It’s been a long week for the Los Angeles Rams and their fans. It started with a crushing, last minute loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16-13, and now a huge decision will have to be made on quarterback Matthew Stafford, as he was put into the NFL concussion protocol on Tuesday, making him unlikely to play against the Arizona Cardinals.
Other roster decisions will have to be made, as well. Six Rams missed practice on Wednesday. Center Brian Allen (knee), running back Malcom Brown (hamstring), linebacker Travin Howard (hip), tackle Alaric Jackson (knee), cornerback Robert Rochell (illness) and defensive tackle Greg Gaines (elbow). A couple of judgements have already been made, safety Terrell Burgess and tight end Kendall Blanton were released.
McVay was optimistic that Shelton will go on Sunday.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) November 9, 2022
More: RB Kyren Williams is trending toward activation.
Brian Allen (knee) out today, should play Sunday.
Malcolm Brown (hamstring) out today
Travin Howard (hip) out today
Alaric Jackson (knee) out today
Robert Rochell (ill) https://t.co/P04wiXcLJv
But this story is not about L.A.’s day-to-day determinations. It’s about some big past decisions that now, in the midst of the team’s struggles, are glaring. They have been there awhile, but were washed away and sanitized by the Rams winning the 2021 Super Bowl.
Decision #1 - The offense has drastically changed
When McVay came to the Rams in 2017, he inherited quarterback Jared Goff, a rhythm passer who played best in an offense with a systematic approach. McVay obliged by building a scheme that was more scripted. He lined up Goff under center and made extensive use of play-action, tight bunch sets and pre-snap horizontal movement.
The movement aspect included not only shifts and motion, but a predominantly outside zone run game. None of it was new, so what made it so successful? McVay integrated multiple players and positions into the movement, creating numerical blocking advantage’s and thus, space for the playmakers.
The Rams attack made defenses respect the run on both the edges and middle, with running backs working the interior and when running outside, it could be any one of the backs, tight ends and/or wide receivers. Keeping the linebackers honest let L.A. live in the intermediate passing zones.
Even with substantial success, the Goff/McVay relationship soured and the system experiment ran its course. McVy was itching to move the offense vertically and made the big move to acquire Matthew Stafford. Stafford was the fit, a gunslinger who liked to read coverages and throw deep down field. In theory, spreading out the formation means spreading out the defense, so smart, experienced QB’s like Stafford can get a good pre-snap read.
Jay Gruden’s offense with Washington Commanders was a big influence on McVay. Gruden had taken the traditional West Coast offense and extended it horizontally. In D.C., Mcvay embraced the scheme, sort of a spread/west coast hybrid. The features being more downhill mid and inside zone runs, wider formations, and deeper pass routes predominantly from the shot gun formation.
First thing that should be said is that the Rams have never had a huge playbook, McVay calls it an “illusion of complexity,”
“So we might be running the same play, but the presentation of it looks different based on how we motion to it, how we create the final formation, what personnel grouping we’re doing it out of. But it’s that illusion of complexity that I think you see a lot of the best offenses do year in and year out. And I think that’s one of the things we try to stay true to as well.”
But there isn’t much sleight-of-hand in the current offense. Even though the formations are spread wider and there are more empty backfields, the offense has contracted in on itself to the point of collapse. To the common fan, it seems the down field offense runs directly and exclusively through Cooper Kupp and if he can’t make a play, it is limited to screen passes and short outs.
From the tighter formations, receivers have more range-of-motion room to run routes before the ball is thrown and then break upfield after the catch. Rubs, screens, and picks can be utilized to higher degree from stack/bunch sets. With the shotgun as the go-to formation, play-action is limited and movement/motion, both late and early, are at a minimum. The disappearance of the outside zone run game has made the play-action counter bootleg nearly useless.
Opposing defenses are now are playing Cover3 zone against the Rams, choking off the intermediate middle of the field, keeping defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage and using movement/stunts of their own. Not only to stymie Stafford’s ability to read the blitzes and shorter coverages, but to crash downhill into run gaps.
