Sunday afternoon started out like the Los Angeles Rams could stay with the pass-happy Chargers, but some all-to-common problems resurfaced in a 31-10 loss. In the first half, L.A. rolled to 221 yards of offense and were this far away (hold thumb and forefinger close together) to rattling the the Bolts.
While at times, it looked like some players on defense were making business decisions with their tackling efforts, in the end, it was deja vu, all over again. Charger quarterback Justin Herbert played pitch and catch at will, the Rams offense played the second half sleepily as has been the norm, fumbling away their only trip into enemy territory, and “just missed” defined how they handled their opportunities.
Bend but don’t break pass defense
It’s been well established since Week 1, opposing teams that are better coached teams have and better quarterbacks have the discipline to pick apart the Rams defense. The core concept of the deep shell coverage is pressure the opposing quarterback, get him to throw the ball early off his rhythm , and make mistakes/bad reads, allowing a ball hawking secondary to create turnovers.
This season, according to stats on Pro Football Reference, the Rams are 31st in the NFL in quarterback pressure percentage, only 16.5% of drop backs, 27th in hurry percentage at only 4.8%, and 27th again (6.3%) in QB knockdowns. While over the course of the season, the Rams have intercepted 14 passes (tied 5th), they have only defended 52 passes (31st).
There has been much made of the Rams being able to stop the run and to give credit where it’s due, the acquisition of linebacker Bobby Wagner and second-year jump in play by Ernest Jones has made the Rams saltier against the rush. But honestly, when the opposition can complete 67. 8 percent of passes, why run?
Against the Bolts, as well as over the last four games, there were plenty of problems defending the run, as well. Opposing run games have averaged 150 yards at a 4.9 yards per carry clip. Injuries on the defensive front have taken their toll, Aaron Donald, A’Shawn Robinson are out for year and Greg Gaines just played a handful of snaps last Sunday.
After those starters, there just isn’t much beef amongst Jonah Williams, Marquise Copeland and Earnest Johnson, who are all well under 300 lbs. Bobby Brown at 324 lbs., doesn’t play that big and 297 lb. Larrell Murchison is projected as a relentless effort guy, suited to a rotational role rather than gap plugger.
If Raheem Morris does not get a Head Coach position, expect a similar, if not duplicate, scheme next year. That makes getting some pass rush help for Aaron Donald a must, because no player currently on the roster has shown true playmaking ability. Leonard Floyd is a solid player, albeit at a high price, but runs hot and cold as a pass rusher. At this point of his career, he’s at his ceiling, a fine wide side edge, but not a player who can dominate on a regular basis.
There should be a good edge or interior lineman, (pass rush help could conceivably come from inside) available in 40th pick range of the draft, when the Rams make their first choice. Turf Show Times will highlight possibilities over the coming months. But the acquisition does not necessarily have to be through conscription. General Manager Les Snead has a long record of targeting team needs and filling them through trades and there is always free agency.
If the Rams continue the trend towards four-man fronts, two free agents deserve some scouting and they both will be only 26 years old. Dre’Mont Jones (6’ 3” 281 lbs) can get to the QB, 37 pressures, 12 sacks, 18 tackles for loss in the last two years. Zach Allen has improved in each of his NFL seasons, carded 95 tackles, and has 33 QB hits over the last two seasons.
A couple of safeties are needed as well, preferably with coverage skills. The Rams really don’t need bangers back deep, just solid wrap up tacklers who have the read/react skills and speed to range over the deeper areas of the field. Both (free agents in 2023) Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott are better suited to play downhill, the Rams would well-served to recruit some plus coverage guys.
There are two halves to every game
The one constant for the Rams in 2022 is how poorly they played in the second halves of games. Offensively, L.A. ranks 27th in NFL third quarter scoring, 24th in fourth quarter scoring, and drop to 30th for the second half.
Coming out of the halftime break, the Rams have scored four times, three field goals and a touchdown. They fumbled the ball away once (Sunday against the Chargers) and had 11 punts, including eight three and outs.
Sean McVay’s stellar record of winning games that L.A. led at halftime took a big hit in 2023, losing four games where they were ahead or tied at the midpoint (Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and New Orleans Saints). They only came from behind twice, against the floundering Carolina Panthers and inconsistent Las Vegas Raiders.
Defensively it wasn’t much better, the Rams rate 18th in points allowed in the third quarter, 27th in the fourth, and 24th in overall second half scoring allowed. And although it all can’t be laid at the defense’s feet, L.A. was outscored in the second half 11 times and blew four halftime leads.
Some of the lustre has been rubbed off McVay’s “boy genius” brand and his “McStubborn” moniker may have grown in stature. But looking at it dispassionately, he has really tried a lot of different things on offense. To be sure, particularly early when Matthew Stafford was healthy, the Rams clung to the vertical, long developing passing offense too long. Defenses were playing high shell zones and choking off the deep routes. As the offensive line injuries mounted, so much that the practice squad was emptied and players were signed off the street directly into the lineup, it was clear to fans that a shorter air attack was needed.
