Everyone expected an offensive game when the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Denver Broncos on Christmas Day. Fans were ready for the literal definition, unpleasant to the senses, but L.A. was visited by the ghost of Christmas team’s past and exploded for a 51-14 win. The Rams scored on eight of nine drives and had their highest DVOA since Week 1 of 2021.
Was it truly a case of spectral reclamation? Or just a beatdown of a Bronco team, that had given up on the year and had one foot out the off-season door?
While it was probably mostly the latter, Denver canned head coach Nathaniel Hackett right after the game. BUT the Rams did also visit the past and reanimate the run and short passing game. L.A. pounded the rock for 158 yards and passed for 230, the 388 total yards was their best output of the season by 50 yards and they took their foot off the gas after three quarters.
Baker Mayfield and the Rams went back to the pre-Matthew Stafford offense, using tight formations and taking advantage of Denver staying in the deep shell zone coverages. The pass game worked underneath with impunity, and L.A. used numerical advantage to gash the Broncs with the run. Of his 24 completions, Mayfield only had two passes that gained 20+ yards and only one over 15 air yards.
He hooked up with eight different receivers, spread across all quadrants of the field. The pass game’s realignment to quicker, shorter design has helped the offensive line, as well. These past four games, the Rams pass block grade has increased each week, coinciding with their best stretch of consecutive efforts of the season. While the results are modest, two wins and two losses, finding some good for unit that has been so decimated and downtrodden sparks some optimism.
Alright what is going on here pic.twitter.com/YNzdLrOHc2— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) December 26, 2022
Cam Akers showed he can move the chains with a little room and gained 118 yards on 23 carries. Is it a coincidence that the Rams went back to the days of Johnny Mundt and made use of numerous 12 formations (two tight ends)? Tyler Higbee and Brycen Hopkins had many fine double team blocks and, at least by the eye test, both had their best blocking game of the year. Akers found room on mid zone runs (designed to go off tackle) and showed his smooth, subtle style in space. He made good sharp cuts and although he doesn’t look big on the field, shows surprising power. Quite obviously, his best game of 2022.
Any gifts worth keeping, or where did I put those damn return receipts?
The short passing game
It was nice to see the Rams attacking a deep zone with the old schemes. At least some this season’s problems have been from not being willing to compress the passing game and use some of the tried and true past schemes and formations. Mixing up the inside/outside run attack keeps defenses honest and creates opportunities for counters and of course, the always formidable play action pass.
Sean McVay wanted to spread out the formations and make the pass game more vertical, so went out and got himself a quarterback to fit. Stafford likes to sit back in shotgun, spread the playmakers across the field, read the defense, and sling it downfield. It all worked well last season, but in 2022, week in and week out opposing defenses clogged the deep lanes with coverages built to stop L.A.’s deep pass game. McVay seemed a little stubborn early, was hesitant to adjust and the whole offense stumbled.
A cohesive offensive line
It took 11 games before the Rams to were able to start the same group of players on the offensive front. All told, L.A. has had seven linemen on the Injured Reserve List and Brian Allen has missed seven full games without spending any time on the IR. Just for reference, eight players is the normal roster number of players in a NFL line unit.
L.A. certainly needs an upgrade on the offensive line, although a fire sale and full-on restart seem drastic. Injuries are a worry, but there is simply no realistic way to replace them all. Who should be kept for 2023?
Unrestricted free agents- Ty Nsekhe, Matt Skura, Oday Aboushi, and Bobby Evans.
I’m not sure any should be brought back. Nsekhe, Skura, and Aboushi were serviceable, but should not be battling for a starting role. They were all signed off the street, and if the Rams have another injury cluster on the line next year, there are going to be players of this caliber to be added in an emergency situation.
Restricted free agent- Chandler Brewer
A four-year perennial practice squad player. Had two pretty good games when forced into action at mid-season. He may very well get another chance to show out with Aboushi being suspended for next Sunday. If he plays well, keep him as a backup. He has size, knows the system and can be kept for a small salary.
Under contract and 2023 cap hit (according to overthecap.com) - Joseph Noteboom (15.5mil), Rob Havenstein (8.7mil), Brian Allen (6.8mil), Coleman Shelton (1.75mil), Logan Bruss (1.1mil), Tremayne Anchrum (1mil), Alaric Jackson (947k), Zachary Thomas (870k), and A.J. Arcuri (870k).
The Rams normally open camp with 15 linemen and will likely land on nine for the opening roster. The have nine under contract for 2023. The terms of Noteboom’s contract probably preclude a move. Hav, as a starter, and Shelton, Bruss, and Jackson, even as backups, all fit under the value umbrella. Allen’s injury history makes him a candidate to be replaced. I find his play serviceable, which is more than most fans, but his injury problems are hard to settle with. Anchrum has versatility at a fair price and rookies Thomas and Arcuri likely remain as practice squad guys until developed.
Continued run game success
Has Akers gotten out of the doghouse? Was the release of Darell Henderson a “Sorry, forgive me. Let’s stay together and work it out” note? Jared Goff, Michael Brockers, and Robert Woods were all basically given away, but the Rams let the trade deadline pass without letting puffing up a deal to get rid of Akers. Or maybe, with the season floundering, giving him exposure might make a deal more favorable.
With all the needs for off and draft season, keeping Akers in the fold might make the most sense. Kyren Williams is fine as change of pace back. Save those 2nd and 3rd round picks for more pressing needs and grab a back in the 5th. As long as Stafford stays upright, the Rams are going to pass, likely 60+ percent of plays.
If L.A. is going to continue with the current two-season trend of 25 carries per game, Akers can carry the load. He might not be a breakaway threat, but he is a more than capable north/south runner with deceptive moves and power.
The coaching staff
In a certain light, this may be considered Sean McVay’s best actual coaching job yet. The prevailing injury situation was enough to break most teams. But McVay has kept the Rams playing hard even though the season has long been lost. Just on the offensive side, injuries took multiple games from QB#1, WR#1, WR#2, WR#3, WR#4, RB#1 and all the offensive line except for right tackle. Bringing in a talent like Baker Mayfield, even if only for a few games, shows he was not going to settle for running out the string.
As for the rest of the assistant staff, some will bump up and others need scrutiny. There were so many changes last year and the Rams struggling makes me think there won’t be be as many defections.
The return game has been consistently lacking and only kicker Matt Gay has been a standout. Even Brandon Powell’s electricity is lacking amperage. L.A. can do better than the current Joe DeCamillis.
Raheem Morris has had the luxury of three probable hall of famer’s and still was able to produce a middle of the pack defense. There’s a lot unpack on the defense, it’s been the Rams best unit, by far, and has some very good stat areas. But against better quarterbacks and better coached teams, L.A. is 0-5. These teams with discipline are able to navigate the soft coverages. The win/win scenario is Morris receiving an promotion to a Head Coach job and the Rams getting a compensatory pick.
record vs opponents currently > .500:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 27, 2022
3-2: BUF, KC, MIN
2-4: GB, NYJ
2-5: MIA, DET, CLE
1-3: BAL, DEN, ATL, LAC
1-4: TB, NYG, IND
0-4: CAR, NO
0-5: LAR, ARI, NE
0-6: HOU, TEN
To wrap it all up, or in keeping with the season, unwrap it all, keep the short passing game scheme within easy grasp, bring back the linemen under contract, but steady a sharp eye on two upgrades, retain Cam Akers and let him run like a number one back, and give those coordinators glowing letters of recommendation for promotions elsewhere.
What/who else should the Rams keep or should be returned for credit and relegated to the barely-used bargain table?