For the second straight year, the Rams are 3-1 at the quarter mark of the season. And … that’s about where any similarities between Jeff Fisher’s 2016 squad and first-time head coach Sean McVay’s group end.
Yeah, many of the players from last year’s team remain. But with a revamped coaching staff, a schematic overhaul, a few key offseason personnel acquisitions, and an upgraded white-horned helmet, this year’s Rams don’t look or feel much like the team that ended up losing 11 of its final 12 games. I never trusted that group’s early success, but this year’s team has me buying in. The Rams still have a talented and disruptive defensive unit, but the team has finally achieved some balance—and its newly dynamic offense should help them avoid a repeat meltdown performance.
This Rams group leads the league in points (35.5 per game) and has averaged 6.4 yards per play (second); second-year quarterback Jared Goff leads all passers with 9.2 yards per attempt. The Rams haven’t finished higher than 21st in scoring since 2006, and all of a sudden, they look like the second coming of the Greatest Show on Turf. So where the hell is this coming from?
The team’s resurgence starts with Goff, who looks like a completely different player in his second year. As a rookie, all the red flags of a big-time bust were there. He was skittish and frenetic in the pocket, and while you’d expect any rookie to struggle in the face of pressure (and he did—the Rams offense registered an NFL-worst negative-126.5 percent DVOA in these situations, per Football Outsiders), he was worryingly terrible even when gifted a clean pocket. The team registered a league-worst negative-45.2 percent DVOA on those plays. This year, Goff has played with veteran-like calm and poise in just about every situation, especially with a clean pocket, where he leads the NFL in passer rating (128), has gained 738 yards, and has scored six touchdowns against one interception.
McVay was hired to fix that disjointed, erratic offense, and so far he’s replaced whatever it was the team ran last year with a creative, rhythm-focused passing game. The first order of business was to fix some of the mechanical issues that plagued Goff in his first season, and McVay has provided his quarterback a heavy dose of what Trent Dilfer described to The Ringer’s Robert Mays as “gimme plays.” He designed formations that allow Goff to make easy pre-snap reads for where to throw the ball, and the route combinations—usually involving bunched or stacked receivers on one side of the field—are designed to, as Mays wrote, create separation early in the route to make Goff’s decision-making process, and his throws, easier. In the same way that a 3-point shooter can get hot once he gets into a rhythm, these short, easy-win throws build confidence and help Goff rip it in the intermediate and deep game.
The result? Goff’s year-to-year numbers are up across the board, and he’s throwing the ball deeper more often this year, and with better success. His average completed air yards, i.e., how far the ball is traveling downfield before it’s caught, is up from 5.5 last year to 7.4 this season while his accuracy percentage, a Pro Football Focus stat that discounts throwaways and batted passes, is up from 67.4 percent to 72.7 percent.
But a fresh batch of easy-win passes alone couldn’t be enough to turn Goff into a competent pro passer. The Rams needed more from third-year running back Todd Gurley to stress defenses and take pressure off their quarterback. They’ve gotten it: The former Georgia star has made a case for himself as the league’s MVP through four weeks, scoring a league-high seven all-purpose touchdowns. He’s second in the NFL in carries (86) and yards (362), and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (4); among running backs, he is fifth in catches (20), second in receiving yards (234), and first in receiving touchdowns (3). He’s been the foundation of the Rams’ offensive attack, leading the team in both rushing and receiving.
As a runner, he’s showing some of the creativity and elusiveness that we saw his rookie year, but was missing from his game last year. He’s back to barreling through arm-tackle attempts, picking up extra yards, and hurdling defenders in the open field.
