The Los Angeles Rams have gotten off to an undefeated 3-0 start in 2019. But a “hot” start for one of last year’s most high-powered offenses, well, that’s up for debate. Through three weeks of play (warning: very basic statistics incoming), the Rams offense is averaging 357.7 yards per game, good for 17th in the league, and 25.6 points per game (9th). At this juncture of last season, they were averaging 439.3 ypg and 34 ppg.
So no, the Rams have not looked as sharp offensively as they’d hoped. But there’s a whole lot of ball game left, and both the players and coaches know there’s room for improvement and are not satisfied with the status quo.
“We’re not a 3-0 team that’s satisfied...We might be the only 3-0 team in the NFL that’s not happy being 3-0 right now. But at the same time, we’re 3-0,” said Rams’ center Brian Allen.
You’ll hear similar sentiments from Sean McVay all the way down the line. If you asked McVay he’d, as always, just take full responsibility for not putting his players in a position to succeed. Even when the team is winning, he could’ve been better.
If you asked Jared Goff what it’s going to take to get the offense going, he’d be a bit more specific, noting the Rams need to keep themselves in more manageable situations.
“I think being better on first and second down. That will keep us out of third-and-long. I think that’s probably what he’s referring to is those first- and second-down plays – running the ball efficiently, and throwing the ball efficiently, throwing completions, making the easy throws, making the easy catches. Getting in those third-and-manageable-s, getting those third-and-shorts that we tend to convert pretty often. If we’re able to do that, I expect to continue to see this.”
Just how are the Rams doing in regards to converting on 3rd down plays and in what circumstances have they found themselves in on 3rd down up to this point?
For starters, the Rams currently rank 12th in the NFL, obtaining the necessary yardage on 45.45% of 3rd down plays. And despite Goff’s concern, that’s actually an improvement from their 2018 season-ending conversion, 43.29%.
But Goff isn’t simply saying that they need to be better on 3rd downs. He’s saying they need to be in a better spot in order to convert. So what has that looked like up to this point?
Below is some information I compiled into a spreadsheet that highlights each of the Rams 3rd down attempts from Week’s 1-3. I first identified which 3rd down plays were (or weren’t) successful throughout those games. Then to summarize, and not knowing exactly how to quantify “manageable,” I simply broke the plays into two categories: 1-5 yards and 6+ yards. Additionally, I tallied up the individual down-and-distance plays (i.e. results from all 3rd-and-5’s) from the first three weeks.
You may have noted that the Rams are very good on 3rd downs with only one or two yards to get the first, converting 11 of the 12 plays this season (92%). Conversely, when Jared & Co. find themselves in 3rd and 9+, they’re much less likely to succeed and that percentage drops to 23% (which actually sounds pretty reasonable). It makes sense too. Getting three feet may not prove overly difficult. Getting 12 yards is another story.
Something else, and this takes me back to the defining “manageable” quandary I was having, is that I would consider anything five yards or fewer to fit the bill. And while the Rams are extremely good needing two yards or fewer, it gets pretty ugly on plays where they need three to five. On those plays, they’ve only converted 2 of 11 (18.2%) to start the season. Yikes. But then they’ve converted on 60% of 3rd downs when they’ve needed 6 to 7 yards.
So I guess it begs the question of what truly is manageable?
Assuming you also feel that five yards is manageable, then the manner in which I’ve broken the plays out shows a pretty even split thus far on the year — 23 plays needing 1-5 yards, and 21 plays needing 6 or more. As you can see, they’ve been much better (56% vs. 33%) when they’ve needed five or fewer to move the chains. But roughly half of those plays occurred when the Rams needed 3-5 yards and, again, they’ve clearly struggled to keep the drive alive in those instances. If they’d been able to increase the number of 3-5 yard conversions by three (from two to five), they’d now be successful on 70% of plays requiring 1-5 yards.
Silly stat (bare with me) — if you take out the 3rd and 1-2 yard plays, they’ve only converted 28% of 3rd downs this year. I realize that’s kind of a nonsensical exercise, but at the same time it’s extremely low and highlights how the 3rd and 3-5 yard plays aren’t doing that stat, and moreover the team, any favors. Simply put, they’ve got to be better in those situations.
There’s truth to what both McVay and Goff are saying. The Rams, like any other team, are going to be more successful by keeping the punt team on the sidelines, and in order to do that they can’t consistently put themselves in 3rd-and-long situations. But maybe McVay is right. Maybe he hasn’t put them in the best spot to succeed when they’ve gotten there. Maybe he has some play calls he’d like to have back. Then again, it could be the execution. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but they do need to get it cleaned up.
The good news is that they’re in great hands, regardless of how often McVay insinuates he’s holding the team back.
“Three weeks is a small sample size, but nonetheless, no excuse. We’ve got to do a better job and we’re hopeful that we’ll see that starting this Sunday.”
Keep an eye out for 3rd downs in the coming weeks and let’s see if the Rams really do start to get some traction on 3rd-and-manageable situations. Winning cures all, so nitpicking the stats of an undefeated team almost feels futile. But there may soon come a time when the Rams are in a heated battle late in the 4th quarter of a game, and another failed 3rd-and-3 attempt might be what ultimately costs them a win.