Will the Rams struggle in the red zone in 2021?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sean McVay hasn't been a good Red Zone coach

McVay was an OC for 3 seasons in Washington and has been a HC with the Rams for 4 years. In those 7 seasons, his offenses have ranked in the bottom half of the league in red zone offense (measured by TD scoring percentage) 5 out of 7 times. His best year with the Rams came in 2019 when the Rams were 6th in the NFL. His worst season was in 2016 with Washington, when they ranked 30th in the league.

One theory to explain this could be that Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff aren't good enough as QBs and have been holding McVay back. The statistics, however, don't support this theory.

Cousins had an excellent year in 2015 in RZ passing (the RZ passing stats come from PFR. I'm not sure, but I think they might include sacks in the stats.) He completed 64.1% of his attempts, with 22 TDs and zero INTs, with a TD/Attempt ratio of 0.282.

It is possible for a QBs to have one season's worth of out of the norm RZ passing numbers, whether good or bad. Carson Wentz, for example, had a ridiculous 2017 season where he completed 64.9% of his attempts, zero INTs and had a TD/ATT ratio of 0.404 (notice how much higher it is compared to Cousins in 2015.) Not surprisingly, Wentz wasn't able to sustain those numbers. In the other 4 seasons of Wentz's career, he has had a much more normal 0.234 TD/ATT ratio and a 55.2% completion rate. For his entire career, Wentz has a 56.9% completion rate, a 0.264 TD/ATT ration and a 1.3% INT rate. Probably pretty solid stats, but I haven't looked at how every other QB compares.

The media keeps talking about Wentz regressing or whether he can recapture his 2017 form, but I don't know if any QB in the league could be counted on to replicate Wentz's crazy 2017 stats. Over the last 3 seasons, Mahomes has a 59.7% completion rate, 0.305 TD/ATT ratio and a 1.8% INT rate. ARod has a 55.2% completion rate, 0.303 TD/Att ratio and a 1.4% INT rate. Granted, ARod had a phenomenal 72% completion rate, with a 0.427 TD/Att ratio and zero INTs in 2020, but first, he's ARod and second, what are the odds that he can do the same thing again in 2021?

Since parting ways from McVay, Kirk Cousins arguably has better RZ numbers compared to when he was being coached by McVay.

Cousins (with McVay) 55.7% compl, 3.85 yards per attempt, 0.228 TD/ATT ratio, 1.3% INT rate

Cousins (after McVay) 59.4% compl, 3.55 yards per attempt, 0.316 TD/ATT ratio, 1.6% INT rate

With the Vikings, Cousins has shown that he wasn't merely a puppet of McVay. He might need substantial help (good OL, talented WRs, a QB friendly offense) to shine, but Cousins in his own right is at least a good, solid QB. He's not a system quarterback. If we went off stats, he's borderline Pro Bowl level.

Matthew Stafford in the Red Zone

It might be wishful thinking to expect the change at QB to be a panacea to the inconsistent Rams RZ offense. Over the course of his career, Stafford in general doesn't have great RZ passing numbers.

Over the last 4 seasons, these are Stafford's stats:

51.6% completions, 3.33 ypa, 0.232 TD/Att ratio, 2.03% INT rate.

Last season was better than normal for Stafford. He had a 54.5% completion rate and the most RZ TD passes out of any of those 4 years. Overall, however, Stafford is not an elite RZ QB. This isn't just a statistical thing. If you watch cutups of some of his plays last year, there are snaps where he has open receivers and the play could have been a TD, but Stafford doesn't make a good throw. Yes, there was also a play in the RZ where Stafford threw a potential game winning TD to Swift the RB, the ball was right in his hands and he dropped the pass. That TD should have been on his stat sheet. But, one play doesn't make a huge difference in his 4 year totals.

Stafford's numbers are slightly better if we go back earlier to years 5 to 8 in his career (2013 to 2016).

57.3% completions, 3.97 ypa, 0.256 TD/Att ratio, 2.3% INT rate.

This stretch included an incredible RZ season by Stafford in 2015. That year, he completed 68.6% of his passes, with 4.61 ypa, a 0.371 TD/Att ratio and zero INTs. That season, the Detroit Lions were the 2nd best red zone offense in the NFL. They achieved this mark despite having the worst rushing offense in the league and very few rushing TDs. That team started 1-7, which makes me wonder if all of their RZ TDs were meaningful.

Jared Goff's RZ passing numbers are better than Stafford's over the last 4 years, even with McVay calling very conservative passes like obvious WR screens in the RZ.

Goff: 60.8% completions, 4.00 ypa, 0.271 TD/Att ratio, 1.03% INT rate.

