It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Rams running game has been one of the biggest question marks of their offense this season. Cam Akers is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry and the team’s 117 total yards through two games ranks 31st in the NFL. The Rams’ 2.7 yards per carry also ranks dead last.
This was an issue with the Rams early in the 2021 season as well. However, that changed in Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals. While the Rams rushed for over 100 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars the week before, it was the Cardinals game that set the tone for the rest of the season.
Sony Michel carried the ball in that game 20 times for 79 yards. It was the second of five straight games with 70 or more yards for Michel.
A tone-setting performance is exactly what the Rams need on Sunday against the Cardinals. With games against the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys on deck, the offense is going to need to find balance.
They need to be able to get the ground game going which is going to require several pieces to work in conjunction with each other. Additionally, the Rams will need to figure out who’s going to be the hot-hand in the backfield.
The Offensive Line
For a good running game to be successful, it all starts up front with the offensive line. So far this season, the Rams do have an offensive line problem. The Rams rank 31st in yards before contact and according to Football Outsiders, they rank 29th in adjusted line yards.
Those rankings were on full display against the Buffalo Bills. Darrell Henderson had one good run outside, but aside from that he averaged 2.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile Akers had three carries for zero yards. The offensive line simply got beat and that’s putting it nicely.
However, early in the season, one really bad game that ends up being an outlier is going to severely skew the numbers. There are some reasons to be optimistic about the offensive line moving forward.
In his first start at guard, Alaric Jackson ranks sixth in the NFL in run-block among guards win-rate according to ESPN stats and info. With Brian Allen out, Jackson will get more playing time over the next few weeks. After a really bad opening game, the offensive line turned it around and are already up to 19th overall in run-block win-rate.
On Henderson’s touchdown run against the Falcons, he walked into the end zone untouched. On the play, Rob Havenstein took out two players, Coleman Shelton sealed off his defender, and then Cooper Kupp had the final touch, blocking the safety.
Additionally, the Rams rank 16th in rushing DVOA on offense and 15th in EPA per play. According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams also rank eighth overall in run-blocking. It’s still very early in the season. We have one week where the Rams got beat badly up front and another where they started to show some good things. The next few weeks will show a lot.
The Scheme is Working
It would be one thing, if the scheme wasn’t working, but that isn’t the case at all. The scheme was working as designed, specifically last week against the Falcons. The offensive line are blocking in their spaces and opening up creases for the running backs.
Overall, it was a very good performance last week. The offensive line blocked much better and McVay made necessary adjustments. The newly introduced Ben Skowronek fullback package succeeded in its intended purpose. The offense was nearly three times more effective in that formation.
Still, the Rams are missing opportunities for larger chunks of yards. The scheme is working and the hole is there for the taking. One missed block unfortunately will blow up the whole play.
In this example below, Henderson picks up around four yards. However, on the backside, Higbee doesn’t get squared up on his defender quick enough. It’s a tough ask for Higbee and Skowronek also doesn’t offer any help as he runs past to take the defensive back. This is a run that could have gone for close to 10 yards, but instead it’s an average gain.
It’s the little things right now that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. The Rams run game is right on the edge of a breakout. On some plays, they’re one block away. A couple of missed opportunities with Akers missing cut-back lanes or a missed block by an offensive lineman or tight end has kept it from taking that next level
What’s Wrong with Cam Akers?
Watching the film, it’s pretty clear that Akers isn’t the same back that he was prior to the achilles injury at the end of 2020. The sooner that the Rams come to realize that fact, the better. He lacks confidence in his vision, explosiveness, contact balance, and decisiveness. A lot of times this season, he looks unsure. He looks too often to try to bounce the play outside.
McVay’s offense, especially in the run game, is centered around zone concepts. In a zone running scheme a good zone running back will take advantage of a crease opening by cutting back against the grain to find the open area.
That’s exactly the case in this play in the second half. Pause the video a little past the one second mark. You’ll notice that there is a huge cutback lane that has been walled off by AJ Jackson. Instead of cutting back, Akers gets caught going sideways. He doesn’t see the cutback lane that would have given him positive yardage.
Akers currently ranks 34th out of 35 running backs in rush yards over expected according to MFB analytics. His -.29 EPA per rush are also tied for the second-worst mark in the league. Missing these creases and hesitating at the beginning of his runs are a big reason for that.
On the play below later in the fourth quarter, Akers doesn’t seem to know where he wants to go with the ball. His vision and indecisiveness are on full display. The majority of this run is stutter steps and the hole that he does take, he arguably should have hit a full second sooner. It looks like he wanted to bounce the play outside, but there was an initial opening in the B-gap that he should have hit immediately.
The Difference with Henderson
This next play from Henderson comes exactly one play later. Akers didn’t have ideal blocking on the previous snap, but he hesitated, lacked early vision, and didn’t explode into the hole when it was there.
The blocking for Henderson isn't great on this play either. However, he realizes nothing is going to happen on the left, cuts back, and still manages to pick up a couple of yards. He’s much more confident and decisive with his cuts.
Watching Henderson, he's just much more decisive in his runs and hits the hole with a lot more explosiveness. At the moment, he’s a much more confident runner. While Akers is near the bottom in rush yards over expected and EPA per rush, Henderson is around average. He’s 18th in rush yards over expected at .16 and 10th in EPA per rush.
What Does This Mean on Sunday?
Through two weeks, the Cardinals rank 10th in defense EPA against the run and 11th in DVOA. This isn’t a bad run defense as they’re fringe top-10, but they can certainly be ran against. In Week 1, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had seven carries for 42 yards against the Cardinals. Isiah Pacheco and Jerrick McKinnon also added 16 carries for 84 yards. Arizona is allowing 4.2 yards per carry which ranks 15th in the NFL.
If the offensive line plays like it did last week, that will certainly help things. McVay should also be able to scheme up some looks on the ground against this Cardinals defense that he’s had success against in the past.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford currently leads the NFL in interceptions. The best way to help a quarterback is with a consistent run game. The Rams need to find balance on offense. As the Rams enter a turning point in Week 3, finding that balance and running the ball efficiently could be critical to their success.