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Rams offense stalled when it was most expected, but they’re capable of better

Sean McVay built an elite passing offense in LA before and he’ll need to do it again if he wants to beat the best defenses next season

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sean McVay’s offense is what accelerated the Los Angeles Rams’ improvement over the 2017-2018 seasons, finishing first and second in scoring over those two seasons respectively. The Rams allowed fewer points in 2019 than they had a season earlier but as you well know, the offense dropped to 11th in points scored and their record fell by four wins.

In the big picture, it is easy to criticize LA’s offense for being less potent last season — and criticism is warranted relative to expectations — though on a case-by-case basis the reasoning may be more understandable. The issue is that “understandable struggles” doesn’t equate to championships.

Over the first 12 games of 2018, the Rams failed to score 30 only once, putting up 23 against the Denver Broncos, a team that finished 13th in points allowed but fifth in DVOA and fourth against the pass. LA managed a 23-20 victory.

Over the course of the entire season, the other best defenses the Rams faced were:

  • Chicago Bears, first in DVOA, first against the pass, second against the run (Bears won 15-6)
  • Minnesota Vikings, fourth in DVOA, fifth against the pass, 11th against the run (Rams won 38-31)
  • Los Angeles Chargers, eighth in DVOA, 10th against both the pass and run (Rams won 35-23)
  • Dallas Cowboys, ninth in DVOA, 16th against pass, fifth against run (Rams won divisional game, 30-22)
  • New Orleans Saints, 11th in DVOA, 22nd against pass, third against run (Saints won 45-35)

The Rams went 4-2 in the six “toughest” games they faced by defense (tough has too many variables but we get the gist here) and scored 30 points in four of the six games. In the Super Bowl they, of course, managed only three points to a New England Patriots defense that finished 16th in DVOA, including 13th against the pass and 19th against the run.

Before that game, Los Angeles scored a lot of meaningful points, with long drives, against some legitimately good defenses.

Still, there seemed to be a disconnect on offense following the 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 11. The Rams struggled for most of their 30-16 victory over a bad Detroit Lions defense. Then had the Bears game. Then stalled and lost at home to the Philadelphia Eagles before easy victories over the two teams who’d be picking at the top of the 2019 draft: the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.

The idea of a particular “championship window” closing after that loss to the Patriots and subsequent offseason may be sealed if McVay can’t get LA back into Super Bowl contention next season and some of that downfall should be attributed to an offense that failed to produce at an elite level vs the best defenses last year.

After scoring 21 or fewer points only one time in 2018, the Rams were at or below that mark six times in 2019. But this also came against some of the best defenses.

Cause for concern may have begun to arise in Week 6 against the 49ers, who finished ranked second on defense by DVOA, second against the pass. In that game, the Rams scored a touchdown on their first drive. (Good!) But the drive was only 56 yards (fine) and included zero pass attempts by Jared Goff (okay?). That drive was five Malcom Brown runs and two Robert Woods runs and LA led 7-0.

They lost 20-7.

After two wins and a bye week, the Rams went on the road to face a Pittsburgh Steelers team led by Mason Rudolph. The Steelers defense finished the season ranked third by DVOA, including third against both the pass and run. Goff threw two picks, Johnny Hekker had one of his own, and only one drive went for 40+ yards. That drive ended in a field goal and the Rams lost 17-12. (The touchdown came on the third play of the game, a fumble-return touchdown by Dante Fowler.)

Next they faced the Bears again, now eighth in DVOA, eighth against the pass, 13th against the run. LA won the game 17-7 but managed only 283 yards of offense. Only once in the 2018 regular season were they below 300 yards: 214 yards against the Bears.

The Rams followed that offensive performance up with their worst game of recent memory, a 45-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens finished fourth in DVOA, including fourth against the pass.

It’s at this point that McVay saw his team at 6-5, realistically needing to win out to feel comfortable about a playoff berth. Four of the five games were against mediocre-to-bad defenses but they had a Week 16 contest against the 49ers remaining. The Rams got wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, but stumbled in devastating fashion during a 44-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. A 34-31 loss to the Niners ended any hope remaining of a 10-6 finish.

