The Rams were the best team in the NFL last season, and I believe that is a fair statement whether we are talking about the Super Bowl or the entirety of the league year. From the moment that Les Snead acquired Matthew Stafford in late January to defeating the Bengals in the Super Bowl a little more than 12 months later, the LA Rams consistently edged out the other 31 teams and collectively had the most number of correct moves in 2021 and the playoffs.
This honor of being “the best” is further solidified by the fact that the Rams have consistently been among the league’s top tier teams since Sean McVay arrived in 2017, plus the prior reputations of individual players like Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Andrew Whitworth, and Von Miller.
More often than not, the NFL’s best team for the entire and the NFL’s Super Bowl champion are two separate franchises. Not everyone will agree that the LA Rams were “the best team” last season, but every game they lost came against a team that made the playoffs. It may have taken three fourth quarter efforts to win the Super Bowl, but that is sometimes what great teams do.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas to improve upon, especially coming off of the shortest offseason of any team other than the Bengals, losing players like Miller and Robert Woods, and knowing that you’ve got a target on your back from Week 1 of next offseason.
Defense needs to get off the field
The Rams did rank 5th in DVOA for defense, signaling that being 15th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed is a little misleading. It means that Raheem Morris’s defense was often surrendering yards that they could afford to lose. In key moments, LA often got the job done to a satisfactory level.
For example, the defense came up huge against Joe Burrow in the second half of the Super bowl when they needed to.
The Rams were a top-six team against both the pass and the run. In the offseason, the team lost Darious Williams and Miller, but gained Bobby Wagner and Troy Hill.
But one thing that Morris can improve upon next season is getting off of the field more often on third down. LA ranked 21st in the NFL on third down defense, allowing 41.3% conversions.
The Rams also ranked 15th in fourth down conversion rate allowed (53%), 25th in plays on defense, and 25th in time of possession. Over a 17-game season, coming off of a 21-game season, this is a war of attrition. If Morris wants to win it and keep his defense in shape for another postseason run, LA will need to keep a heavy rotation going and to get off of the field on third downs more often.
Running the football
If Sean McVay and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen want to win time of possession more often, then it can’t only be the Stafford-Kupp show. It will necessitate a strong running game and quality play from their backs, which is set to include Cam Akers this time.
Last season, Sony Michel led the team with 208 carries for 845 yards, even though he didn’t even join the Rams until late in training camp. Michel is now playing for Mike McDaniel in Miami, which is probably fine because he seemed to fit the exact role that he was called upon to play when he was acquired to replace Akers at the last minute: A replacement back.
Michel helped the Rams win five straight games late in the year, but fell back to a reserve role in the postseason after Akers returned.
Darrell Henderson, entering a contract year in 2022, was second on the team with 149 carries and 688 yards. By FootballOutsiders’ metrics, Henderson was the more successful back of the two: He ranked 15th in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, whereas Michel was 25th even though he had more opportunities; Henderson ranked seventh in success rate (58%) and Michel was 28th (51%).
Another change this offseason is that running backs coach Thomas Brown was re-assigned to tight ends. The new running backs coach is Ra’Shaad Samples. Offensive line coach Kevin Carberry returns for a second season in the role.
Akers is presumably as good as he will ever be and should be expected to start in Week 1, which is probably the first time we will see him on the field in anything other than a practice setting. McVay isn’t risking any starters in the preseason, especially not at running back. An interesting development for Akers in the playoffs is that he caught at least one pass in every game, finishing with eight catches for 76 yards on 10 targets.
He only had 14 targets during his entire rookie season. We may see a heavy dose of Cam Akers, as a runner and receiver, in 2022.
The offensive line gets a shake-up with Joseph Noteboom replacing Whitworth (if he stays retired) at left tackle and a competition opening up to replace Austin Corbett at right guard. Will they be “better” at run blocking than the previous line? My guess is that you won’t notice a difference.
Winning the turnover battle
The Rams started 0-4 in games in which they lost the turnover battle (Cardinals, Titans, 49ers, Packers), but then won the next four such matchups (Vikings, Ravens, Buccaneers, the Super Bowl). Historically, a .500 record should not have happened in those contests.
Though I am not dismissive of the fact that Matthew Stafford tied for the league-lead in interceptions (17), I do think that it is more defensible when you consider that he threw 41 touchdowns, completed 67% of 601 attempted passes, and was only sacked 30 times in 17 starts.
Stafford had a great season and 17 interceptions is so overblown: 13 quarterbacks had at least 13 interceptions, including Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow, and Patrick Mahomes. What’s the difference of four interceptions over 17 games?
Every interception thrown by Matthew Stafford in 2021: A Thread (presented with minimal commentary)— Vincent Verhei (@FO_VVerhei) May 24, 2022
I suffered the horrors of NFL Game Pass for this, the least you could do is watch.
The only ones who were comparable scorers to Stafford, who was second in the NFL with 41 touchdowns, were Herbert, Allen, Mahomes, then Burrow, who had 34.
None of those quarterbacks get criticized nearly as often as Stafford, so I don’t want to make it seem like his turnovers are the worst issue on offense. They aren’t the worst issue—it’s fixing the running game—but LA ranked 17th in turnovers and 10th in takeaways.
Though the Rams had the 2nd-fewest fumbles and the 26th-most recovered fumbles on defense, those numbers should maybe even out based on the laws of luck. The Rams will have more fumbles and recover a few more fumbles.
Is there a way for Stafford to be himself, to score 40 touchdowns, without throwing more than 10 interceptions? That may be Coen’s goal in his first year as the offensive coordinator. If the Rams can avoid turning the ball over as often as they did in 2021, they should get lucky a few extra times on defense and win the turnover battle more often.