a row. The play below is a good example of not sustaining what looks to be good blocking at first.
All is fine here. There looks to be a wall forming, Deone Buchannon (#20) and Tony Jefferson (#22) look to be accounted for and Gurley is picking up steam.
Oh no. What are Greg Robinson and Cory Harkey doing...
GOD DAMN IT.
It all looked so promising. For a short moment, Gurley had been granted real run blocking, only for it to vanish as quickly as it came.
But here is where Gurley’s vision is getting suspect. There is no reason for Gurley to run inside of Kendricks and try to pound the defense for a couple of extra yards. Had Gurley bounced outside of Kendricks, he would have had to outrun a backtracking Tony Jefferson, who Kendricks was trying to block, and Tyrann Mathieu, who was coming over from between the hash marks. It’s dangerous to assume that Gurley would have scored had he ran to the outside, but the play certainly had more potential and did not risk any of the yards that Gurley gained with the ‘safe’ path he took.
Rams Defense vs Arizona Cardinals Offense
The Rams defensive front is otherworldly. They transcend the rest of the defense and mask the problems that the defense has elsewhere. The linebackers struggled and the secondary, outside of Trumaine Johnson, played a roller coaster of a contest, but it almost didn’t matter because of how good the defensive line was. Aaron Donald was as excellent as ever, Robert Quinn had himself a game, Cam Thomas and Michael Brockers did great jobs as the hefty men up front, and even Matt Longacre quietly played a good game. If there were ever a defense to promote building a defense from the trenches up, the 2016 Rams are it.
- LA blitzed a lot. I mean a loooot. Gregg Williams had it out for Palmer/Stanton.
- Matt Longacre was very good. Had a few nice plays in run defense and generated pressure as a rusher.
- Cardinals receivers, namely Michael Floyd, had ugly drop issues that helped the Rams secondary look a bit better than they were.
- E.J. Gaines showed some nice ability in short zones, but the cornerback spot opposite Tru is still a major problem.
Alec Ogletree Needs To Figure It Out
As James Laurinaitis left, Alec Ogletree was supposed to fill his spot as the middle linebacker. Tackle stats be damned, Ogletree has had a rough season and this week versus Arizona was a highly concerning performance. Ogletree doesn’t appear to be confident in his decisions or he does not understand his run keys- sometimes it’s tough to tell which was the issue on a given play. Either way, Ogeltree has been far too passive in clogging the interior from his middle linebacker spot.
It’s a general rule of thumb that a linebacker’s first step should be to the ball. You want them to be moving in the general area of the play and then adjust from there. Ogletree instead backs off from the ball on this play as if he were waiting for a passing play to develop. After two backwards steps, Ogletree realizes his mistake and jolts forward, but running back David Johnson has already been granted enough space to pick up a nice gain by then. The gap that Johnson ran through was Ogletree’s responsibility.
On the very next play, Ogletree did this same thing. Then he did it again later on in the game. And then again and again and... well, it’s clear where this is headed. Ogletree has yet to get to a point where he sees plays develop or trusts his instincts. He is too often caught behind plays and puts himself in position to be washed out by opposing linemen.
On one hand, it’s fair to say that Ogletree is new to the middle linebacker position and deserves some leeway. That can be true while still chastising him for making mistakes that are not necessarily related to switching positions, but instead simply being a subpar linebacker. He lacked consistency before the switch and now looks to be lacking consistency even more than before. Ogletree deserves more time to figure out his spot at middle linebacker, but it may be time to start questioning what the Rams have in him.
Peak Rams Pass Rush
The Rams defensive line and aiding blitzers had themselves a hell of a game on Sunday. The group tallied up six quarterback hits, three sacks and a forced fumble on one of the sacks, not to mention the role they played in forcing three interceptions out of the Cardinals quarterbacks. Due to dominant performances from Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, as well as production out of the blitzers, the Rams wrecked the Cardinals offensive line and put constant pressure on Palmer and Stanton.
This is one of many great pass rush snaps from the Rams defensive line. Of course, Donald was the one to finish the job and force the bad pass here, but Quinn’s presence forced Drew Stanton to step up into the pocket and Longacre’s pressure from the right side closed the pocket Stanton was working with. It was a collective effort finished off by the leader of the group, Aaron Donald.
Plays like this were a consistent theme throughout the game. Los Angeles was able to generate pressure by only rushing four. When they blitzed and brought five or six rushers, the Cardinals were overwhelmed. They could not keep up with the Rams base group of pass rushers, let alone the added blitzers. On one occasion, one of the blitzers even racked up a sack. Safety Maurice Alexander was able to work past the running back and get to the quarterback on one of his blitzes.
Somehow, some way, the Rams keep winning. This week was a testament to how impactful the defensive line can be all on their own. Trumaine Johnson played a hell of a game and other players made a splash play here and there, but the success of the defense and the team as a whole rode on the backs of the defensive linemen. Over the past few years, the Rams have exhausted countless resources in that area and it’s comforting to see that they are producing at the level that they should be.
Offensively, the team was still not impressive, but they managed to summon enough big plays and unlikely touchdowns to outscore a broken Cardinals offense. If the Rams can continue to get quality play out of Kenny Britt and Lance Kendricks in the short game, as well as the occasional game breaking play from Brian Quick or Tavon Austin, the offense may be able to continue to do all it needs to do to allow the defense to win games.
It’s still difficult to trust this Rams team given how odd each victory has been, but 3-1 is 3-1 and the Rams have positioned themselves well for a playoff spot. The offense is going to lose the Rams some games at some point, but the defense will keep them in every game and it will only take a few splash plays from the offenses to continue this shocking streak of victory. With struggling teams like the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions scheduled for the next two games, the Rams could jump out to a start that nobody saw coming.