2023 Game 4 OL Preview

We'll be Singing When We're Winning

The Rams got knocked down vs the Bengals on MNF, but they'll get back up again, because you're never going to keep the Rams down. While waiting for that day to come, let's play a song to remind us of the good times and the best times, in the form of the numerous times the Rams beat down on the Colts over the years.

December 2001: 42-17 Rams victory

Rams OL: Pace, Nutten, McCollum, Timmerman, Ryan Tucker

Colts OL: Tarik Glenn, Steve McKinney, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, Adam Meadows

The 4th NFL season for Peyton Manning, playing with a talented OL and leading the 2nd best offense in the league. The Colts had the worst defense in the NFL despite having Vic Fangio as the DC. Peyton had nearly as many INTs (23) as TDs (26) that year, the 3rd worst passer rating of his career, behind only the season in Denver where he was injured and his rookie season. The Colts finished 6-10.

The GSOT Rams were at the height of their powers. Kurt Warner won his 2nd MVP award in 2001, probably the best single season of his career, despite dealing with a nagging thumb injury for most of the year.

The Colts were tied with the Rams 14-14 early in the 2nd quarter, but were unable to keep pace with the explosive Rams offense. Holt had 203 receiving yards and 2 TDs. Faulk had 118 rushing yards and 3 TDs.

November 2013: 38-8 Rams victory

Rams OL: Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Joe Barksdale, Saffold

Colts OL: Anthony Castonzo, Hugh Thornton, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, Gosder Cherilus

The 7-9 Jeff Fisher led Rams weren't a strong club and started Kellen Clemens at QB, but surprised a Colts team that would go 11-5 and advance to the divisional round of the playoffs before falling to the Patriots.

This game was famous for huge performances from Tavon Austin and Robert Quinn. Tavon had a 98 yard punt return TD (off of Pat McAfee) and 2 long TD catches. Quinn wrecked the game, including a strip sack that Chris Long returned for a TD, causing Chuck Pagano, the HC for the Colts, to have a meltdown on the sideline. Andrew Luck had 3 INTs.

September 2017: 46-9 Rams victory

Rams OL: Whitworth, Saffold, Sullivan, Jamon Brown, Havenstein

Colts OL: Castonzo, Jeremy Vujnovich, Deyshawn Bond, Jack Mewhort, Denzelle Good

Sean McVay wins his head coaching debut. Luck missed the entire 2017 with a shoulder issue, Scott Tolzien started at QB in this game. The Colts also were missing Ryan Kelly at center, out after foot surgery. Luck played in 2018, but then abruptly retired prior to the 2019 season.

The impressive performance by the OL for the Rams was a harbinger of things to come. Todd Gurley only had 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 yard average), causing some fans to advocate giving up on him and using the other RBs (I don't even remember the names of the backup RBs on that team.) Jared Goff had 306 passing yards and a TD to Cooper Kupp. Lamarcus Joyner had a pick 6.

The 2017 Colts and Rams game was a key event leading to me beginning to write these weekly OL performance updates, because I felt at the time that the key limiting factor holding back Gurley's production wasn't his individual play, it was the performance of the offensive line.

Almost exactly to this day 6 years ago, I wrote the very first installment of the OL series. In 2016, the Rams finished 29th in Adjusted Line Yards (a Football Outsiders metric measuring run blocking.) After the first 3 games of 2017, the Rams ranked 13th in ALYs. I attached a poll to that first fanpost, soliciting predictions for how the Rams would rank in ALY at the end of the season. 76% of fans predicted that the Rams would finish between 11th and 20th in ALY at the end of the season.

The Rams finished 3rd in ALY in 2017. It was the highest finish by the Rams since 2001, when they lead the NFL in ALY. Todd Gurley was named first team All Pro and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. In one year, the Rams vaulted all the way from near the bottom in ALY to almost the very top. A stunning turnaround. Amazingly, the best was still to come. The Rams obliterated the all time record for ALY the following season in 2018. Gurley had even higher rushing YPC and YPG stats in 2018.

Will the 2023 edition of Colts vs Rams result in another blowout victory for the Rams? Or will the Colts remain in 1st place in their division? The Colts aren't that far off from being 3-0. They had the lead late in the 4th quarter in Week 1, but gave up two late TDs to the Jags to lose. The Colts are ranked 20th in ESPN's power rankings and the Rams are 22nd, so it isn't exactly a marquee matchup for neutral NFL fans. In my view, however, this is a pivotal game for both teams. For the Rams, I consider this week to be the first true "must win" game of the 2023 season.

