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Rams ‘big uglies’ defy preseason expectations

Is the L.A. offensive line getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment, no respect?

Los Angeles Rams v Indianapolis Colts
The Rams offensive line clears a wide throwing lane for QB Matthew Stafford
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

For the Los Angeles Rams offensive line, respect is going to come incrementally and grudgingly. What did the Rams big uglies do to get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment? Last season’s injuries up front left a bad taste with most pundits and none gave the Rams much of a chance for success in 2023.

Whether it was a case of last years injury debacle or the perception of poor drafting and not enough talent, expectations were that the Rams offensive line would spiral downward and the offense would follow. The run game would be nil, Matthew Stafford’s 35 year old body would be broken into pieces, and Cooper Kupp’s leg woes would scuttle what little optimism there was. The only race L.A. would be in the running for is the Number 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, or at least next door at SoFi Stadium.

Puka Nacua became a household name, Matthew Stafford jumped around (and threw) like he was 10 years younger and Sean McVay built up, tore down, and then rebuilt a run game. It was all buttressed by a resurgent offensive line. Even though it’s just four games into the season and the Rams are only 2-2, the L.A. offense looks like they have the chops to stand toe-to-toe against any NFL defense.

New offensive line coach Ryan Wendell was brought in to instill a more physical identity and move away from the outside zone run game. The new run scheme meshes inside/mid zone (vertical or horizontal displacement), power/gap (pulling blockers), and duo (double teams instead of pullers). The passing concepts have mixed the Jared Goff-era controlled, play action scheme with the read-based, spread out of shotgun that Stafford prefers.

How successful have things been on the field? According to Pro Football Reference, the Rams are knocking on the door of being a Top 10 offense, 13th in scoring, 11th in yards per play, and 6th in percentage of drives ending with a score. The passing game is 4th in completions, 2nd in net yards L.A. and 10th in net yards per pass attempt. Even with debacle in Cincinnati, the run game ranks 18th in net yards, 6th in touchdowns, and 10th in expected points contributed by run game.

The offensive line has given up 9 sacks, 18.1% of snaps are under pressure, and Stafford has received an average of 2.5 seconds of pocket time before pressure. It hasn’t been a quick strike offense, but rather one that traverses the field on long, sustained dives that gobble up yards and time. The Rams are enjoying an average 33 to 27 minute advantage in time of possession, are 1st in total plays ran, 8th in third down conversions, and 4th in average time of drives.

Even with the success of the offense, the experts aren’t giving the offensive line much run. As individuals, Pro Football Focus overall scores are center Coleman Shelton at 71.0, right tackle Rob Havenstein 66.4, left guard Steve Avila 60.6, left tackle Alaric Jackson 53.4, and right guard/left tackle Joseph Noteboom 42.1. Recent addition Kevin Dotson scored 86.0 in his lone start at right guard. As a unit, L.A.’s PFF run block scores are in the mid 60’s and the pass blocking sets in the mid 40’s.

ESPN doesn’t like the Rams offensive line any better, their 45% win rate ranks 28th in pass blocking, while the 71% run block win rate rates as 18th in the league. Not one of the Rams offensive linemen rates in the individual Top 30 of pass block win rate. Only Steve Avila’s 76% run block win rate fits within the listed Top 20.

Does the offensive line need a top rating to be successful?

Projecting the units play and production going forward has to be done with a certain amount of caution. In theory they should improve cohesion as the core group continues working together and feels comfortable with each others moves. But last years injury cluster cannot be blocked from memory. Four games into the 2023 season, left tackle Alaric Jackson has already missed one full game and half of another. Right guard Joseph Noteboom, no stranger to missing time with injury, has been nicked up and left the field in two games, missing 46 snaps.

If the run blocking continues continues to be effective, that’s the key. First and foremost, the Rams are a passing team, but that air attack is much more multiple and effective when L.A. is making opposing defenses respect their ability to run. The pass blocking ratings/stats are not likely to improve by leaps and bounds. QB Matthew Stafford is a pocket passer, he likes to hold the ball and make his reads, and he’s not going to do a lot of scrambling, nor take off running.

One thing I have noticed is that preseason ratings were almost in unison that the Rams front line would be one of, if not the worst, units in the league. Now, those rankings are edging up towards the low 20’s. The final respect on the L.A.’s offensive line will be based in the win column, not subjective ratings.