FanPost

Are the 2021 Rams good in the red zone?

During the offseason, we discussed how Sean McVay's offenses have generally not had good red zone TD efficiency numbers and contemplated whether that trend would continue in 2021. So far this season, I'd say it is a mixed bag. There are some stats that will make Rams optimists happy, but also some concerning stats that might foreshadow trouble for the Rams in the playoffs.

First a caveat. Context is important and stats can sometimes be misleading if we only focus on the numbers and lose sight of the bigger picture. For example, against the Vikings, the Rams added a late red zone FG to ice the game in the closing moments. To me, this isn't a RZ "failure", because the Rams didn't need a TD in that situation. Kicking a FG was essentially just as good as a TD at that point. The Rams also had a RZ FG at the end of the first half after they entered the RZ with only half a minute left on the clock. It is more challenging to score a TD in this 2 minute drill situation, because with so little time left, running plays are mostly taken off the table, since they would use up too much time. Consequently, the defense has an advantage. As we go through these different stats, keep in mind that there can be more to the story than just the raw numbers.

We'll start with the good news. Stafford leads all QBs in the NFL in red zone passing TDs with 27. He already has 10 more RZ passing TDs than he had all of last season with Detroit. He only has one RZ interception. It was the awkward one against Seattle to Diggs in the back of the end zone where Stafford thought Van Jefferson was going to cut one way, but the WR doesn't. Mahomes and ARod combined have 5 RZ interceptions (predictably, ARod was unable to replicate his ridiculous 2020 red zone passing numbers this year, but he still might win MVP and has 26 RZ passing TDs.) Cooper Kupp leads the NFL in RZ touchdown receptions with 11. Kupp also has one of the highest RZ catch percentages among all WRs with at least 20 targets, at 68%.

Now for some not so great news. The Rams rank 18th in the NFL in RZ touchdown percentage, with a 58.06% rate. This is nearly identical to their percentage last season. In 2020, the Rams ranked 19th with a 57.8% rate. Last season, the Lions with Stafford were 9th at 66%. So, the oddity is that while Stafford has produced far more RZ TDs with the Rams compared to playing with the Lions, now he's on a team with a considerably lower conversion rate.

The Rams have the worst RZ TD rate among the 7 teams currently in playoff position in the NFC. They rank 12th out of the 14 teams currently in playoff position for the AFC and NFC combined. The Colts and the Patriots are the 2 teams who rank lower. The good news is that the Rams are only slightly behind teams like the Chiefs, Cowboys and Packers. On the other hand, there have been periods where KC and Dallas have struggled on offense, so being a peer with them isn't something to celebrate too much.

Passing

Among QBs who have attempted at least 15 RZ passes, Stafford ranks 29th in RZ completion percentage. He's only completed 51.96% of his RZ passes and only 46.9% of his throws inside the 10 yard line. That's not very good. Moreover, Stafford has been very dependent on his connection with Cooper Kupp. The Rams don't have great RZ weapons to balance the attack. Maybe opponents should triple team CK in the red zone.

Stafford has the worst RZ pass completion rate of any playoff positioned QB except for one. Kyler Murray has a 51.7% completion rate, just barely behind Stafford.

Stafford (2017 to 2020): 51.6% completions, 3.33 YPA, 0.232 TD/attempts, 2.03% INT rate

Stafford 2021 (Rams): 51.96% completions, 3.98 YPA, 0.265 TD/attempts, 0.98% INT rate

The completion rate for Stafford this year is almost exactly the same as it was compared to his recent seasons with the Lions. The TD rate is also similar. The main positive difference I'd say is the improved INT rate.

Rushing

Sony Michel and Henderson have combined for 8 red zone rushing TDs on 31 carries inside the 10 yard line. This is a TD rate on such runs of 25.8%. While this is an improvement from last year's rate of 20%, it is still fairly average compared with other teams. It also is slightly behind the 27% rate the Rams had in 2019 with Gurley and Brown and well behind the 39% rate they had with Gurley in 2018. The Detroit Lions in 2020 scored on 41% of their runs inside the 10 yard line.

