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Is Sean McVay the problem with the Rams run game?

Is Sean McVay to blame for Rams woes in the run game?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the 2022 Los Angeles Rams offense, they haven’t been able to do many things well. However, one area that they have especially struggled is running the football. The reasons for these struggles are complex and a finger can be pointed in several directions.

To start, the offensive line has struggled to run block, the running backs have been ineffective and unable to create on their own, and game script during games certainly hasn’t helped. All of those things are true. With that being said, this also isn’t a one season issue. This is something that has festered since the 2019 season. With all of that being said, is it time to question head coach Sean McVay’s ability to scheme a successful run game?

As it currently stands, the Rams rank 26th in run offense DVOA. Their run game also ranks 29th in EPA per play and their 29.6 percent success rate ranks dead last. This inability to run the ball goes further than just the analytics. The Rams offense ranks 31st with 68.4 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. They are one of just two teams this season that have yet to eclipse 500 yards rushing and rank 32nd with 479 yards rushing for the year.

To say that it’s bad would be an understatement. It’s gotten to the point where McVay has felt like he’s wasting plays when the Rams run the ball. The Rams head coach said this week,

“We’ve got to figure out how to make it a better operation that you don’t feel like you’re wasting plays because in some instances, that’s what I feel like.”

Adding to that, it was also one of the few times that McVay didn’t take full responsibility for the failed operation. McVay added,

“We’ve got to be able to hit blocks better, we’ve got to be able to handle movement better. And then we’ve got to be able to create a little bit more than what sometimes the play is blocked for. Those are things that I don’t think is asking too much.”

McVay isn’t necessarily wrong when he says this. The Rams offensive line ranks 32nd in adjusted line yards according to Football Outsiders. The distance between the Rams at 32 (3.76) and the Indianapolis Colts at 31 (3.92) is the same distance as the Colts at 31 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 27 (4.07).

For clarification, the Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line. The Rams offensive line hasn’t been good. However, they are also not the only problem.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams rank 17th in run-blocking. Joe Noteboom and Rob Havenstein each ranked 19th and 20th respectively among tackles in run-blocking with grades of 71.8 and 71.6. David Edwards ranked 11th in run-blocking with a grade of 75.6. At center, Brian Allen ranks inside the top-10 at number seven in run-blocking with a grade of 75.1.

It’s fair to mention that the Rams offensive line hasn’t been healthy. In seven games played, they’ve had a different starting five in all seven games. However, the Rams have one half of football against the Arizona Cardinals where they’ve had any sort of success running the football. Even when players like Allen and Edwards have been healthy, the running game hasn’t been effective.

McVay is also correct when he says that the running backs do need to be able to create and add to the run game. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams rank 30th in both open field yards and second level yards. In other words, nothing is working. The offensive line isn’t opening holes coupled with the running backs not being proficient as open-field runners.

Pro Football Focus has an elusiveness rating measurement which measures success and impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking. Darrell Henderson has an elusiveness rating of 18.5 which ranks last in the NFL among running backs with 30 carries. Meanwhile, Cam Akers ranks 40th out of 46 qualifying running backs with an elusiveness rating of 33.9.

To add to that, Akers ranks in the bottom-5 in rush yards over expected per carry at 54th. Henderson isn’t much better, ranking at 41. Akers also ranks 59th with 1.3 yards before contact per attempt and Henderson ranks 25th with 2.5 yards.

While that isn’t great and speaks to some of the bad blocking, Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce has 1.7 yards before contact, but he also ranks inside the top-10 at number nine with 3.8 yards after contact. Comparatively, Akers ranks 45th with 2.57 yards after contact and Henderson ranks 50th.

Again, while it’s true that the offensive line hasn’t necessarily helped in the run game, the Rams running backs aren’t helping matters. They aren’t creating yards on their own and they aren’t running through contact.

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the Rams run game and not bring up the coaching. The fact of the matter is, it’s shocking how bad the Rams are running the ball. McVay comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree which has been a factory for creating 1000 yard rushers.

After not accumulating 100 yards rushing in his first three seasons combined, Reuben Drougns rushed for 1,240 yards under Shanahan. Clinton Portis started his career by rushing for over 1500 yards in three of his first four seasons. Terrell Davis rushed for over 2000 yards in 1998.

It doesn't stop at Shanahan. Arian Foster had a 1600 yard season with 16 touchdowns under Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans who was an assistant with the Denver Broncos under Shanahan. Steve Slaton had almost 1300 yards and nine touchdown in 2008 under Kubiak.

We can go through the entire coaching tree all the way to Kyle Shanahan who got 963 yards out of sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell in 2021. Raheem Mostert bounced around four teams before rushing for 772 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. Jeff Wilson was averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

Historically speaking, this system has been very running back friendly. This system basically created the “running backs don’t matter” mantra.

However, outside of 2017 and 2018 with Todd Gurley at running back and a historically good offensive line, the offense has struggled to consistently run the ball. In 2018, the Rams recorded an Adjusted Line Yards score of 5.49. This is the highest ever recorded in the DVOA era (since 1996). The next closest was the New Orleans Saints in 2011 with an Adjusted Line Yards Score of 5.25. It will likely be a decade, if not longer, until we see a run-blocking unit like the Rams had in 2018.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams had a top-5 run-blocking unit in both 2017 and 2018.

Therefore, for McVay to have a successful run game, he needed an elite running back as Gurley was in the Offensive Player of the Year discussion in both 2017 and 2018. He then also needed an elite offensive line. In other words, it was a perfect world.

Since Gurley left following the 2019 season, the Rams offense has a rush EPA of -0.097 which ranks 24th in the NFL during that period. They also rank 26th in running success rate.

In 2020, the Rams ranked seventh in adjusted line yards, but 10th in run offense DVOA and 19th in rushing EPA. Again, last season with an offense line that ranked sixth in adjusted line yards, the Rams offense finished 12th in run offense DVOA and and 20th in rushing EPA. Their running game has been underperforming when compared to their offensive line.

McVay found some success with Sony Michel last season as he rushed for 845 yards. However, outside of a five-game stretch with Akers to end 2020 and the month of December last year in which Michel led the NFL in rushing, the run game hasn’t been a consistent threat.

This year, the Rams are one of seven teams yet to have a 100-yard rusher. In fact, they have had a running back eclipse the 50-yard mark just one time this season.

The Rams offense is going through a bit of an identity crisis and a lot of that is because of their struggles in the run game. While the offensive line and running backs are to blame, coaching isn’t blameless either. Sean McVay needs to figure it out if the Rams are going to turn it around this season.