The Los Angeles Rams will begin their repeat campaign on Thursday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills. A lot has changed since the Rams last took the field in February. With Thursday quickly approaching, let’s take one last look at this Rams team before we head into the 2022 NFL season.
Previewing the Rams Offense
What does the Rams offense look like in year two with Matthew Stafford? Much like the offense in 2017 and 2018 with Jared Goff, Sean McVay will likely be looking to expand on what the Rams did last year with Stafford and give him more control. The good news is, McVay will be able to trust Stafford with more responsibility.
The Rams kept seven wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster and only two tight ends. It should be expected that McVay will utilize plenty of empty sets where Stafford excelled last year and stay in 10 and 11 personnel.
The issue becomes when McVay can no longer spam the easy button. This was the case last year during the Rams’ three-game losing streak. From Weeks 9-12, Stafford completed just 61.4% of his passes which was six percent lower than his season average. He also threw five touchdowns to five interceptions with “pick-sixes” in all three games. Stafford’s total EPA of -29 during that stretch ranked 26th out of 26 quarterbacks with at least 100 snaps.
After attempting 40 or more passes four times in Weeks 1-10, Stafford didn’t throw the ball 40 or more times again until the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl.
Unlike last season, the Rams will have Cam Akers beginning in Week 1. Despite not having a great postseason, he was still the team’s most dynamic running back when he returned. He’ll have a full offseason of recovery and will be looking to take that next step.
At wide receiver, the Rams moved on from Robert Woods who had become a staple in the offense since signing in 2017. Replacing him is Allen Robinson from the Chicago Bears. This was a move to transition to the new version of the Rams offense with Stafford.
Stafford has had success with players who have done well in contest catch scenarios. He isn’t afraid to let his wide receiver go up and make the play. This is where Robinson excels. In 2019, the Bears wide receiver led the NFL in contested catches with 26 – tied with Kenny Golladay. His 63.4 contest catch percentage ranked third. Robinson again led the NFL in contested catches in 2020 with 23.
The most significant loss for the Rams offense will likely be the Andrew Whitworth. From 2009-2016, the Rams looked high and low for a left tackle to replace Orlando Pace. With stints that included Alex Barron, Jason Smith, Jake Long, and Greg Robinson, it was all a disaster. Whitworth added stability and consistency and that will certainly be missed.
Biggest Question for the Rams Offense
Can the offensive line protect Matthew Stafford?
Last week I looked at whether or not the Rams took too much of a risk on the offensive line this offseason. Joe Noteboom will be taking over at left tackle and Coleman Shelton will be starting at right guard. Noteboom and Brian Allen also have an injury history. A lot seemingly has to go right for this group to reach its potential.
The Rams like to play out of empty and 11 personnel which means there’s usually not a tight end or running back left in to block in pass protection. That leaves a lot of pressure on the offensive line to hold up long enough for the quarterback to get rid of the ball. Will the Rams be able to use as much empty as they want to with this group of offensive linemen? It’s something to watch.
Stafford can perform out of structure, but every quarterback needs an offensive line in front of them.
Previewing the Rams Defense
To say it was a rollercoaster on defense last season would be a giant understatement. Raheem Morris took over for Brandon Staley and they ranked 17th in total yards allowed and 18th in points.
However, using analytics, this group was never as bad as they were made out to be at times. They ranked ninth in the NFL in EPA per play at -.025. Against the run, they ranked sixth. The defense was even better in DVOA. Football Outsiders had the Rams defense ranked sixth in overall DVOA which included sixth against the pass and fifth against the run. The Rams defense also ranked 10th in explosive pass plays allowed and seventh in explosive run plays.
By important metrics, the Rams defense was a top-10 unit last season.
More importantly though, they stepped up in the postseason. Morris’ group held the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a combined three first half points. Throughout the entire postseason, the defense allowed just 17 points in the fourth quarter. It’s worth noting that 14 of those points came against the Buccaneers and seven of those were following a turnover.
In the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, the Rams defense buckled down and didn’t allow a single point in the final 15 minutes of the game. That’s the definition of “defense wins championships.”
The Rams lost Von Miller on the edge to the Bills, but added Bobby Wagner who will be the best Rams linebacker since London Fletcher.
Morris will have had a full offseason to add to the scheme introduced by Staley. The Rams defensive coordinator spent last offseason learning the scheme on the fly. As he got comfortable with it, Morris started to add some of his own touches and that will likely continue.
Biggest Question for the Rams Defense
Can the Rams generate enough pressure on the edge?
There’s a reason that the Rams had to trade for Miller last season. Outside of Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald, the Rams were struggling to generate pressure. In Weeks 1-9 last season, Donald and Floyd had 41 and 35 pressures respectively. The next closest pass rusher was Terrell Lewis with 21.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rams try to make a trade for a player like Robert Quinn in the middle of the year. However, to start the season, they’ll be relying on Justin Hollins, Lewis, and other depth players to make an impact. Wagner could also be used in blitz packages. The former Seattle Seahawks linebacker ranked sixth in the NFL in 2020 in pressures according to Pro Football Focus.
Player I’m Most Excited to Watch
Wagner will certainly be an exciting player to watch as Rams fans have spent the last decade seeing him in Seahawk green. However, my answer here is going to be Robinson.
Throughout much of his career, Robinson has been seen as a potential top-10 or top-15 wide receiver who couldn’t escape bad quarterback play. Robinson’s best year came with Blake Bortles at quarterback and just two years ago he had over 1200 yards with Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles.
Much like Matthew Stafford last year, Robinson finally gets plugged into a good situation and he’s not going to get asked to be ‘the guy’. It’ll be exciting to see how Robinson is utilized in the red zone where he can use his size. I’m expecting a big year from Robinson and for him to show why he belonged in that top-10 receiver conversation.
What Does a Successful Season Look Like?
Setting some realistic expectations here, a successful season doesn’t necessarily have to mean repeating or even a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. Running it back is very difficult and there’s a reason nobody has done it since the 2003-04 Patriots.
However, with the talent and pieces on this Rams team, the bar should still be set high. This is a star-studded roster with top players still in their prime.
For starters, this Rams team should win the NFC West. The 49ers will be starting a second-year quarterback seeing his first action as the full-time starter. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals have been full of drama all offseason. For the first time in a while, the NFC West has a clear last-place team in the Seahawks. A repeat as division champions shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
As far as playoff expectations, the Rams should be making a trip back to the NFC Championship game or getting very close to it - much like the Buccaneers did last year. The Rams still have a championship window and they need to take advantage of it.