Will PFF be Wrong Again?
Well, this should be fun. Maybe "fun" isn't the right word. Interesting? Unpredictable? The start of the 2023 NFL regular season is almost here. What will the coming season hold in store for the Rams' offensive line? Will they be surprisingly good or will they struggle like they did in 2022?
Recent history tells us that predicting OL performance by the Rams can be a foolhardy endeavor. Over the last 4 seasons, PFF has been "right" about their OL predictions for the Rams only 1 time. The other 3 seasons, things have turned out almost the exact opposite of what they predicted.
In 2019, coming off a Super Bowl appearance that was powered by the 6th ranked OL, PFF predicted that the Rams would have the 13th ranked OL. Instead, 2019 was a disaster for anyone not named Andrew Whitworth and the Rams finished 31st. The following year, PFF projected the Rams to be 25th. Wrong again, as the Rams were near the top of the table, ranking 3rd.
The 2021 Super Bowl team was the only season that PFF got it right. Their prediction (8th) almost nailed the actual season ending ranking (7th) and the OL once again was a key factor behind a successful season. In 2022, the Rams were projected to be 11th, but were hit by a string of injuries early in the season and finished 25th.
Entering 2023, PFF projects the Rams to have the 28th ranked OL, the lowest preseason ranking for the Rams by PFF since 2016, when they had the Rams 31st to begin the season.
If the PFF "counter jinx" works in 2023, the Rams could have a surprisingly good OL, possibly helping the team to a surprise playoff push.
According to PFF, the Rams shifted away from zone run concepts in 2022 and had the 5th highest rate of using "duo" runs (24.7% of their runs.) PFF noted that Matt LeFleur with the Jets had the lowest rate of "duo" runs in the NFL at only 3.5%. Will the Rams continue to call duo plays or will the influence of LeFleur result in a dramatic shift in how the Rams run the ball?
Duo is essentially a straight ahead run between the tackles that uses two double team blocks. An example of a duo run from last season was by Cam Akers in the final game of the season, against Seattle. The first double team, by Skura and Shelton doesn't do anything. Brewer and Hav work another double against the 3 tech DT. Brewer loses his footing, but Hav does a great job burying the DT and pushing him sideways to open a gap at the line. This draws in the LB to fill that void. Higbee and Powell are attached to the right side of the line. Higbee does a nice job, but Powell gets rag dolled and discarded. Akers sees the LB fill and cuts to the outside. The key reason the run breaks big is the CB for Seattle is clueless. I have no idea what he's doing, he goes the wrong way and completely loses edge containment.
The first point I'd make about this play is it illustrates how one factor behind why Akers piled up so many yards against weak run defenses late in the 2022 season is due to terrible mistakes by the defense, not necessarily by great execution by the Rams. On another play in the Seattle game, Brycen Hopkins playing FB gets destroyed by the OLB, but once again the CB is completely out of position. Another example is vs the Chargers, the defense should have been able to contain a pin and pull run by the Rams, but the CB messes up and loses edge containment, playing the wrong leverage vs his blocker. It is important for your OL to block well, but there are times where the defense just rolls out the red carpet by not doing their jobs correctly.
A second point I'd make is on the duo runs last season, 2 critical players were Havenstein and Higbee. Hav generates movement at the LOS and even though the TE isn't involved in the double teams, often the RB ends up cutting his way, so Higbee's ability to sustain his block at the point of attack and hold his ground was imperative to opening up a lane for the RB. I bust Higbee's chops sometimes when he doesn't secure blocks, but on a number of other plays, Higbee makes some excellent blocks, so the importance of his role in helping the run game go shouldn't be forgotten.
Another thing about Hav is he has nifty feet for an OT who is supposed to be slow and not athletic. An example is a draw play where the RT has to reach and seal the DT. That's not an easy block, you have to have lateral range and swing your hips all the way around to the other side of the defender, but Hav's technique is super clean and handles the assignment perfectly. Hav is a versatile run blocker. He can torque defenders and kick them out, he can push them and displace them out of their gaps and he can execute these types of "agile" blocks where he has to move. He's not a one dimensional run blocker.
PFF says that the Jets and LeFleur were 4th in the NFL in the frequency of calling power runs in 2022. Power typically involves the guard pulling around to the other side of the formation and leading the way for the RB. It used to be a staple of NFL playbooks, but as zone runs became more widespread and fullbacks have disappeared, any team that isn't the Baltimore Ravens don't use it very often. Power is old school, smashmouth style football. Kevin Dotson fits the mold of a lineman you'd use for power concepts.
The Rams sometimes do other things that are interesting. They have a trap play where the C folds around the G. Skowronek helps to diversify the playbook, because you can use him on fullback iso or as the WR on pin and pull tosses to the corner. One of the most intriguing questions for 2023 is to see exactly how McVay and LeFleur will try to run the ball. Will the Rams try to be more physical and use more power runs and if so, do we have the right type of linemen to execute those plays effectively?
Seattle was 30th in the NFL in run defense. They were 27th in opponent yards per carry. Of course, now they have Bobby Wagner, so maybe they will be much improved vs the run. The Rams might be catching them at the right time. Rookie Devon Witherspoon is a very physical and aggressive CB, but he's been injured and it is unclear whether he'll be in action vs the Rams. Same for Jamal Adams, who came off the PUP list, but reports are he's not expected to play in the opener. So, later in the year Seattle might have a very good run defense, it just might not be in game 1.
Their projected OL starters, with last season's INDEX performance points in parentheses:
Charles Cross (121.1)
Damien Lewis (132.5)
Evan Brown (108.8)
Phil Hayes (not enough starts to qualify, 79.1)
Abraham Lucas (134.4)
Backups: Stone Forsythe (37 PFF grade in limited action last season), Olu Oluwatimi (5th rd rookie), Anthony Bradford (4th rd rookie, 43.7 PFF this preseason), Jake Curhan
PFF projects Seattle to have the 30th ranked OL this season, worse than the Rams, but this feels like it could be too low. Both Cross and Lucas had solid years as rookie OTs and if they both take steps forward as sophomores, Seattle should be solid on the outside. Brown was a reliable backup for the Detroit Lions, but he seemed to struggle last season. If he can bounce back, he potentially could end up better than whoever the Rams start at C. If either Brown or Hayes don't play well, the Hawks do have other options in the rookies they drafted.
Rams projected starters:
Alaric Jackson (not enough starts to qualify, 86.1)
Steve Avila (2nd rd rookie)
Coleman Shelton (98, PFF graded 30th out of 36 centers)
Tremayne Anchrum (not enough starts to qualify)
Rob Havenstein (133.2)
Backups: Brian Allen, Zach Thomas, Kevin Dotson (139.4), Joe Noteboom, Warren McClendon (5th rd rookie)
Dotson didn't have enough starts to qualify in 2021, but had 100.5 INDEX points that season, so if you went purely off the metrics, he probably should be one of the starting guards for the Rams. Maybe that hels to explain why we traded for him.
As you can see, the Rams have a ton of question marks, considering that only 1 of the 5 projected starters (Hav) even played enough in 2022 to qualify for "official" INDEX scores. This is what makes 2023 such an interesting year. Do the Rams have some secret stars on the OL who are about to break out or do they have an OL that is comprised of mostly backup level players? We'll find out soon enough.