To compare, Jonathan Taylor has a total of 13 red zone TD runs and has a success rate inside the 10 of 30.8%. Fournette and Jones for the Bucs have a success rate of 29.4%. James Conner is at 42.3%. The top 2 Pats RBs combine for 33%. Chubb and Hunt for the Browns combine for 32%. Joe Mixon has 9 rushing TDs inside the 10 with a success rate of 39.1%. Zeke and Pollard for Dallas combine for a 40% success rate.

The Rams have had some decent runs near the end zone this season. Still, overall I don't think the Rams are great at punching in TDs on the ground.

Vikings Game

To illustrate some RZ issues, let's look at what happened on a couple of the RZ drives in the last game. In the middle of the 2nd quarter, the Rams have the ball at the 21 yard line of the Vikings and call 3 straight pass plays. First, Stafford rolls to his left on a bootleg and checks it down to Higbee for a short gain. On second down, Stafford bootlegs the other way to his right and throws it to Cooper Kupp in the flat. To nitpick Stafford's ball placement, he should throw the pass to CK's outside shoulder so that the WR can turn upfield easily and get YAC. The pass goes to the inside shoulder and forces CK to turn to make the catch. This might seem like a trivial difference, but the completion results in a 3rd and 3 situation. If Kupp could have gotten even just 1 or 2 more yards, maybe a running play could have been called on 3rd down. Instead, the Rams go shotgun and commit to throwing it.

On 3rd down, the Vikings double team Kupp in the middle of the field. Stafford tries a corner fade to OBJ at the front pylon. I thought the pass was pretty good by Stafford, but against tight coverage OBJ can't come up with the ball. A low percentage throw. It is the type of fade that is better for a 1st down play than for a 3rd down call. I wish McVay could come up with something better to help out his QB in that situation.

Late in the 1st half, the Rams get down to the 13 yard line of the Vikings with 29 seconds remaining. It is 1st & 10. Stafford anticipates that a pivot route by Higbee will hold the outside DB and tries to force it to Cooper Kupp, but instead the 3 defenders in that area all converge on CK and the throw is nearly intercepted. A lucky break for the Rams. I don't blame Stafford for thinking end zone, because with so little time on the clock, checking the ball down short will likely result in a FG, but at the same time this is nearly a killer mistake. There is a fine line between being appropriately aggressive as a QB and being reckless.

On 2nd down, Stafford throws a corner fade to Van Jefferson on a switch release from the slot. The pass is both nearly intercepted and nearly caught for a TD as the ball sails just out of the reach of both the CB and the WR. I don't know how to grade this play, because it is either very good accuracy by Stafford, a "throw it where only my guy can get it" and he knew the CB wasn't going to be able to jump high enough, or else it is another questionable decision where he risks a turnover by forcing a low percentage throw into coverage. I'll give Stafford the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I think that a WR needs to protect his QB on these types of throws. If you can't catch the ball yourself, at least break up any INT attempt so that the worst thing that can happen is the pass goes incomplete.

On 3rd down, Stafford tries another difficult fade to the other side of the field and OBJ is well covered by Patrick Peterson. On both of these drives, I'm not a huge fan of the play designs and concepts. Sure, OBJ is good in the air and you need to give him some opportunities, but those aren't easy passes to complete.

Will the Rams Finish Strong?

If the Rams face a playoff game situation where they are driving and absolutely have to score a TD, will they be able to deliver? On one hand their odds might be very good, because Stafford to Kupp has been one of the best red zone combinations in the NFL this season. On the other hand, maybe their odds will be poor, because the Rams might be one of the worst playoff teams this year in terms of red zone scoring efficiency.

Of the 7 NFC teams in playoff position, 4 of those teams rank 16th or lower in terms of red zone defense. This is flipped compared to the AFC, where the playoff teams have much better red zone defenses. The AFC's current field has 5 teams in the top 15 in RZ defense.

The Rams have the 2nd best RZ defense among the current NFC playoff teams. Only the Bucs are better. So, one thing that could help the Rams is that unless they face TB or SF, they could draw a matchup against an opponent that statistically has struggled with RZ defense. If the Rams made it all the way to the SB, however, they potentially could face an AFC team that has been very good at RZ defense this season.

January football is just around the corner and scoring TDs in the RZ could very well be a key factor in determining whether the Rams are able to realize their Super Bowl dreams this year.