Decision #2 - Playing the soft zone defense
You cannot claim the Rams have faced a slate of high-powered offensive teams. The Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen may certainly fit that description, but Cooper Rush, Phillip Walker, Marcus Mariota, Kyler Murray, and Jimmy Garoppolo— really? Although if JimmyG played all his games against L.A., (the stats are too painful to print) he would be an All-Pro.
And as to last Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom Brady deserves all the due he gets, but the 2022 Bucs are not an offensive juggernaut. Their offensive coordinator is on the hot seat, the Bucs are the only team in the NFL with a worse run game than the Rams and their pass game ranking is predicated more on how often they throw, rather than scoring or conversion rates.
So, it’s hard not to roll your eyes when you hear Sean McVay say,
“I thought our defense did enough to win that football game...”
The Rams defense barely slowed the Bucs in the fourth quarter. Brady marched them straight down the field three times, chalking up 18 of 27 seemingly uncovered completions, 152 total yards and 10 points. That’s not playing well enough to win. Worse, It’s not a new phenomenon. In the fourth quarter of L.A.’s five losses, they have given up an average of nearly 19 plays, 112 yards offense, nine points, and eight minutes of possession.
Sure, there can be a lot of “IF’s” that can be applied to the offense’s performance in Tampa, but that cuts both ways. The Bucs had eight easy dropped passes over the course of the game and another where Tampa bay receiver Mike Evans had a step on Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey down the sideline and the ball clanked off him.
Well-quarterbacked and coached teams (i.e. any good one) have the discipline to incrementally move the ball, exploit mistakes to go deep, and score touchdowns.
Raheem Morris cut his pro coaching teeth in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme, the scheme is traditionally a 4-3 defensive front and over his tenure in L.A., Morris has moved the Rams towards that formation. They still claim a 3-4 base, but are are using much more of the four down linemen sub-package.
The approach of this philosophy is putting priority on speed over mass, turnover-hawking, and a bend-but-don’t break attitude. The root to its success is to limit explosive plays, force the opposition into long, disciplined drives and use pass rush pressure to affect the opposing quarterback into ill-advised throws, allowing the secondary to break on the ball.
But anecdotally, it feels like opposing wide receivers are regularly running right past the Rams secondary and getting open deep. After the the Rams lost to the SanFrancisco 49ers on October 30 while giving five plays over 20 yards, Morris said in a video press conference,
“We live and die off not giving up explosives, and I think how we’re living and dying right now is if we’re able to not give explosives, we got a chance to win that game,”
The Rams pass rush pressure rates have actually dropped under Morris, to a current paltry rate of 11%. That is half the rate of last year (22.8%), which was the lowest during the McVay regime. Last season, L.A. gave up 57 explosive plays (20+ yards) during the regular season, so the big plays have been limited, to an extent—21 so far in eight games
In Morris’ season and a half in L.A., his defensive units have been ranked somewhere in the middle of the NFL pack. They have been numerically better against the run than the pass, probably because the soft zone coverage is allowing opposing teams 67% of passes.
Decision #3 - Not upgrading thin positional units
Even though the Rams do not risk injury to their starters in preseason, much can be gleaned from how the backups produce. The lack of depth, talent, and experience at tight end, edge, and offensive line stood out early and are still glaring weak points. No reported effort was made to upgrade these positions, even when relatively minor moves could have bolstered them.
Behind Tyler Higbee at tight end, L.A. went with under-achiever Brycen Hopkins and undrafted free agents (UDFA) Roger Carter and Jared Pinkney. None of whom had a profile as a pro grade blocker. When the Rams did go to the well for replenishing, they settled for a player they cut in training camp, Kendall Blanton, another inline player without a blocking pedigree.
Out on the edge, a rotation of three players was decided upon. Leonard Floyd, Justin Hollins, and Terrell Lewis. That’s right, three players, all of which battled injuries last season. Who are the options behind these three? Four rookie UDFA’s, Daniel Hardy, Keir Thomas, Zach VanValkenberg, and Brayden Thomas. The starters have not played particularly bad, but edge is playmakers position and the current trio is not doing it.
