The Rams just don’t look like themselves. Sure, the defending NFC champions are 3-1 and still generally considered Super Bowl contenders, but anyone who has watched Sean McVay’s team this season knows that something isn’t right. The 2019 Rams aren’t the team that took the league by storm in 2017 and 2018 with one of the most interesting and effective offenses in football.
The raw numbers between this season and last show a moderate but notable decline: After ranking second in offensive DVOA last year, Los Angeles is 11th this season; the team went from second in points and yards to sixth in points and seventh in yards. Those downward shifts are the offensive equivalent of the 3.6 roentgen measurement in Chernobyl: not great, not terrible. (The positive for the Rams is that their offensive meltdown is actually at the equivalent of 3.6 roentgen and not, you know, 15,000.) But for a team that previously tore apart NFL defenses with ease, it’s enough to question whether it can once again contend for a championship.
L.A. returned all of its big names: Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, who is now healthy after a season-ending ACL tear last year. So what happened? Let’s dive deep into the Rams’ issues, starting with the guys up front:
It All Starts With the Offensive Line
It’s a cliché to say that NFL games are won and lost in the trenches, but, at least to some extent, they are. The Rams didn’t just build their world-beating offense on the back of McVay’s beautiful mind—they did so with the best offensive line in football. Last year, the Rams ranked fifth in the NFL in pass blocking, per Pro Football Focus, and were first in run blocking. They also ranked first in ESPN’s pass-block win rate after ranking second in 2017. The team’s use of 11 personnel, presnap motion, under-center looks, and everything else McVay cooked up was brilliant, but the engine of the Rams offense was a line that simply mauled opposing defenses.
This season, though, that unit looks considerably different. The Rams let left guard Rodger Saffold walk in free agency, and replaced him with 2018 third-round pick Joseph Noteboom; they also declined to pick up center John Sullivan’s option, and replaced him with 2018 fourth-rounder Brian Allen. They did bring back Andrew Whitworth, though the reliable left tackle is now 37 and clearly far from his All-Pro 2017 form. On the whole, the offensive line has been a disaster.
Whitworth is still the Rams’ best lineman, but he ranks just 31st in the league in PFF’s tackle grades out of 78 qualified players, and right tackle Rob Havenstein is 71st. The interior of the line is even worse: Right guard Austin Blythe is 71st out of 75 qualified guards, Noteboom is 72nd, and Allen is 29th out of 32 qualified centers.
As a whole, the Rams rank 31st in pass blocking and 32nd in run blocking, per PFF, and 28th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate. L.A. has arguably the worst offensive line in football a year after having the NFL’s best, and that steep decline has had a ripple effect on every other area of the offense.
Jared Goff Isn’t Himself When He’s Under Pressure
A bad offensive line creates tons of problems for the quarterback behind it, and Goff has faced pressure on 43.2 percent of his dropbacks this season, the fourth-highest mark in the league (behind Daniel Jones, Kirk Cousins, and Deshaun Watson), per PFF. Last year he faced pressure on 32.0 percent of dropbacks, which was 26th-highest out of 39 passers. To Goff’s credit, he’s been terrific at not letting that pressure turn into sacks, taking them on just 4.4 percent of his dropbacks, which is the ninth-lowest mark in the NFL. When he does take sacks, though, they often result in disastrous fumbles—and even when he avoids defenders, the pressure affects the rest of his play.
Goff is prone to missing open receivers when he is forced to move off his spot, like this whiff in the third quarter of the team’s Week 4 tilt against the Buccaneers, which was intended for Brandin Cooks:
Goff has a passer rating of 62.1 when under pressure, which ranks 24th out of 38 qualified passers, per PFF. By contrast, he has a passer rating of 97.0 when kept clean. But because he’s faced pressure on such a high percentage of dropbacks, the overall efficiency of the offense has been dramatically reduced: Goff is tied for the league high in interceptions (with six), has just six touchdowns, is 25th in adjusted net yards per attempt and 26th in QBR. It wouldn’t be easy for any quarterback to operate with this level of pressure, but Goff just hasn’t developed as a dropback passer in the way L.A. needs him to. That should be extremely concerning for the Rams, who just handed $110 million in guaranteed money to a QB who may need an impeccable offensive line, scheme, and playmakers around him to be effective.
The Team Can’t Take the Top Off Defenses
Pressure makes everything more difficult—especially going deep. Of any QB who has attempted at least 100 passes so far this year, Goff’s 5.2 deep-pass percentage (the rate of passes that travel 20-plus yards downfield) is the lowest. Joe Flacco is second lowest, at 7.4 percent. Last season, Goff went deep 11.6 percent of the time. That number was roughly middle of the pack—Goff isn’t Patrick Mahomes—but it’s also more than double his deep-attempt frequency this season.
Goff isn’t exactly dinking and dunking, as his 7.9 average air yards per attempt ranks almost exactly in the middle of the league, but he’s pretty much exclusively attacking the intermediate area of the field. His passing chart from the Rams’ Week 4 game against the Bucs—in which L.A. went down 21 points early and desperately could have used some big passing plays—shows where Goff is looking most:
Considering he threw for 517 yards, that passing chart is as bland as Goff’s Banana Republic line. Last year the Rams had 69 pass plays that went for 20 or more yards, the third-most in the league. This season they’ve recorded just 14, which is tied for 14th.
