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Tough questions facing Rams following struggles against Lions

Errors on defense, special teams, and in the running game all plagued Sean McVay’s bid to beat Jared Goff

Chicago Bears v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It was not at all how they expected it to go, but the Los Angeles Rams managed to pull out a 28-19 victory against the winless Detroit Lions and that’s what matters most. At 6-1, the Rams stay in the race to be the NFC’s number one seed and also keep pace with the 7-0 Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West standings.

However, the Rams entered as multiple-touchdown favorites and only managed to pull away at the very end in a game that could have easily resulted in the Lions first win of the season if Jared Goff hadn’t done a classic “Jared Goff” in the fourth quarter.

And the Rams can no longer let “Jared Goff” be the excuse for why things are going poorly.

The defense and special teams performances in Week 7 were shameful for a team that is expected to compete for the Super Bowl. Can the Rams really think of themselves as contenders if they don’t play much better than this in the playoffs? This is supposedly the same Rams team that easily handled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers not so long ago so why are the following issues looking so dire following Sunday’s win?

Because great teams do not often trail winless teams entering the fourth quarter and this is now the second time in the last 10 regular season games that Sean McVay has managed to do that.

Do the Rams have the right defensive coordinator?

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but the Turf Show Times game threads were riddled with comments about Raheem Morris and his proficiency for being a defensive coordinator. Most are too explicit to share here. The Lions gained 415 total yards — their most since 430 yards against the 49ers in Week 1, with many of those yards coming when Detroit trailed by double-digits — against the Rams on Sunday and they averaged more yards per play (6.3) than LA did with Matthew Stafford (6.2).

No matter which way you look at it, that fact is concerning.

Though the Rams entered the week ranked fourth in DVOA on the defensive side of the ball, that measure seems to be heavily aided by fortunate circumstances and a lot of mistakes being made by quarterbacks like Daniel Jones. This week, that quarterback was Jared Goff, who threw a mistake almost directly to Jalen Ramsey in the end zone.

I think Jalen Ramsey is the best defensive back in the NFL, but that doesn’t make Goff’s decision to throw it where only he could grab it was something that was necessarily forced by LA’s defense or by playcalling from Morris.

The Rams then also got a second interception off of Goff from a dropped pass by D’Andre Swift that was scooped up by Nick Scott — a play that happened in relative “garbage time”.

Perhaps worst of all on defense is how LA does against the run. Detroit carried the ball 28 times for 137 yards, gaining almost 5.0 yards per carry—that’s a season-best in rushing yards for the Lions and well above their average of 4.0 yards per carry on the year. It’s an ongoing problem that’s been evident since training camp and nothing that has been attempted during the season is currently working.

Morris doesn’t really have much experience as a defensive coordinator and there is little on record despite how long he’s been around as a high-level NFL coach. He’s also following Brandon Staley’s act, widely regarded as one of the most impressive in the league in 2020. Those facts, combined with the reality that the 6-1 Rams are expecting to have a defense good enough to win playoff games against the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, and Dak Prescott (to say the least), raise the stakes and expectations considerably for Morris.

Some would not like to see Raheem Morris calling plays on defense at all moving forward. Is that something that Sean McVay would really consider?

What led to getting “faked” so often on special teams?

Once regarded as having the best special teams unit in the league for many years under John Fassel, the deconstruction of that era was nearly complete this season if not for Johnny Hekker making the final roster. McVay has tried just about everything else to start over, including replacing Fassel with John Bonamego in 2020, then replacing Bonamego with Joe DeCamillis in 2021.

Who will he replace DeCamillis with in 2022?

The Lions first fooled the Rams by recovering a surprise onside kick attempt following a first drive touchdown — but as many of you know, the probability of a recovery on a surprise onside kick is much higher than that of one that is expected.

Detroit next faked a punt by having punter Jack Fox throw a first down pass that the special teams defense was not at all ready for. Then the Lions struck again with another converted fake punt, this time on a direct snap.

But here’s a fact that’s as true about the Lions today as it would have been for many of those John Fassel special teams unit: the overall team is bad, therefore special teams gets way more opportunities to do something special than they would if the offense and defense were even passable.

Perhaps the only real “concern” to come away with on special teams is Ben Skowronek not choosing to return as many kickoffs. Matt Gay went two-of-two on field goals (including the icer) and two-of-two on extra points.

Be more prepared for a fake, especially when facing a winless team? Absolutely. But when the Rams allow more yards per play to the Lions offense than what they had against the Lions defense, THAT’S what you need to be concerned about.

Was this really what DeSean Jackson was given over $4 million to do?

I’m really not going to take this out on the player because what could have been expected out of a 34-year-old wide receiver with well more games missed than games played in the last two seasons? Better yet—why did the LA Rams both sign DeSean Jackson and draft Tutu Atwell?

Are you telling me that Tutu Atwell wouldn’t have been ready to average less than two targets per game? Are you telling me that Tutu Atwell isn’t ready for 15 snaps per week with barely any routes run?

Without even knowing if it is true or not, some people will make excuses that DeSean Jackson “spreads out a defense” but is any of that based on realities that exist on the field in 2021? Jackson was given $2.75 million guaranteed and by making the roster and being active every week, he’s set to make over $4 million this season.

On Sunday against a Lions defense that was one of the worst in the NFL against the deep bomb, Jackson caught zero of one targets.

With so many rookie receivers around the NFL proving to be capable of anything from being a role player to a star — and players like Morgan Fox, Troy Hill leaving in free agency for comparable salaries — why exactly did the LA Rams need to roster both Jackson and Atwell in 2021? How could Atwell have not been a player to play 10 snaps per game?

Why isn’t he that player now?

It’s a question asked of more Rams draft picks than only Tutu Atwell.

When is a realistic date to expect Brycen Hopkins to be ready?

With Johnny Mundt placed on season-ending injured reserve last week, people were wondering if finally Brycen Hopkins could be the tight end who gets 10 offensive snaps per week. Hopkins has seemingly been healthy for his entire NFL career — beginning when he was a fourth round pick in 2020 — but he was a scratch for 11 games as a rookie and for all seven games in year two.

The Rams instead called up Kendall Blanton from the practice squad and made Hopkins a healthy scratch for the 18th time in his short career.

It would not at all be surprising if Brycen Hopkins doesn’t turn out to be as valuable as someone like Tyler Higbee — not elite but better than average — the only question is how bad is he really? It’s one thing to say he’s buried behind Higbee, Gerald Everett, and Mundt in 2020. It’s another to say that he’s stuck behind Higbee, Blanton, and Jacob Harris.

Brycen Hopkins is not a fresh-off-the-block tight end project. His father was a great NFL offensive lineman. He played five years at Purdue and was one of the team’s leading receivers in 2019 with over 800 yards. He’s had one-and-half years of working with McVay, a former tight ends coach.

What’s the story here and if he’s not being let go entirely—when is the timeline for us to expect him to become the player McVay thinks he will become one day?