Injuries have certainly defined much of the offensive line depth and the teams struggles to move the ball forward and score. Three of the named Rams 2022 starters had injury-filled pasts and the backups had little pro game experience. The ones with a taste of NFL game time were not impressive specimens. L.A. did add a some veteran retreads, Oday Aboushi, Matt Skura, and Ty Nseke after the season began, but only Aboushi has seen much action.
The production out of these units is the worst since Sean McVay took over in 2017.
Not all the run game woes can be attached to poor line play, Tyler Higbee is ranked as the 20th best run blocker by SIS DataHub and his overall Pro Football Focus grade (57.8) is by far, the worst of his career. Hopkins has 41 undistinguished snaps on the season and Blanton is now gone, so TE#3 is now open and its anyone’s guess who it will be.
Higbee’s draft profile was as a receiver who would struggle to block at the pro level and he mostly played to form over his career. In previous seasons, He toils in a physically demanding position and he has been constantly nicked up over his seven years. During that time he was backed up by Gerald Everett and Johnny Mundt. neither were world beaters, but Everett’s speed and athleticism made defenses keep track of him and Mundt put in the unheralded work as a blocker. Although none were stellar, it was just a well-rounded unit and gave the McVay offense options.
66 tackles, four sacks, and six tackles for loss over eight games and 900 snaps, that’s the total production for both edge positions. Maybe If you double those numbers for the rest of 2022 season and view it from a $10 mil salary cap hit angle, the production from Floyd, Hollins, and Lewis seems passable.
A little deeper look shows the Rams edges are more of the work horse variety rather than thoroughbred playmakers and next season that cap hit goes up to $24 mil for just Floyd and Lewis. Hollins becomes an unrestricted free agent. The edges are just not winning their one-on-ones and that is one of the main reasons the Rams are not getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Rams rank near the bottom of all pass rush categories.
Eight weeks and eight different offensive line groupings. Much of the player movement on the line has been driven by said injuries, but the decision to continually start and keep Bobby Evans on the field is a choice by the braintrust. A truly unexplainable move considering his play has been abysmal. One positive note, Chandler Brewer was bumped up from the practice squad to a start versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and did a fine job. He and Alaric Jackson were the best linemen in preseason and it only took seven weeks for Brewer to get his number called.
8 games, 8 different starting offensive line combinations for the @RamsNFL, as 25yo Chandler Brewer makes his first NFL start at RG. First offensive snaps since the 17 he played as a rookie reserve in 2019.— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) November 6, 2022
Will the Rams get better?
I will continue to maintain that if the offensive line can get the right players on the field together for more than one week, the offense will show improvement. That being said, I am not confident that the improvement will be enough to get them into playoff contention.
The answers to the offensive problems are looking backwards. Do the little things that gave McVay the genius moniker. If the defenses are going to sit back, use movement, both shifts and motion, play-action and rubs/screens out of stack sets. One thing I used to love about the Rams attack was how they used tempo. One play would be hurry up and the next would take the full 25 seconds. The Rams have good skill position players, simplify and forget some of the sub packages, don’t give the defense a chance to put in their subs and force them to make quick, simple defensive calls on the fly. It will slow down those stunts and faux charges, forcing them to react and keeping them on their heels.
As for the defense, I simply don’t think they can play much better than they have and the upper tier teams remaining on the schedule will continue to exploit the soft coverage. The Rams are just not getting enough pass rush to be dominant and forcing enough turnovers to win the close games. Yes, the offense could help them out, but the defense is giving up a 2022 fourth quarter average of 19 plays, 112 yards, nine points and nine minutes of possession.
No matter how well you play, defending the Super Bowl title is a hard pull and somewhere along the line, you’re going to need some fortuitous breaks. Last season, the Rams were 7-1 in one score games and five of those wins came in the last seven games of the stretch drive and run to the Super Bowl. L.A. is due some good bounces.