Remember when the Rams looked like the worst team in NFL history? In their first game since moving to Los Angeles, they got blanked, 28–0, by the Blaine Gabbert–led San Francisco 49ers, could only manage a whopping 185 yards of total offense, and saw their superstar defensive lineman, Aaron Donald, get ejected midway through the fourth quarter.
On Hard Knocks, Jeff Fisher told his players at training camp, “I’m not fucking going 7–9.” And after Week 1, it looked like he’d be lucky to lose only nine games.
Well, three weeks later, the Rams haven’t lost another game. They’ve won games against supposed Super Bowl contenders and in-division competitors Seattle and Arizona. And now they’re 3–1, two games over .500 for the first time since Week 7 of the 2006 season, tied atop the NFC West.
In the past four years, the Rams have consecutively finished 7–8–1, 7–9, 6–10, and 7–9. In those seasons, they’ve always had the combination of a bad offense and a good-not-great defense: They’ve ranked 25th, 21st, 21st, and 29th in points scored over the past four years, while finishing tied for 14th, 13th, tied for 16th, 13th in points allowed. The efficiency stats from Football Outsiders paint the same exact picture: The Rams ranked 29th, 25th, 22nd, and 21st in offensive DVOA in Fisher’s last four seasons, while finishing seventh, ninth, 11th, and seventh in defensive DVOA. It had gotten to the point where no matter what players Fisher had on the field, the Rams were essentially going to be the same exact team every single year.
Despite their winning record, this year’s team isn’t likely to change that.
The Rams gave the Titans two first-, two second-, and two third-round picks for the opportunity to take Jared Goff no. 1 in April’s draft. Yet, while no. 2 pick Carson Wentz has led the Eagles to an undefeated start, Goff hasn’t left the bench. Until he cracks the starting lineup, L.A.’s offense will go as far as Case Keenum will take it — and that isn’t going to be very far if he continues with a 55 percent completion rate, a 4–3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 6.8 yards per attempt, and a 77.3 passer rating.
Through four weeks, just 22.9 percent of the Rams’ offensive drives have ended in a score (30th in the league). They’re 30th in points per game (15.8), last in yards per play (4.6), 31st in first downs (57), tied for 21st in passing touchdowns (4), and 23rd in yards per attempt (6.8). Running back Todd Gurley is supposed to be the foundational piece of their offense, but a combination of poor reads and bad blocking from the offensive line, which ranks 27th in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards, has last season’s Rookie of the Year sitting at just 2.6 yards per rush attempt and 54 yards per game.
After the team signed Tavon Austin to a four-year, $42 million contract extension in August, Fisher clearly wanted to get him to 100-plus catches this year, but the fourth-year wideout hasn’t done his part. The speedy slot receiver has seen 36 targets — almost 30 percent of the team’s total — but has just 16 catches for 159 yards (9.9 yards per catch) and one touchdown. In comparison, Brian Quick has turned his 14 targets into eight catches, 153 yards (19.1 yards per catch), and three touchdowns, while Kenny Britt has turned 26 targets into 18 catches for 281 yards (15.6 yards per catch). If it isn’t the league’s worst, the Rams’ passing game is certainly among them. So, if they’re going to contend for the playoffs this year, it’s going to be because of their defense.
For the Rams to correctly emulate the model the Broncos used to win the Super Bowl — i.e., the “let’s ride our defense to the playoffs” plan — they have to be world-beaters on the defensive side of the ball. So far, they’ve been very good, but as in the previous four seasons, they haven’t been great.
If there’s one reason to expect this group to take a leap, it’s because of its improved health. The Rams finished as the seventh-ranked defense per DVOA last year despite missing cornerback E.J. Gaines (all year), defensive end Robert Quinn (eight games), linebacker Alec Ogletree (12 games), and safety T.J. McDonald (five games) for long stretches of the season. Gaines, Quinn, Ogletree, and McDonald are all back, and because they each play a key role in L.A.’s defense, this Rams group has the potential to be better than ever.
Coming off the back surgery that sidelined him last year, Quinn is already back to consistently creating pressure on the edge, and pairing him with Aaron Donald is terrifying for opposing offensive lines. Through four games, Donald has 25 pressures and his 13.4 pressure percentage (pressures divided by rushes) is best in the league per Pro Football Focus. That’s impressive in and of itself, but it’s even more ridiculous when you remember that he’s an inside rusher and not a defensive end. At his current rate, Donald would finish with 100 pressures, 21 more than the 79 he finished with last season. He’s absurdly good, and having a healthy Quinn next to him means that only one of them is getting double-teamed. And if any team is dumb enough to not double-team either of them, then it’s curtains for quarterbacks.
Take this play from last week. On a key Arizona third-and-8 midway through the second quarter, the combined pressure that Quinn and Donald brought from the right and up the middle forced Carson Palmer to get rid of the ball too quickly. Since the timing was off, Chris Johnson turned his head too late, and the drive was dead.
Donald can pretty much do it on his own, too. Early in the third quarter, he beat D.J. Humphries with a great swim move, sacked Palmer, and forced a fumble that the Rams recovered.
When the Rams aren’t getting pressure from Donald, they do a good job of manufacturing it by sending a corner, safety, or linebacker in to try to overwhelm the line. In the first quarter, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sent safety Maurice Alexander off the edge, and he beat Johnson’s pickup to sack Palmer.
In the second quarter, Williams dialed up a blitz that saw nickelback LaMarcus Joyner rush off the edge and Ogletree rush through the B gap. The pressure they created forced Palmer to throw quickly, and cornerback Trumaine Johnson almost picked it off.
Through four games, Johnson has shown why the Rams franchise-tagged him back in March. Against Arizona, he was targeted 12 times, gave up just five catches, and had six pass breakups and an interception.
While the Rams have an excellent, disruptive pass rush and have racked up nine takeaways (tied for third in the league), most key defensive stats paint the picture of a “good” defense, not an elite unit that can carry their offense to the promised land. L.A. ranks ninth in opponent points per game (19) and 10th in yards per play (5.1). They’re surrendering 3.7 yards per carry (11th) and 6.6 yards per attempt (8th). They’ve allowed four rushing touchdowns (tied for 20th) and five passing scores (tied for 11th). And they rank 12th in defensive DVOA.
To improve, they need to get more consistent tackling from their linebacking corps and play a little more disciplined in their run gaps, and between Troy Hill, Coty Sensabaugh, and Gaines, they have to iron out the rotations among their cornerbacks that play opposite Johnson.
Those big in-division wins over the Seahawks and Cardinals are certainly impressive, but as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to 7–9 seasons for eternity. Under Fisher, the Rams are 13–13–1 in NFC West games and 17–24 against everyone else. They’re no stranger to surprising wins, either. They beat Seattle twice and won in Arizona last year, but ended up winning just seven games. They beat the Seahawks and Broncos in 2014, but won just six games. To their fans’ everlasting chagrin, those “statement” games tended to be followed by duds.
Considering all that, it should take more than two division wins and a comeback victory over the Bucs to convince anyone that the Rams are for real. While they sit at 3–1, they have been outscored by 13 points. They’re still just 29th in ESPN’s Football Power Index and rank 24th in Football Outsiders DVOA. The offense is a mess, and the current improvements on defense won’t be enough to mask just how bad they are on the other side of the ball over the course of a 16-game season.
The Rams are the perfect example of why you shouldn’t trust what happens in Week 1. But they’re a pretty good example for why you shouldn’t trust what happens in weeks 2 through 4 either.