Colts Preview

The Colts are kind of like the Detroit Lions, in the sense that if they could get all their starters healthy, they'd have one of the best OLs in the NFL, but they can't seem to avoid the injury bug. Ryan Kelly was in the concussion protocol and didn't play their last game, vs the Ravens. Quenton Nelson has been dealing with a toe injury. Their other guard, Will Fries, had been slowed by a calf injury and exited the Ravens game with cramps. Braden Smith, who is one of the top right tackles in the league when he's healthy, had been bothered by a knee injury in training camp and doesn't look like he's in form. Watching him vs the Ravens, he didn't look like he could move normally. He was beaten badly by a basic 2 hand swipe on one play, ruining a potential big gainer. They lost a key backup, Danny Pinter, to a season ending broken ankle.

The Colts are 22nd in pass block win rate, while the Rams are 27th in pass block win rate, not a big difference. The gap is bigger in run blocking, where the Rams are 16th, but the Colts are 6th.

On defense, both the Rams and the Colts are great at run stop win rate, 3rd and 4th place, respectively. The Colts are 8th in pass rush win rate, while the Rams are 17th.

Bernhard Raimann 78.3 PFF (10th out of 67 OTs). He's 5th in run block win rate among OTs.

Quenton Nelson 60.4 PFF (35th out of 76 OGs). He's 16th among interior OL in pass block win rate.

Ryan Kelly 82.8 PFF (1st out of 35 centers). The top IOL in pass block win rate and third in run block win rate.

Will Fries 65.5 PFF (22nd out of 76 OGs)

Braden Smith 62.9 PFF (35th out of 67 OTs)

All 5 starters (assuming Kelly will play) are graded over 60. Below, you'll see that only 1 out of 5 Rams starters grade above 60. Solid, but not great, because normally Braden Smith and Quenton Nelson would be among the best players at their respective positions instead of middle of the pack. If those guys were at their normal performance level, the Colts would have 4 elite starters and be dominating up front.

Sure, Ryan Kelly's grade is impressive, but when they replaced him with backup Wesley French, he graded 43.3, dead last (35th) among qualifying centers, so they literally went from the best C to the worst C in the league. The latest report pointed towards both Kelly and Richardson the QB being cleared to play vs the Rams, which could point to a very challenging day at the office for Aaron Donald and company trying to stop the Colts' ground game.

On defense, Samson Ebukam is 17th in pass rush win rate among EDGE defenders. He's also tied for 5th in run stop win rate. Their other DE, Kwity Paye, ranks 1st in run stop win rate. They also have good DTs with Grover Stewart (85.5 PFF, 9th among DTs), DeForest Buckner (74.9 PFF, 27th DT) and Taven Bryan (68.3 PFF). Running the ball against the Colts isn't going to be easy.

A wild card is safety Rodney Thomas (44.5 PFF, ranked 81st out of 85 safeties), who was a 7th rd pick in 2022 out of Yale. Thomas had a toe injury in camp. While he has a poor PFF grade, he also had 4 INTs in 10 starts as a rookie. When he was drafted, Thomas wasn't supposed to be the starter, because the Colts drafted another S, the speedy Nick Cross out of Illinois, in the 3rd round of the same draft, but Cross has only been a backup and special teams player so far.

Julius Brents made his NFL debut last week and earned an 87.6 PFF grade. Shaq Leonard's numbers haven't been good coming back from injury. He has a 58.6 PFF grade (61st out of 77 LBs) and per PFR his missed tackle rate is about twice as high as normal for him, plus the worst YPC and opposing passer rating of his career in pass coverage.

Running back Zack Moss had 30 carries for 122 yards vs the Ravens, but I didn't think he was overly impressive. He's a smaller back and is sometimes hesitant. A former 3rd rd pick by the Bills, they traded him to the Colts in the middle of his 3rd season. What I see on tape is the Colts are strong and physical run blockers, so the Rams need to battle to hold their ground and not get pushed backwards. A dynamic rushing QB will only make the task more difficult compared with if the Rams could have faced the backup, Gardner Minshew.

Matt Gay was the hero in the win vs the Ravens, becoming the 1st kicker in NFL history to make 4 FGs from 50+ yards in the same game.

Rams Review

Aaron Donald is 4th among DTs in pass rush win rate. Kobie Turner is 17th. Jonah Williams is 5th among DTs in run stop win rate. Former Ram, A'Shawn Robinson, ranks 8th.

