Fans of the Los Angeles Rams were up in arms this week after the team’s offense finished with only 10 carries by running backs versus 43 drop backs by quarterback Matthew Stafford in Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sean McVay, of course, pulls the strings of the Rams offense, but a key focus of this past offseason was a revamping of LA’s running game. This was an important aspect in McVay’s choice to hire Mike LaFleur as offensive coordinator, though LaFleur’s comments in the days following the game suggest he and McVay may not regret much in terms of how the play calling and run/pass mix unfolded:
“What we’re always going to want to do is still to help our pass protection out, still continue to get a run game going, not abandon the run in the fourth quarter and that’s something you always want to do... The thing about what Lou does in Cincinnati is they don’t allow you at times. You want to stay balanced, but if they’re telling you you’re not running the ball here, you’re not running the ball here based on the pump block-type pressures that they’re bringing in those situations.
So there was a lot of runs called that unfortunately had to get checked out of it into some passes and some of the results were good and some of them weren’t as good. So again, you always want to stay balanced, but you’re also not going to just go beat your head against the wall if they’re saying you’re not going to do it.”
When LaFleur says the Bengals were telling the Rams they couldn’t run the ball he means that Cincinnati was aligning their defense with extra defenders loaded near the line of scrimmage—a look that increases the difficulty for the run but provides favorable matchups in the passing game. According to LaFleur, the Rams had run plays called at times but Stafford instead checked into a pass at the line after seeing how the defense was playing them.
I understand why fans are frustrated at the high volume of passing plays, especially in the red zone; however, it’s usually sound logic to pass often against stacked boxes. In some ways the passing attack can become an extension of the running game with high-percentage completions that circumvent the strength of the defense.
See the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Herbert this weekend versus the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, the Vikings defense may be one of the most ineffective units across the NFL, but with Austin Ekeler out the Chargers were forced to find something run game-adjacent and find easy yardage against aggressive opposition.
Herbert had a high volume of passes behind the line of scrimmage, which effectively operate as long handoffs and can stress defenses horizontally. You don’t want to call too many of these plays, but they can be used to help your quarterback work into a rhythm and get the ball in the hands of your skill players. Wait for the down field shots to present themselves and go for the kill when the moment arises. Overall, this is an impressive display of balance, patient quarterbacking. It’s surgical.
But Rams offense felt much more disjointed against the Bengals, even on the first drive before they lost multiple starters along the offensive line and before Cincinnati’s pass rush started hitting home. Stafford felt off from his first few pass attempts and never really found his footing.
You can this in his pass chart below where it feels a bit scattershot and there are few areas of concentrated green dots. A negative 7.6% completion percentage over expected (CPOE) suggests an erratic night for LA’s signal caller as well. While Stafford was effective on his deep shots, the Rams may have benefitted overall by pivoting to a quicker passing game.
Against the Bengals, Stafford had a box score completion percentage of 54.5% which ranked 27th among passers with more than 12 drop backs in Week 3 according to PFF tracking data. PFF credited Rams receivers with one drop in Cincinnati. After accounting for said drop and how many throws by Stafford were “unaimed”, the analytics outlet shows LA’s signal caller had an adjusted completion percentage of 59.4%. This ranked 32nd of 33 quarterbacks using the same minimum.
Before you say that Monday night’s game was an anomaly—that the Rams offensive line and poor pass protection is the source of the offense’s issues—it’s worth noting that through three weeks Stafford is 26th of 34 quarterbacks with more than 28 drop backs in traditional completion percentage (60.3%) and 23rd of 34 in adjusted completion rate (71.8%).
To Stafford’s credit he’s towards the top of the NFL—8th of 34—through three weeks in average depth of target (ADOT) according to PFF, and generally ADOP and completion percentage have a mostly inverse relationship.
Still, the Rams have leaned heavily on Stafford since he arrived in Los Angeles three seasons ago and they are going to do so for the remainder of the 2023 season. If the Rams want to be a playoff team, they need their franchise quarterback to be more consistent, efficient, and raise his level of play from where it was Monday night against the Bengals.
It’s OK that the Rams passed the ball as much as they did in Cincinnati despite the criticism by fans. The game plan and end result would be remembered much more fondly if Stafford played better.
Los Angeles will have an opportunity to rebound and end their two-game slide on Sunday morning against Anthony Richardson and the Indianapolis Colts.