The Rams’ run game, which averaged just 78.3 yards per game and 3.3 yards per rush last year, has seen clear improvement, up to 113.5 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. But to supplement the rushing attack, McVay and Goff have heavily used Gurley as a pass catcher as well. One way to get Gurley even more involved in the offense is to use him on screen plays, where McVay’s clever designs have given him a chance to work in space. Against Washington in Week 2, Los Angeles lined up with a trips formation tight to the right. All three of those routes angled toward the middle of the field, which created a huge traffic jam—which linebacker Zach Brown had to sift through in order to run with Gurley. That moment of hesitation the routes created was enough, and Gurley was off to the races.
Gurley has also been a weapon as a simple dump-off option. When deep routes downfield don’t open up, the back has done a great job of giving Goff another option. And against San Francisco in Week 3, Gurley turned one of these check-downs into an explosive play.
By getting Gurley the ball through a mix of runs, screens, and check-down passes, McVay has done something this year that Fisher and his staff never showed the ability to do last season: fully utilize one of the team’s most talented players. Hell, it doesn’t stop at Gurley, either, because McVay has been able to get the most out of Tavon Austin, too. Austin may be limited as a route runner and hasn’t yet developed into a downfield threat that can separate from coverage, maintain leverage, or go up and get the ball, but he’s always had incredible speed and quickness in space, and the Rams have done a good job of using that so far this season. They’ve lined up Austin in the backfield as a de facto running back at times, and he’s second on the team in rushing with 81 yards on 14 attempts. Some of those attempts and yards, though, have come on end-arounds and sweep plays, like these two, which gained a combined 21 yards against the Cowboys.
Austin’s not just a gadget player in the bigger scheme of things, though, because even if he’s not getting a handoff, using him to run across a formation before the snap can help create for the team’s other offensive players. Against the Colts in Week 1, that backfield motion toward the right side of the field (combined with routes that ran in that direction post-snap) helped draw nearly the entire Indianapolis defense out of position. That left just one defender on the backside, where the screen play was designed to go. Gurley picked up 23 yards.
In Week 3 in San Francisco, the same concept helped spring Gurley for a big run. As Austin ran a pre-snap sweep fake to the right, he drew the attention of four defenders. That helped give the Rams a huge numbers advantage (in blockers versus defenders) on the left, and Gurley broke a couple of tackles to pick up 10 yards.
That sweep-action fake was effective again last week in Dallas. As Austin motioned toward the right, he drew the attention of a pair of Cowboys defenders, which allowed Gurley to sneak right past them on a skinny post route. Goff hit Gurley in stride, and he broke free for a 53-yard touchdown.
The team’s new additions are paying huge dividends as well. McVay is still just scratching the surface with what he can do with Sammy Watkins—the fourth-year pass catcher has yet to fully integrate himself into the passing game after arriving to camp late in the offseason—but through the first month of the season, Watkins has turned 16 targets into 14 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, including a beastly catch-and-run against the 49ers in which he broke a few tackles to reach over the goal line and score. Watkins hasn’t been prolific, but he’s been incredibly efficient with his chances, and ranks first in DVOA (value per play) among all receivers. Then there’s third-round pick Cooper Kupp out of Eastern Washington: The FCS record holder for career catches has already shown flashes as a reliable threat from the slot, capable of separating with quick footwork and sharp routes. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who earned a three-year, $33.75 million contract over the offseason, has been a big pickup for this young team as well. The 35-year-old vet has been a rock on the blindside for Goff, and has given up just one pressure in four starts.
Put it all together—Gurley making plays all over the field, Watkins beating coverage on the outside, Kupp working the middle of the field, Austin keeping everyone on defense honest, and an improved offensive line that’s shown the ability to give its quarterback time to throw—and McVay has created the perfect situation for Goff to thrive. There are bound to be peaks and valleys performance-wise, and the team gets a great test this week against the Seahawks, but over the course of an offseason, the Rams offense has gone from a group that could do just about nothing right to a unit that can beat you in any number of ways. The Rams defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was last year—Wade Phillips’s squad ranks just 13th in defensive DVOA through four weeks—but that hasn’t mattered, because Los Angeles finally has an offense that can pick up the slack.