The Rams are also using less play-action this year, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that those plays often take longer to develop and can therefore be difficult to pull off without a reliable offensive line. Last year, Goff used play-action on 35.8 percent of his dropbacks, per PFF, the second-highest rate in the league behind only Lamar Jackson (who started just seven games). This season, Goff is utilizing play-action on just 27.6 percent of dropbacks, which ranks 12th. All that adds up to an offense that is simply not very explosive.
McVay’s Scheme Is Masking Issues on the Ground
Interestingly, while the Rams line ranks 32nd in PFF’s run-blocking grade, it ranks third in rushing DVOA (vs. 15th for passing) and seventh in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, which indicates that the team is still breaking open holes for its running backs. How is that disparity possible? The difference is in what each stat describes: PFF’s grade is looking at the individual players, while Football Outsiders is measuring the offense’s overall rushing success. And McVay’s scheme works wonders in the run game. The third-year head coach is a master at spreading out a defense and getting light boxes for his backs to run into. This year, both Gurley (6.1 percent) and Malcolm Brown (4.0 percent) rank in the top 10 in fewest rushes into boxes of eight-plus men, per Next Gen Stats. That the Rams can be dead last in PFF’s run blocking but be top five in rushing DVOA speaks to just how wildly effective McVay’s rushing scheme is.
This is evident in games. Just look at how much space Gurley has to work with on this 13-yard touchdown run against the Bucs:
Todd Gurley Is Still Himself …
Gurley looked pretty good on the above play, bouncing away from a couple of would-be tacklers to rumble into the end zone. Despite concerns around his reportedly arthritic knee, Gurley has been just fine this season: He ranks seventh in PFF’s rushing grade (last year he finished 15th; in 2017 he finished 13th) and is 10th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (he was first last season and fourth in 2017), though he’s essentially been a nonfactor in the receiving game (he’s on pace for just 248 receiving yards, which would be his lowest total since his rookie season).
Gurley is averaging 2.8 yards after contact per carry, which is 10th in league, and he breaks a tackle every 9.8 attempts (tied for 14th). These aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, and the $45 million in guaranteed money that the Rams gave Gurley in 2018 is already looking like a massive mistake, but he is still showing his usual combination of burst and power.
… He’s Just Not Being Used Like It
With all that said, McVay is using Gurley far differently this season than he has previously. The Rams clearly want to limit his load, despite McVay’s insistence that his running back’s knee is fine. Gurley has taken 71 percent of the team’s running back snaps this season, which is still a decent workload despite it being a decline from last year (he often topped 90 percent of snaps in any given week in 2018). Malcolm Brown comes in to spell Gurley on roughly every third drive, which accounts for Gurley’s decline in snap share.
One thing Gurley has done more of this year—and that may be a main contributor to his decline in receiving production—is pass block. Gurley has pass blocked on 25.2 percent of passing snaps when he’s on the field, per PFF. That’s a major increase from both 2018 (12.9 percent) and 2017 (16.8 percent). The Rams clearly could use the extra protection, but using Gurley that way takes away the threat one of their most dynamic playmakers.
Is There a Way to Get Back on Track?
There is no simple fix for bad offensive line play, and there are especially few ways for the Rams to mitigate pass-blocking issues. In recent years, the Seahawks have masked line problems by leaning on a mobile quarterback in Russell Wilson who can evade pressure, create out of structure, and throw off-base. But Goff is hardly mobile, and he flourishes when he’s in the pocket and his offense is on schedule.
The Rams can start, though, by remarrying the run to the pass. L.A. is one of the few teams that is actually doing better on the ground than through the air, by DVOA. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they should “establish the run,” but they certainly shouldn’t abandon it. McVay called 13 pass plays in a row (not including one end-around run taken by Cooper Kupp) to begin the Buccaneers game. By the time a Rams running back got the ball on a handoff, L.A. was down 14-0, and Gurley and Brown finished the game with just 10 carries combined.
Fixing the passing game will be the most difficult piece of this. The Rams can scheme ways to get the ball out of Goff’s hands more quickly, but that runs counter to the slow-developing, play-action-heavy concepts that McVay prefers. The Rams may benefit from trying to move Goff around in the pocket, strategically evading pressure when possible.
Absent of an addition to the line—though, with just $3.3 million in cap space, the team’s options for signing or trading for a new player are limited—or a big and unexpected jump in play from the group that they have, the Rams may simply be unable to field the type of world-destroying offense they did the past two seasons. That McVay even has this group producing the 11th-best offense in the league (by DVOA) with these line problems is incredible.
We may be looking at a new era of Rams football. The team has had a solid start to the season, and is still a playoff favorite. But L.A. is no longer the offensive powerhouse it was in McVay’s first two seasons—and may no longer be a true Super Bowl contender, either.