A bye week is a chance for a football team to get healthy and evaluate where they stand overall.
The Los Angeles Rams come into the eighth week of the 2017 season relatively healthy and therefore don’t need to look to the October 31 trade deadline for an injury replacement. This is a good thing. As to evaluating what the team looks like for the foreseeable future, things are looking up for the Rams. The team is playing well. The offense is vastly improved from last year, and the defense is getting better and better each week in the 3-4 under Wade Phillips.
The Schedule Ahead
Off the bye, the Rams play a bad football team in the New York Giants. This is a trap game. If the Rams take the Giants too lightly, they could easily lose a game that could help them in their quest to win the NFC West and possibly miss the playoffs.
Next up, in order: Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and wrap up the 2017 season at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
It is not inconceivable that Rams could run the table, but not likely.
The two teams that stand out as tough opponents at this point in the season are the Saints and Eagles. The Rams get both of these opponents at home, although the Coliseum has not been very hospitable since the Rams are 1-2 in games played there this year. Oddly, they remain undefeated on the road. The Rams need to start winning games in Los Angeles so that if they do win the division and get at least one home game in the playoffs, they can turn the Coliseum into a place where wins are more likely, not less.
At the start of the season, games against the Texans, Vikings and Seahawks appeared be tough games to win. Now, these games look much more winnable as long as the Rams keep improving. These three, including the game in Seattle which is tough place to play in, now appear as competitive contests since none of these opponents jump off the paper as unbeatable—at least not this year.
This leaves the Rams with two projected victories against the Cardinals and Niners even if they wind up being “ugly” wins.
After beating the Giants, adding the two projected wins against Arizona and San Francisco and on the assumption the Rams take two out three against either Houston, Minnesota or Seattle, but split the games between New Orleans and Philadelphia, the Rams will have 6 more wins after the bye week.
The Rams could therefore conceivably finish up 2017 at 11-5, or 10-6 should they manage to blow more than one of the games projected as wins against either the Texans, Vikings or Seahawks along the way.
Should the Rams finish 11-5 or 10-6, that should be enough to be a wild card team. If the Rams beat the Seahawks in Seattle, then the Rams would win the NFC West and probably get a bye going into the first week of the playoffs.
The “X” factor to having the best record in the NFC Conference lies in Philadelphia. The Eagles are playing lights out football right now; however, they lost starting LT Jason Peters in the game against Washington and no one knows how the Ezekiel Elliott court case is going to play out. I’m betting that in the 2nd Federal District where the Tom Brady case was decided, the trial court will abide by the precedent set in that district and deny Elliott’s injunction. This will probably mean that if the Cowboys make the playoffs it will only be as wildcard, they won’t win NFC East.
In order for any of these scenarios to play out, the Rams must take each of these games one at a time never looking too far ahead. If the Rams focus strictly on the next game and beating that opponent, the Rams will make the playoffs.
In order to achieve this goal, the Rams must continue to get better on defense and have to improve their red zone offense by scoring more touchdowns. If the Rams stay away from the turnovers and penalties, they’re a formidable team.
In order for any of these professorial projections to mean anything, the Rams must start if off by beating the Giants. Lose that game, and the Rams will be lucky to be 10-6 with 9-7 more likely and maybe out of the playoff picture all together.
What’s Ahead For The Offense
The Rams rank 21st in red zone offense, just under 50% at 48.39%. This must be improved drastically.
The way do this is to continue to find ways to be creative inside the opponent’s 20-yard line as they did last week against the Cardinals. The game didn’t start out that way, leaving at least two touchdowns off the board when they were in the red zone converting field goals instead.
Follow the tried and true method of down and distance strategy designed to get the ball inside the 5-yard line when in the red zone. The first priority should be to get a first down inside the 10, then work your way to the five-yard line. If you have a 1st down with five to go at the 5, run it. If its 2nd or 3rd between 9 to 5 yards to go, throw it. The closer to the end zone you are at the 5-yard line should dictate what your third down call should be.
At the five, be creative—roll the QB out. This will force the defense secondary to come off the wide receiver, leaving him wide open for a simple toss. If the DB’s stay back run the ball, maybe even into the end zone, but still closer to the end line. The closer one gets to inside the 5-yard line, the better able to utilize RB Todd Gurley right up the gut.
