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Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers: The Professor’s preview

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Goodbye, regular season.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Authors Note: Under guidelines set by our TST Editor I am obligated to spell out the full name of the Los Angeles Rams’ opponent in the first line of my article, but after that it’s appropriate that I may refer to that team in a shortened version. It is therefore with deep regret by virtue of the rules laid out by our Editor that I acknowledge the Rams’ next opponent is the San Francisco 49ers. I will thereafter refer to them as the “Whiners” as the appropriate reference.

Overview

The Whiners visit our Rams this Sunday in the last game of the regular season. While we prepare for the playoffs having secured the NFC West for 2018, the Whiners head back north to try to figure out what to do to retool for 2019.

Going into the final game of the season, the Rams have a one-game lead over the Chicago Bears. With a win against the Whiners, the Rams can secure a first-round bye and home field for the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. On the other hand, if the Rams manage to lose to the Whiners and Bears defeat the Minnesota Vikings this weekend, the Rams will wind up having to host a Wild Card game at home and, should they prevail next week, travel on the road thereafter throughout the playoffs.

Whether RB Todd Gurley plays in this game is still up the air, but after the performance of C.J. Anderson last week against the Arizona Cardinals, Rams fans feel a lot better about our running game then we were before being made aware of Gurley’s injury.

With so much on the line for the Rams, the Whiners are sure to come into Los Angeles pumped up and prepared to play their best football in order to spoil the Rams chances at a playoff bye week. A victory by the Whiners will bring a lot satisfaction to a team that saw their entire season disappear after starting QB Jim Garp suffered an ACL tear in the third game of year against the Kansas City Chiefs. From there things went south for the Whiners who head into Los Angeles with a miserable 4-11 record. They rank 23rd in points per game. 16th in yards per game, 15th in pass yards per game and 13th in rush yards per game. Defensively, the Whiners are 24th in points allowed per game, 10th in yards allowed per game and 12th in both pass and rush yards allowed.

The task ahead isn’t going to easy. This is by no means a gimme game since the Whiners have always been to the older generation of Rams fans, the most disliked team, the natural rival to the north, while newer Gen-X and Millennials seem to favor the Seattle Seahawks as the Rams’ main rival. Even though rivalry games take on a life of their own, it’s not only imperative that Rams win this game for playoff seeding purposes, they must look good doing it so that any remaining doubts about how the team will perform on their hoped for journey to the Super Bowl will be put to rest. Not only have the Rams looked bad recently, they’ve looked down right terrible at times with fans scratching their heads wondering what happened to that team that was 8-0 at the end halfway mark and has since lost three out of their last seven.

You want to be playing your best football heading into the playoffs, so the the win last week against the Cardinals certainly helps. But in reviewing the three loses the Rams suffered thus far to the New Orleans Saints, Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, two things stand out in the Professor’s mind: turnovers and offensive tempo.

What the Rams need to do on offense

Rightfully or wrongfully, the quarterback gets the most blame when a team struggles on offense. Not surprising then that Rams QB Jared Goff has been feeling the heat after the Rams suffered back-to-back losses for the first time under Head Coach Sean McVay.

The first thing noticeable to the Professor in both these losses was the Rams offense was off not only in terms of playcalling by McVay but the tempo. The Rams are most effective in no huddle keeping defenses from making situational substitutions. The only time the Rams should find it necessary to huddle is when they get into the red zone, where patience is a virtue since touchdowns take precedence over field goals.

The Rams play much better when playing from a lead forcing other team’s offenses to match them score for score. Playing at a faster pace is the Rams’ modus operandi. The fly sweep is the perfect play to set up the up-tempo style the Rams’ offense likes to play.

In the fly sweep, the quarterback has three available options. He can hand to it the receiver coming across, fake the handoff to the receiver and instead hand the ball off to Gurley for a run up the middle run or fake the hand off to him and hit a receiver coming across. If Goff has enough time after faking a handoff to Gurley, he could even hit Todd coming out of the backfield.

Additionally in the no huddle, Goff reads the coverage immediately at the line of scrimmage. He knows instantly where he should go with the ball taking what the defense is giving the Rams’ offense. Goff is forced to be reactionary in the no huddle while gaining confidence since under McVay rhythm is everything at QB. The quarterback can’t be thinking about where to throw the ball; he has to make his reads quickly and throw the pass to the first open receiver. Out of the huddle, Goff is simply overthinking the playcall and trying to do too much. The net result has been forced inaccurate passes into coverage killing his confidence and rhythm.

What the Rams didn’t do against the Bears or the Eagles for that matter was establish an offensive tempo that suited what they do best. Playcalling by McVay is crucial to putting the Rams’ offense in the best position to take advantage of opposing defenses, relying less on Goff to make the difficult long third down plays and more on the keeping the chains moving with short makeable third down situations. The Rams’ deep passes can only happen when the run game is productive. Getting success from the ground game leads to being able to call a playaction pass which freezes opposing defenses.

The other thing that Goff has to do is avoid the dumb turnover. He’s a turnover machine when he gets hit on the strip sack. If the play isn’t there, either throw the ball out of bounds or take the sack so that the offense can live for another day. Goff must learn to play smarter as there is no reason to get up from the ground after stumbling on the snap and try to throw the ball anywhere.

