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Is the Rams offense starting to turn the corner?

After a slow start, L.A. wears down the toothless Panthers

Carolina Panthers v Los Angeles Rams
Allen Robinson likes being involved in the Rams offense
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Familiar with the term “get right game”? The Los Angeles Rams slowly wore down the impotent Carolina Panthers 24-10 last Sunday, to even their season record to 3-3. L.A. had its best offensive output of the season— so has the Rams offense worked things out? Or was it just a case of outlasting a Panther team whose only 2022 outlook is the NFL’s top draft pick.

There were still some unforced errors in the blocking segment, mostly communication gaffes that led to defensive penetration, but the Rams cashed in on all four trips into the red zone— three touchdowns and a field goal. The offense was deliberate at times and stayed with a short/medium depth passing game, rolling to 360 yards on 63 plays and 37 minutes of possession. Playcaller/coach Sean McVay stayed with the run game and was able to incorporate 10 players into gameplan touches.

Cause and effect in the run game

29 carries and 111 yards are both season highs for the Rams. While 3.8 yards per carry isn’t much to write about, the fact that L.A. stuck with it, is. In their losses, they averaged only 16 carries and upped it to 25 in the wins. McVay resurrected the jet sweep and used it out of different sets, mixed up the zone game, and even ran a couple of counter leads. The excitement was palpable when the playmakers got the ball in space, and fans got paid off when hybrid WR/FB Bennett Skowronek broke a sweep wide for a 17 yard touch down.

So far this season, the book on stymying the Rams run game and more to the point, the offense as a whole, has been to harness the power of numbers, crowd the line of scrimmage, penetrate hard into the line gaps , and crash down with linebackers and safeties. Between the offensive line’s injuries, intra-positional shuffling (causing severe communication woes), and simply not playing up to form, the backfield is too often hit before getting a chance to gather a little steam. It hasn’t been all on the big guys, tight ends and receivers have been lacking when inline, L.A.’s backs are missing cutback holes, and quarterback Matthew Stafford has been uncomfortable in his reads.

McVay was up to the task against the Panthers and stayed disciplined to the run and countered the crowding defense with misdirection, using a variety of reverses and screen passes. He also made use of play-action on over 1/4 of passing attempts, keeping Carolina honest and allowing Stafford to work the middle of the field and get Allan Robinson involved. Although it didn’t pay off in big gainers. this was the Rams offense of the past, making the opposition cover sideline to sideline, using motion and diversion, and distributing the ball into many hands.

One final word on the Rams run game and its struggles. A facet to be considered is the change of running scheme. The Rams are now a predominantly inside and mid zone run attack. On the surface, the blocking changes would seem minor, but when you have been running the outside zone for five seasons, filled the individual roles to fit that scheme and combine in all the aforementioned problems, a period of readjustment seems to be in scope. There was at least four times, versus Carolina, that blocking mistakes/mixups occurred and you could see players trying to work it out after the play. If L.A. can get a measure of lineup continuity on the offensive front, these snafu’s should improve.

Bird is the word

I can go on-and-on about the run game, but the Rams are going to have to live or die through the air. Even after the balanced day in the Panthers win, L.A. has passed on over 66% of plays, most in the NFL and by far, the most in the McVay era.

Matthew Stafford like to cut it loose downfield, but just like McVay staying disciplined in the run game, Staff will also have to stay cool and focused. He is taking to the short passing game pretty well so far. He only made two bad throws this Sunday past, back-to-back at the end of the first half. Although it goes against his nature, he cannot lock in and force throws, particularly in his own territory. When backed up deep, the risks of mishandles/misfires are so much higher, he’s better off taking a sack than interception.

With the run and outside screen game keeping the defense honest, Stafford had some time to scan the field and he was able to use all of it. The Rams scheme stayed away from the deep passes, but Stafford found room and success in the middle of the field and was able to recognize and exploit single coverage. He hit on 26 of 31 passes with only four of those to the running backs and those were traditional screens, not check downs. It is a solid sign for the passing game to get all the wide receivers engaged.

Has the Rams offense turned the corner?

Even though the Carolina Panthers are in real turmoil and not in the Rams class, there were real signs of offensive progress. Three of the Rams first opponents were solid defensive teams and just maybe, the Atlanta Falcons are more than a creative, playcalling head coach and deserve a little more credit as a all-around good team.

As for the Rams play calling, Sean McVay really loosened things up and should continue this path going forward. From a fans perspective, the offense appeared to have a flow to it and not just a grouping of like plays. Using the whole field on a regular basis should give future opposing defenses something to ponder and the same can be said for the misdirection and counter plays. Keeping the defense from reading inside run and crashing downhill will be foremost going forward because the offensive line problems are likely here for the long haul.

The term “returning starters from injury”, just doesn’t hold much effect when you’ve turnstiled 10-15 different lineup variations in just five games. Normally, a bye this early could be considered a negative, but with the Rams injury situation, particularly on the offensive line, the timing could not be better. Getting healed up means getting Jeremiah Kolone and Bobby Evans back to the bench and this alone, would make strides on improving the front five. Even if you don’t think Brian Allen is up to NFL standards you cannot argue that he wouldn’t be an upgrade in the pivot. The Rams staff seems to be locked on Evans, Chandler Brewer far outplayed him in the preseason, but seems destined to stay on the practice squad.

Matthew Stafford is helped by a “system” approach as well. At this stage of his career, he can make all the reads, he just needs the time to be able to do it. If the horizontal run game can give him even a precious few milliseconds, he will find the right guys.

A college coach friend of mine was telling me that as the overall game’s level of play rises, the amount of pass route read/options raise exponentially. On set plays (first reads), both the QB and WR read the defender and make their move (inward, outward, or sit). Getting on the same page takes rep work in practice and since Stafford did not throw much until later in camp, it is logical that he would be on the same page more often with Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee.

Allan Robison’s integration into the offense might be ready to bloom. He was targeted six times withe five grabs and a touchdown versus Carolina and is now on pace for over 100 targets, around 70 catches and six touchdowns. Since Stafford did not throw in the off season or OTAs, and was limited in training camp, it is not a stretch to to think that the two are finally getting atuned.

So yes, the Rams offense appears to have, if not fully turned, are at least peeking around the corner. It will be a continuous struggle with the offensive line, but L.A. does have the skill players and even more importantly, Sean McVay is now fitting the offense to shade the weaknesses and play into its strength. And that is a very good sign.l