A season after going 4-2 against the best defenses they had faced, LA went 0-5 against teams with a top-5 defense, also falling 55-40 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished fifth by DVOA, including 12th against the pass and first against the run.

Blame here could be easily placed on the shoulders of Goff and the offensive line but this is also the design that McVay and Les Snead had played to: be an elite passing team that could beat elite pass defenses.

The Rams spent a lot to acquire Goff, went after an elite left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, acquired Sammy Watkins before Brandin Cooks, signed Robert Woods to a big deal, utilized Todd Gurley in the passing game as much as possible, and utilized their two tight ends with regularity. LA has been a team that can run the ball well and play defense well, but that was not the emphasis of strength that the front office had been geared towards in a passing league. Which is understandable and it nearly worked.

Unfortunately it seems that anything McVay could do, Andy Reid ended up doing slightly better.

The Chiefs may have lost that battle 54-51, but they seem to have won the war: One championship in this era to none. Kansas City also passes the ball exceptionally well and they don’t necessarily have a great rushing offense or rushing defense, but last season they won the games against tough defenses that they needed to win.

They beat the Patriots, ranked first by DVOA, 23-16.

They beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl, ranked second by DVOA, 31-20.

They beat the Ravens, ranked fourth by DVOA, 33-28.

They beat the Vikings, ranked seventh by DVOA, 26-23.

They beat the Bears, ranked eighth by DVOA, 26-3.

They beat the Broncos, ranked 13th by DVOA, 30-6 and 23-3.

Kansas City went 7-0 against any team that ranked in the top 13 of defense by DVOA. It may not come as any surprise to you that the team that won the Super Bowl was good, it is just a point that the two teams involved in that unforgettable shootout in 2018 had it right, But the Chiefs managed to keep their passing offense as an elite one into the next season and improved their defense into one ranked sixth against the pass, which is why they won their final nine games of the year, including in the playoffs. KC allowed just 11.5 points per game over the final six regular season contests, then were able to overcome three double-digit postseason deficits to post three double-digit postseason victories.

That included scoring 51 against the Houston Texans, a team that had beaten them in the regular season. Scoring 35 against a Tennessee Titans team that had also beaten them in the regular season and were coming off of three straight road wins over the Texans, Patriots, and Ravens. Then winning 31-20 over the top-tier defense of the 49ers.

Why is this important? Clearly this is the path that the Rams are looking to follow next season because they were already walking in the same part of the woods as the Chiefs to begin with. It is too late to try a different path but given their salary cap constraints, can we expect McVay to improve LA to that degree?

Yes, it is more than just possible.

The Rams passing offense is setup just about as well as they were two years ago, so long as you don’t think that Todd Gurley was truly the engine. I think LA should improve their rushing attack but a good enough run game isn’t far away: the Rams were 21st in rushing DVOA, while the Chiefs were 14th and the Niners were 13th. Going from Gurley to Darrell Henderson may actually be the only improvement in that area that they need if the former was really that hampered last season. As to the quarterback, I don’t believe Goff is nearly as good as Patrick Mahomes, but he was still in charge when the team finished seventh and fifth in passing DVOA in 2017 and 2018, so that’s all they need to get back to.

Defensively, the Rams were ninth against the pass, which isn’t far off from where they need to be and it was improving as Jalen Ramsey was getting more time on the field post-trade. They may have lost Cory Littleton, Dante Fowler, and Michael Brockers, but I’m confident that any defense with Aaron Donald and Ramsey and Taylor Rapp is one with a lot of potential, much like a defense with Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu.

A lot of factors went into the LA Rams falling from 13-3 and in the Super Bowl to 9-7 and out of the playoffs but perhaps none bigger than an inability to compete against any team with a great defense as they had a year earlier and as the Chiefs did in 2019. And the Rams still weren’t far off from getting to the postseason anyway.

McVay brought an improved offense to the team in 2017 and they immediately became Super Bowl contenders. I see no reason why he can’t improve them again three years later.