Goff has 79 RZ TD passes, while Stafford has 57. This difference is mainly due to Stafford missing several games due to injury in 2019. I think the TD/Att ratio gives us a better comparison than just looking at the total number of TD passes. Instead of taking a giant leap forward in the RZ at QB, the Rams might actually be taking a step back by swapping out Goff for Stafford. Notice that Goff's red zone INT rate is less than half of Stafford's 2.2% INT rate over the last 8 years of his career. Goff has 3 INTs in 4 seasons. Stafford has 12 over the last 8 years (and this might have been even more if he hadn't missed half a year due to injury.) Remind me again, which QB has the problem with turnovers?

More than the QB

The much more concerning stat to me when it comes to the Rams in the red zone involves the run game, not how well Stafford does at QB.

Early in the 2020 season, the Detroit Lions were one of the worst RZ offenses in the NFL. They rebounded very well over the rest of the year and finished 9th (much better than the Rams in 19th place.) One reason for this is that their RBs combined for 17 RZ TD runs (all inside the 10 yard line), while the Rams only managed 11 TDs with Akers, Hendo and Brown.

The Lions and Rams had the same yards per carry average inside the 10, so at first blush, it might not seem like the Lions run the ball any better than the Rams near the GL. The Rams, however, only scored on 20% of their carries inside the 10, while the Lions punched it in more than twice as effectively, scoring at a rate of over 41%.

KA had an article asking whether the Rams had a good OL in 2020. This RZ statistic hints that maybe the Rams OL wasn't really that great. We don't have blocking TEs, powerful, drive blocking offensive linemen, a lead blocking FB or top flight short yardage RBs. I don't think it is a small statistical sample size problem, I think the Rams don't have the right players and Sean McVay isn't a good enough play designer and caller to cover up for those deficiencies in the red zone.

Goff is a pretty poor runner. He's not good at QB sneaks either, because he's not a big, strong guy. Despite his athletic limitations, Goff has 9 rushing TDs over the last 4 seasons. Do you know how many rushing TDs Stafford has over the same time period? Zero. Stafford might be a better runner than Goff, but he's no Steve Young or Kyler Murray.

To give you an idea of why the Lions ran the ball better than the Rams in the RZ last season, here are some examples of RZ runs by the Lions:

1. Frank Ragnow and Jonah Jackson work an excellent double team, driving the NT backwards off the LOS. Jackson then combos up to the middle LB and takes him out. Jesse James (a 6'7'' tall and 255 pound TE), does a good job on a reach block, helped by Decker the LT. The blocking is so good that when Taylor Decker goes to the 2nd level, he has nobody to block. He turns around and catches the RB in the end zone.

2. The RG pulls around and decks Kevin Byard, the safety, knocking Byard to the ground, opening a hole for an easy TD.

3. Ragnow and Jackson do excellent jobs creating a lane and Adrian Peterson is so strong and powerful that instead of going down at the 2, he bulls his way into the end zone, creating the final 2 yards all on his own.

4. Ragnow, the RT and Hockenson at TE (who was a very good blocker at Iowa) all do good jobs to create a crease and the RB bangs his way in to score.

5. Vaitai at RG pushes his guy way out wide on an inside zone run. Ragnow shoves his guy around. There is a huge, gaping hole and the RB scores from 4 yards out.

6. Jackson and Ragnow do a good job creating a surge and Crosby at RT effectively seals the edge.

7. From 6 yards out, Hockenson and Decker collapse the left side. The WR maybe gets away with holding. Swift the RB makes a nice juke move to beat the CB and scores.

The Lions have some pieces the Rams lack. Frank Ragnow and Jonah Jackson in the middle are people movers with good play strength and technique. The Lions have some of the better blocking TEs in the league. Adrian Peterson and 1st round RB Swift have the talent to add a couple extra yards on runs to make it a TD instead of getting stopped short.

In 2018, with Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan on the team, Todd Gurley scored 14 TDs on 36 carries inside the 10, a rate of 39%. This is about the same rate as the 2020 Lions. In 2019, the duo of Gurley and Brown had 16 TDs on 60 carries, which is 27%. By dropping down to 20% last year, the Rams are in a tailspin headed in the wrong direction. They are not efficient running the ball into the end zone with their RBs inside the 10 yard line and it is a concerning problem that the team needs to fix.

The solution isn't just to give the ball to Cam Akers. Of the 3 RBs, Akers had the worst percentage last season, at 9.5%.

It doesn't matter if the Rams score by throwing it to the RB, handing it off to the RB or throwing it to someone else, they just need to score TDs in the red zone. Every TD next season can't be a 50 yard Matthew Stafford bomb. For the Rams to have a powerful offense in 2021, righting the ship on this issue is essential.