There is no reason why an offense inside the 5-yard line, who knows the snap count, should not be able to get off the snap, gaining at least one yard per carry. This will force the defense to clog the line, opening up the wide outs for quick toss to TE or WR on play action either on 2nd or 3rd down.
Thinking out the box from the 20- to 10-yard line catches the defenses off guard enabling them to score touchdowns rather then relying of FGs. This is a tried and true method for scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Once the Rams do this, they will become the most dominant team on offense already the number one scoring team in the entire NFL after Week 7.
Move the chains as the Rams have consistently done this year thus far. Stay away from penalties and turnovers. Score touchdowns in the red zone. These are preparatory keys to victory which all teams in the NFL desire. The difference is that after seven weeks, the Rams have been moving the chains. It has been the penalties, turnovers and lack of red zone production that caused the Rams to lose two games thus far.
Touchdowns change the entire strategy of the opponent’s offense. There’s a big difference between being down by six points (i.e. two field goals) vs two touchdowns. If the opponent fails to score on the ensuing series after building a 14-point lead and the Rams score a FG on their next offensive series, it will be an extremely formidable task to overcome, since a score by the opponent after that is an absolute necessity to just being able to stay in the game.
What’s Ahead For The Defense
While the Rams’ offense has been inconsistent in the red zone, the defense has been consistently getting better. As long as they continue to improve against the run, they should be a top ten defense.
If there’s one area that needs to improve, it’s tackling. This is an obvious fundamental principle of defense. The Rams were much better at tackling, holding the wide receivers and running backs to minimal gains against the Cards. The question is whether that game is an anomaly or a stepping stone to the future.
The gut reaction to this is that since tackling is so fundamental to a successful defense, it should continue to look like what the Rams did against Cards as it’s repeatedly stressed by coaches in every meeting and practice from day one.
The first game out of the bye week being the Giants is a perfect opportunity for the Rams to improve their tackling. The Giants aren’t fancy, just bad on offense having no running game or passing game.
Then there is always a game in the regular season where nothing the defense does is right. The Rams haven’t really had one of those yet.
By taking this into account in what’s ahead, that kind of game might could come against either Eagles or Saints. But, should this happen against either off these two teams and then meet that team meets up with Rams in the playoffs, lightning isn’t going to strike twice in the same place on the football field.
What’s Ahead For Special Teams
Having made the punt returner move from Tavon Austin to Pharoh Cooper, the Rams are going to be much better without the muffed punts. Cooper has big play potential but must keep in mind his first obligation is to catch the ball. If he gets the “dropsy” disease, expect Copper Kupp to replace him. Keep your fingers crossed he stays away from the muffs.
P Johnny Hekker continues to demonstrate why he’s the best in the league, and PK Greg Zuerlein is having a good year after a subpar 2016. Nonetheless, if the Rams make the playoffs and the game comes down to one of those HUGE field goals to win the game, I’ll be one of those of fans with my eyes closed, praying that Mr. Automatic is automatic—since place kickers always seem to miss the ones you think they’ll make.
Can The Rams Make It To The Super Bowl
There is no reason why the Rams cannot make it to the Super Bowl. The only obstacle in their way is themselves. If the team corrects the observable deficiencies in their game thus far, the Rams are more than legitimate contenders for the NFC crown.
The Rams are the second-youngest team in the entire NFL with the youngest head coach ever hired. Young teams need to learn how to win first. It appeas the Rams have done this through their first seven games. They will next need learn how to play in the playoffs. Each of these are a process.
If the Rams get into the playoffs, it’s important that this young team not change the formula that got them there, by playing “their” game. There’s a big difference between being 6-2 versus 5-3 at the halfway point during the season. For the Rams to begin their quest for the Super Bowl it starts by beating the Giants keeping in mind that’s it not how you start but how you finish.
The Rams are poised at this point during the bye week to shock the football world. Finish this season by having the best record in the league, win out the remaining games and all the other things that go with it will fall in place, home field advantage, division winner, needing only three more wins for the glory that is Los Angeles Rams football.
The “Fight for L.A.” will be over and that title will forever belong to the team whose destiny was to come home and win a Super Bowl Championship.