The Red Zone is still an issue for the Rams

Two years ago, I wrote a fanpost discussing how the Rams had woes with their red zone offense and asked whether the team would improve in that area in the 2021 season. Two years later, it is questionable whether Sean McVay and the Rams have made any substantial progress in that department.

Overall Red Zone Offense

Last season, the 2nd best team in red zone offense (as measured by TD scoring percentage) was the Kansas City Chiefs. The 3rd best team was the Philadelphia Eagles. Those 2 clubs played in the Super Bowl. The Detroit Lions finished 4th in the league. Meanwhile, the Rams were almost exactly in the middle of the pack. They were in a 3 way tie for 14th place, over 15 percentage points behind the Chiefs and over 10 percentage points behind the Lions.

In 2021, the Rams again were in the middle of the NFL, ranking 16th, with a conversion rate of 59.09%. Even though the overall ranking for the Rams essentially remained the same in 2022, the conversion rate actually slightly declined to 55.56% in 2022.

Back in 2020, the Rams were 19th in the NFL in RZ scoring, but had a 57.81% conversion rate, which is slightly higher than the 2022 rate. The best recent season for the Rams was 2019, when the Rams were 6th in the NFL with a 64.41% rate. So, the RZ efficiency of the Rams has declined the last 2 seasons compared with how they performed in the 2019 to 2020 time period.

What led to the 2021 offensive explosion wasn't that the Rams were elite in terms of RZ conversion rate, it was that they had a very high rate of offensive drives that resulted in trips into the RZ. The Rams were 5th in the NFL in the percentage of drives that culminated into RZ visits in 2021. The Rams were only middle of the pack in terms of the number of TDs they scored outside of the RZ in 2021, possibly a reflection of a roster that lacked big play speedsters. The addition of Tutu Atwell was perhaps an attempt to address this deficiency, but he has yet to establish himself as a reliable home run threat.

Red Zone Passing

Among QBs attempting at least 15 passes in the RZ, the player with the highest completion percentage was Brock Purdy. Baker Mayfield was 20th. Jalen Hurts was 27th with only a 50% completion rate. Hurts was even worse inside the 10 yard line, where he had a miserable 36% completion rate.

Matthew Stafford was 32nd in the NFL among qualifying QBs with a 47.5% completion rate in the red zone. He was at 42.9% inside the 10 yard line. The good news is he didn't have any RZ interceptions. There were 10 qualifying QBs ranked below Stafford.

In 2021, Stafford had by far the most RZ passing TDs in the NFL, with 40. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes both had 34. On the other hand, one reason for that stat was Stafford was tied for the most passing attempts inside the 10 yard line. Stafford only completed 50% of his passes inside the 10, which was 21 percentage points lower than Patrick Mahomes's rate. Baker Mayfield in 2021 was 10th among qualifying QBs in RZ completion percentage. Stafford was 19th, with a 56.8% completion rate.

According to Sharp Football Analysis stats, the Rams passed the ball on nearly 66% of their plays inside the 5 yard line in 2021. This was by far the highest rate in the NFL. 20 out of the 32 teams passed it less than 45% of the time in that range and the Rams were 1 of only 3 teams that passed it at least 55% of the time. Similarly, the Rams were 2nd in the NFL in how often they passed the ball inside the 10 yard line in 2021.

There was an enormous shift in the RZ play calling by McVay once he had Stafford at QB. The Rams only threw the ball about 30% of the time inside the 5 back when Goff was QB, less than half the rate they did in 2021 with Stafford running the show. A similar split applied to plays inside the 10 yard line, with the Rams passing it about twice as frequently with Stafford. On all RZ plays, there was a 20 percentage point jump in how frequently the Rams passed the ball in 2021 compared with 2020.

In 2022, Jared Goff threw a TD on 45.5% of his attempts inside the 10 yard line. This was the best rate in the NFL among QBs with at least 25 such attempts. Stafford had enough attempts to qualify, but only had a rate of 21.4%. In 2021, when Stafford had the most passing TDs inside the 10 yard line in the NFL, he had a TD rate of 40.6%. In 2021, Goff only completed 45% of his red zone passes, the 2nd worst mark among qualifying QBs, ahead of only Daniel Jones of the Giants.

Not surprisingly, the main driver of the 2021 red zone success was Cooper Kupp. CK saw 22 targets inside the 10 yard line. No other NFL receiver had more than 15 targets. Kupp had so many RZ targets, he had as many as the combined total of Travis Kelce, Ja'Marr Chase and George Kittle.