After Stafford went down, it didn’t take John Wolford long to get banged up in this same scheme. When Bryce Perkins got his shot, it became a run-centric offense built around his abilities with the ball in his hands. When Baker Mayfield joined the team, it seemed McVay went back to the pre-Stafford “system” offense, lots of motion, tighter formations, stacked receiver sets, and quicker reads. Even though Mayfield has been sacked 12 times in his four appearances, a higher percentage of sacks per attempted pass than Stafford endured (10.4 to 8.7), he has L.A. playing .500 ball.
The run game has shown signs of life in the last five weeks, of course that may be because the run defenses (except Denver) they faced are all in the bottom half of the NFL. To his credit, McVay has re-applied the outside game, not so much the outside zones, but rather quick pitches, jet sweeps, and even a couple of good, old student body left/right. He has stayed with mid/inside zone runs, but seems to be mixing in some gap blocking, which meshes well. He has also ran many more two tight end sets. There were multiple plays versus the Chargers, where the Rams had two pulling leads. Both welcome sights.
Obviously, the real answer lies in upgrading the offensive line. I will continue to die on hill, thinking the Rams only need two additions. Certainly one on the interior, or maybe both. Who knows how the injured players will return, so it’s tough to project how well Joseph Noteboom will play. The one thing for certain is that he’s had three extended stays on the Injured Reserve List in his five year tenure, with knee MCL/ACL, torn calf, Torn Achilles tendon injuries and never played over 650 snaps in a season.
The reasons I keeping harping on only two line acquisitions are twofold. One, it is just not realistic to jettison them all and start anew and two, a good blocking tight end and more 12 formations would offer a quicker fix in both the run and pass game and use less much less capital.
Every game has its woulda, coulda,shoulda moments. But this season, L.A. seems willing to shoot themselves in the foot any time they can see their feet. It’s a hard case to make that the Rams could have beaten the Chargers, but it was still anyone’s game at half time and there’s no telling how the game flow would have went if they had capitalized on the possibilities. It was the Rams second half performance, a year-long problem, that sealed their fate.
On the opening drive of the game, L.A. ran it to just short of midfield. On third and short, Mayfield just missed running back Cam Akers on a wheel route down the sideline and there was nothing but yard markers ahead. Even if he didn’t score, the ball would be deep in the red zone.
After scoring on their second drive, L.A. again moved the ball on drive three. They matriculated to the Charger 29 on a long pass and a couple of runs. On third and short, Mayfield was flushed from the pocket and threw the ball away. On a razor thin margin, the referees called intentional grounding, the down and distance penalty moving the Rams out of field goal range. It’s hard to call any 46-yard kick automatic, but Matt Gay has been damn close. From that distance he’s 16 of 18 over his Rams career.
With a minute left in the first half, Jalen Ramsey, on a delayed corner blitz, charges through untouched to strip sack Charger quarterback Justin Herbert. On a bang-bang call, the referees ruled it an incomplete pass. In theory, these types of call even out over the long run, but in a game where you need every break to compete, they are back-breaking. The Bolts would convert a field goal to go up 17-10 at half.
Over the course of the season, the Rams have been consistently poor on their opening drives of the second half. Against the Chargers they broke the mold and moved steadily down the field to the enemy 35. As Mayfield stepped up in the pocket and cocked to throw, Bolts edge Kyle Van Noy made a fine play and swiped the ball out of Mayfield’s hand. The Chargers recovered the fumble and the Rams folded up their tent, only producing a couple three and outs and kneel down for the rest of the game.
Can't respond like that after defensive stop following sack-fumble. Rams take a penalty, negative play, incomplete pass on the corresponding series.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 1, 2023
Bad breaks are magnified in a down year, or at least tend to stand out. The game is not played in a vacuum, so you can never control the element of chance, stellar plays by the opposing teams are going to happen, Mental mistakes can be controlled though, movement penalties, missed assignments, lack of effort etc., need to be and can be weeded out. So, I guess the ultimate answer to missed opportunities is speculation by blog writers and Rams fans.
Oh,yeah. Re-sign Matt Gay.
As far as personnel, get Aaron Donald some pass rush help, look for safeties with coverage skills and bring aboard two plug and play offensive linemen, Don’t worry about collecting compensatory picks, be willing to use free agency. The Rams backups, all the way to the bottom of the roster, have put goods reps and experience under their belts. Some may develop into starters or rotational packages, others not so much. And although it is easier said than done, a precious few acquisitions, of NFL starting caliber, would go a long way to rejuvenate L.A.
As far as scheme, Even though Stafford is more comfortable spreading things out and sitting in shotgun, keep the “system” offense within arms reach. If things start to spiral, it has proved it can be successful. Staff’s an old pro, he can adjust.
Love the meshing of gap blocking schemes with the mid and inside zones. I bet the linemen love pulling and putting the boink to defenders. I wonder if this is a Kevin Carberry (Rams offensive line coach) idea? It opens so many variations from the tackles in.
The defense is likely to be very similar, even if Morris was too move up. Besides the safeties, at least one space eater inside might help loosen up the pass rush. The Rams really are quite small upfront and having run stopper might help Donald to freelance more and worry less about gap responsibilities.
Wow, how’s that for original, 2000 words to say “get better players”.