The recent offensive lapses aren’t entirely Goff’s fault though. His offensive line hasn’t given him a pocket to pass from against the Detroit Lions, Bears and Eagles. The offensive line seems to be having a problem picking up the blitz. This has caused Goff to rush his throw off balance leading to poorly thrown passes or interceptions.

The failure of the Rams’ offensive line to give Goff time has led to defenses repeatedly dialing up for the blitz. Goff has two choices under those circumstances: either get rid the ball or take the sack, plain and simple. But when the Rams have upped the tempo, McVay can take advantage of the blitz since the receivers are manned up. Only one team, Chicago, has the personnel to keep the Rams receivers in check in man-to-man coverage.

This week, the Whiners don’t present the kind of problems that playoff-caliber teams like the Saints, Bears, Seahawks, Bears or Vikings do. The level of competition just isn’t the same against the Cardinals or Whiners. That’s why it’s imperative that the Rams’ offense fires on all cylinders this Sunday — not just for the win, but to make all of us diehards comfortable that things are heading in the right direction going into the playoffs.

The Rams can’t let up after last week. They need to score and score often. Put this game out of reach by the middle of the third quarter and no one in the Coliseum will have to bother looking at the scoreboard, worrying about how the Vikings are doing.

What the Rams need to do on defense

DT Ndamukong Suh had by far his best day against the Cardinals. He had two blocked passes and a sack. He played very well against the run as well.

Was this an aberration? That’s the question Rams fans need an answer to. Suh has certainly not lived up to the expectations of either the fans or the Rams in 2018. Opposing teams have taken notice of this too. DT Aaron Donald is not only being doubled, he’s getting triple-teamed at times. Despite this fact, he’s only three sacks away from the breaking the NFL record. The last time the Rams and Whiners met in Santa Clara, Donald was a monster, but this was well before opposing teams went to forcing Donald to the outside, while doubling with tripling teaming him and rightfully taking their chances they’re not going get hurt by Suh or Michael Brockers.

Nevertheless, the Rams’ defense looks to be getting better as a result of the return of CB Aqib Talib. In the last four games, the Rams are averaging just 17.5 points allowed. While none of those games were against powerhouse offenses, it could easily be said that the Whiners’ offense fits into that category as well.

The Whiners aren’t that bad, just ineffective when they need it most. The problem is that the Whiners lack the tools at wide receiver, running back and quarterback to sustain success throughout an entire game. Throw in the fact that the Rams’ secondary is now looking much better with Talib in the lineup. There’s no way they can outscore the Rams with third string QB Nick Mullens leading the way.

Head Coach Kyle Shanahan can still dial up the plays, and one should expect that he’ll have a pretty good gameplan in place this Sunday. The only true weapon the Whiners rely on consistently is their tight end, George Kittle, who deserves to be in the Pro Bowl this year. Every time the Whiners need a big play, Kittle is the guy they go to. He had a career day against the Rams the last time these two teams played, so I expect Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips to have a gameplan in place to contain him.

If things go as planned, it’s entirely possible that Donald will break the single season sack record. Not only would this solidify his grasp as the the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, it should earn him the league’s Most Valuable Player. He certainly gets the Professor’s vote since the only one whose ever going to break the sack record at the defensive tackle position is Aaron Donald.

The Rams need another stellar performance from their defense this weekend keeping the Whiners to under 17 points.

What the Rams need to do on special teams

I’ve previously mentioned that I had no love for KR Pharoh Cooper, so I was pleased when the Rams waived him. PR JoJo Natson is much smarter and more elusive. If and when he gets a chance to return a kick-off, which is becoming harder and harder to do in today’s NFL, he has the potential to break a big one.

On the punt return side, two things need to be mentioned. First the Rams’ defense has to do a better job of not allowing opposing offenses to move the football so that any punt has to be fair caught by Natson inside the ten-yard line. The second thing is the penalties for blocks in the back are killing the returnable punt. This is very simple to correct...if you can read the name of the player your supposed to be blocking you’re behind him, so DON’T BLOCK HIM.

Understandably, JoJo got a lot of heat for his fumble against the Eagles. Still, I feel a lot more comfortable with Natson back there then I ever did with Cooper and that wildcard game against the Atlanta Falcons sealed his fate with me.

As for both K Greg Zuerlein and P Johnny Hekker, both are going to be called upon in the playoffs to perform at the level Ram fans are accustomed to. I have no doubt they will rise to the expectations.

I like the Rams and in particular JoJo on a punt return to do something special against the Whiners.

The X-factors

This game has a lot motivational x-factors for both teams. In addition, If Gurley does sit out due to injury, the question as to whether Anderson can duplicate his Cardinal performance is also an interesting x-factor. Nothing though is as important as much as seeing the Rams playing their best football at the end of year.

The 2018 regular season is about to come to an end. After the Rams beat the Whiners, they will have improved from last year’s 11-5 to 13-3, which in any other year should have been good enough to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

What all of us have been waiting for since training camp is about to happen. There’s no reason the 2018 Rams can’t make it to the Super Bowl. Upon review, as a diehard for life, unfortunately what I will remember the most about this regular season won’t be the big wins against the Vikings or the Chiefs, but those inexplicable painful losses to the Bears and Eagles.

Yet despite the stumbles, this 2018 Rams team is an excellent football team, among the elite in the league. So as long as this team plays Rams football, as we have come to know under the McVay era, all will be well, as we prepare for the playoff road ahead.

GO RAMS!