In an injury shortened 2022, Kupp was greatly limited as a RZ factor, seeing fewer than 25% as many targets. Meanwhile, Allen Robinson was where Stafford's RZ passing attempts went to die. Robinson only had a 36% completion rate when targeted in the RZ in 2022.

Red Zone Rushing

In 2021, Hendo, Sony Michel and Akers combined for 46 rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line. They scored 6 TDs, which is a score on 13% of such attempts.

In 2020, Akers, Hendo and Brown had 55 combined rushing attempts inside the 10 and scored 11 TDs, a conversion rate of 20%.

The flip side of Stafford having so many passing attempts inside the 10 yard line in 2021 was that the Rams had a very anemic run game in that area of the field. Their RBs didn't score many TDs and didn't have many rushing attempts relative to the number of red zone drives. I was very concerned about the Rams only having a 20% success rate in 2020 rushing for TDs, but the following year that rate declined even more.

In 2022, Akers, Hendo and Brown had 9 TDs on 24 rushing attempts, a much healthier 37.5% conversion rate, but not a large volume of close range rushing TDs. If we compare the Eagles as an example, they got 11 rushing TDs from Jalen Hurts, then on top of that added 15 rushing TDs from their top 3 running backs.

There is also a "small sample size" element to the stats for Akers, due to his bizarre 2022 season, because almost all of his rushing TDs came in only 2 games. He had 3 rushing TDs in the blowout 51-14 win against the Broncos. So, was this statistical improvement a real thing or just a fluke due to Akers having very little production over the first half of the 2022 season?

The Eagles RBs averaged 2.79 yards per attempt inside the 10 and 4.66 yards per attempt inside the 20. The Rams RBs only averaged 2.21 yards per attempt inside the 10 and 2.75 yards per attempt inside the 20. So, the Rams ran for nearly 2 fewer yards per attempt with their RBs inside the 20 compared with the Eagles.

For the Lions, Swift and Jamaal Williams combined for 19 rushing TDs. They only had 2.73 yards per attempt inside the 20, which perhaps surprisingly was even worse than the Rams.

Solving the Puzzle in 2023

There is at least hope for the Rams in 2023, because if you could combine the improved rushing stats inside the 10 yard line in 2022 with Stafford's 2021 red zone passing numbers, you would get a really good red zone offense.

How to go about achieving such a result from a scheme standpoint is unclear. Allen Robinson is no longer on the roster, so when the Rams get down into the RZ, who else on paper would be a legitimate RZ threat other than Cooper Kupp? Will the integration of Steve Avila into the OL help to improve the rushing attack near the GL or do the Rams still lack the muscle and drive blocking necessary to punch the ball in from close range?

I think it will be challenging for the 2023 team to match the 2021 squad in terms of overall offensive explosiveness, because the 2021 team had the 7th ranked OL in the NFL, led by Andrew Whitworth, plus guys like Austin Corbett and a career best season from Brian Allen. The Rams also had Odell Beckham Jr. for half of that season. If the Rams can't generate a very high percentage of drives that result in RZ trips, an alternative way of trying to squeeze more points out of each drive is to boost their RZ efficiency. In my view, this is a much more realistic way to create offensive production and achieve an unexpectedly good 2023 season, winning more games than predicted by the experts.

Scoring TDs in the RZ could become even more important for the Rams, because of the uncertainty at the K position. If the Rams end up rolling with a rookie UDFA kicker, do you really want to keep putting the game on his shoulders and expect him to repeatedly make clutch FGs?

The Rams were 1st in the NFL in red zone defense in 2022. They were 8th in RZ defense in 2021. Fans have given Raheem Morris plenty of grief, but given the cards he had to work with, his big picture strategy largely worked: don't give up a bunch of big plays, play soft in the middle of the field, then stiffen up in the RZ and force the opponent to kick FGs instead of surrendering TDs. The bigger issue arguably had nothing to do with the defense, it was that the offense wasn't as good as advertised in 2022.

Bottom line is if the Rams can continue to play good RZ defense in 2023 and become better offensively, including RZ offense in 2023, they could have something cooking. The Rams could be a "greater than the sum of the parts team", where the overall stats in terms of yardage doesn't look so great, but the point differential and more importantly the W and L record keeps them in the hunt for a playoff spot.