Alaric Jackson 53.4 PFF (52nd out of 67 OTs). Zach Thomas has a 22.8 PFF grade.

Steve Avila 56.2 PFF (45th out of 76 OGs). He's 8th among IOL in run block win rate.

Coleman Shelton 67.5 PFF (9th out of 35 centers)

Joe Noteboom 45.5 PFF (68th out of 76 OGs). Tremayne Ancrhum Jr. has a 48.8 PFF grade.

Rob Havenstein 58.6 PFF (41st out of 67 OTs)

Overall, pretty lousy. PFF doesn't like the Rams OL.

Just a Coincidence?

The Colts are 1 of only 4 teams that place in the top 8 in at least 3 of the 4 ESPN defensive line and offensive line win rate metrics. The other 2 teams are the Eagles, Browns and the Bills. Honorable mention to the Seahawks, who are top 11 in all 4 categories. Winning in the trenches matters and this week is going to be a stiff test for the Rams on both sides of the ball.

The Dallas Cowboys were upset by the Arizona Cardinals. Dallas was missing both Zack Martin and Tyler Biadasz, plus 2 other starters were dealing with injuries. The Ravens in their loss to the Colts were missing both Ronnie Stanley and Tyler Linderbaum. No, Zack Martin isn't the reason Dak Prescott threw a bad end zone INT. Not everything involves the OL. Not having Ryan Kelly didn't make Colts QB, Gardner Minshew step on the back line of the end zone for a safety. Still, the OL matters. If the Ravens had all their starters healthy, would they have beaten the Colts last week?

Around the NFL

Former Rams DC, Brandon Staley, has been buried by the TV media for a failed 4th down attempt that nearly cost the Chargers the game vs the Vikings. In my opinion, Staley made the correct decision, the OL just didn't execute the play properly. The Chargers needed less than a yard. They gave the ball to an off set fullback, using the HB as a decoy, which worked. The LB went wide to follow the HB instead of attacking the LOS, taking a defender away from the action. Numerically, all the defenders on the DL were accounted for, the offense just had to surge forward a little so that the FB could plunge forward.

It didn't work. The RT ducked his head and whiffed as the DT swam right over the top of him, directly into the path of the FB. The LT didn't get enough push on his block, allowing the DE to get inside of him on the backside of the play. Other DTs ate up double teams and held the LOS. The blocking doesn't need to be that good to get one yard, but you can't give up penetration right at the point of attack.

A player we take for granted is Tyler Higbee and what he contributes as a blocker. The Detroit Lions have good OL talent, but watching their young RB, Gibbs, last week, a key reason some of his runs didn't work was due to lousy blocking by the TEs (LaPorta and Wright). Josh Reynolds also missed a block. I focus mostly on the OL in these posts, but sometimes the critical block has to be made by a TE or WR, not by one of the offensive linemen.

In the draft, a prospect that many Rams fans were hoping to land was John Michael Schmitz, a 2nd round pick by the Giants. So far, JMS is one of the worst graded centers in the NFL. His 44.8 PFF grade ranks 33rd among 35 centers. For positives, JMS displays a solid base and ability to anchor in pass pro. He has good play strength. He has zero penalties on his stat sheet. That said, I don't think PFF's grade comes out of left field. JMS has issues pass blocking, because he has limited effective length and recovery athleticism. He'll lunge and whiff, beaten by swim moves. One play in their last game, a basic club move destroyed him immediately off the snap, pushing his arm away, and he wasn't quick enough to recover. When helping or reacting to twists, the speed of the NFL game is almost too fast for him, stressing his change of direction ability.

I believe that JMS will improve with more experience. Most IOL rookies struggle in the NFL. His low PFF grade is also probably weighted down by having to face talented defenders in the early games (the Giants played both the Cowboys and the Niners, 2 of the top defenses in the NFL), so we shouldn't overreact to the early results. Nevertheless, it hasn't been a stellar start for JMS and the rest of the NYG offensive line.

Brian Allen right now probably would be a better performing center than JMS. Last year, Allen had a 63.8 PFF grade. When Allen struggled in 2019, he had a 58.6 PFF grade. If the Rams had drafted JMS, instead of upgrading the center position, it is possible that the exact opposite would be happening, the Rams would have taken a step backwards. Alternatively, maybe JMS wouldn't be starting, he might be on the bench behind Coleman Shelton. Conceivably, JMS would be the 3rd string center for the Rams, behind both Shelton and Brian Allen.