When the Rams traded for pass rusher Von Miller two weeks ago, it felt like they were shoving their chips to the center of the table. Now, it also felt like that when they traded for Matthew Stafford this offseason—and, heck, even when they traded for Jalen Ramsey a couple of seasons ago. But that’s the point: The Rams have seemed close to the Super Bowl for the past few seasons, and accordingly keep shoving and shoving, hoping to finally bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
That’s why the last two games are worrisome.
The 7-3 Rams are still one of the league’s best teams—but the 7-1 Rams sure seemed more like future champions. Los Angeles drew a tough Titans team in Tennessee’s first game without Derrick Henry and face-planted on Sunday Night Football, with two consecutive Stafford interceptions generating a 14-3 Titans lead that the Rams would never overcome. A week later, the Rams reloaded with Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., only to get embarrassed (again) by Kyle Shanahan (again!) on Monday Night Football, 31-10. With losses by both Green Bay and Arizona in the past two weeks, the Rams had a chance to take control of the race for the first-round NFC bye; now, they’re lagging behind.
There are a million different angles from which to look at the Rams’ recent slips. I’m going to sidestep the “Odell is a locker room cancer” take that’s already making the rounds, less than one week into his Rams tenure. Instead, I want to look at the offense, which has encountered its first bump in the road of the glorious Stafford era.
We should note that Stafford and the Rams are playing really, really good ball on offense. Stafford leads the league in expected points added per play this season; his 8.5 yards’ average depth of target is comfortably above league average. Stafford has missed some throws, yes—his on-target throw percentage is 29th out of 34 qualified quarterbacks this year, at 68.6 percent—but his turnover-worthy play rate is only 3.2 percent, which is just a bit worse than league average, and the Rams offense has been humming with him at the helm.
So what happened these past two weeks? In that stretch Stafford ranked 22nd out of 24 qualifying quarterbacks in EPA per play and his turnover-worthy play rate jumped to 6.7 percent, while his depth of target dropped to 7.2 yards—the offense, which had scored fewer than 27 points only twice in eight games, scored 16 and 10 in consecutive weeks. In seven of his first eight weeks, Stafford had an adjusted yards per attempt over 9; both of the last two weeks have been below 5.
I’d argue that really nothing has happened—this is what Stafford is. When the Rams traded for him, there were plenty of remarks about his legacy: He’s never won a playoff game or cemented himself as a top-tier quarterback after a decade of play even though he was a no. 1 pick. And his supporters responded with a common refrain: that he was making throws that nobody else was making; that his talent had long lifted a hapless Lions team.
Both are right! Stafford is an unfortunately mercurial passer. Volatility has prevented him from becoming one of the league’s top quarterbacks, while also keeping him in the discussion. His peak throws are ones that few players could make, and his valley plays—like Monday night’s deep interception of a pass to Beckham—are head-scratchers that even fewer players would make. The Rams acquired Stafford for his peak plays, but they got his valleys as well. It does create concern for how Stafford might perform during a playoff run.
It’s hard to imagine Stafford’s erraticism suddenly evaporating after 10 years as a pro. In those games when he misses, the Rams hope that the improved supporting cast in Los Angeles can sustain the offense in a way that Detroit never could. Over the past two weeks, that hasn’t been the case.
There are a few problems here that the Rams can solve. The first is the offensive line. The Titans dominated the Rams’ interior front, with defensive tackles Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry combining for 15 pressures and 4.5 sacks in their Sunday Night Football game. The Titans were so effective at generating pressure with their front that they blitzed on less than 10 percent of Stafford’s dropbacks, yet still delivered pressure on more dropbacks (28.3 percent) than any other team that has faced the Rams this season. The Niners followed the same blueprint, blitzing Stafford on less than 10 percent of his dropbacks and still getting pressure at a clip of 23.3 percent.
This is not a new sensation. In 2021, top quarterbacks are getting blitzed less and less—it’s happening to Patrick Mahomes almost every week, while other elite passing attacks like the Bills’ and Rams’ are also seeing a decline in blitzes. Rushing only four allows defenses to drop seven into coverage, which clogs up passing lanes and forces checkdowns—but particularly in the case of the Rams’ last two games, it’s exposing the weakness in their front.
Interior pressure is particularly detrimental for quarterbacks like Stafford, who prefer to operate from the pocket. Stafford throws to the intermediate middle of the field on in-breaking routes more than almost any other quarterback, and those throws require a clean throwing platform from the pocket to step into and drive the throw. With defenders deposited into his lap, Stafford can no longer hammer the ball accurately into quick-closing windows, if he’s able to release the ball at all.
The Rams are giving up interior pressure because their guards aren’t built to drop anchor against top interior pass rushers. The Rams list starting right guard Austin Corbett at 6-foot-4, 306 pounds; starting left guard David Edwards at 6-foot-6, 308 pounds; and starting center Brian Allen at 6-foot-2, 303 pounds. That’s a remarkably light interior offensive line, emphasizing speed and quickness for the wide-zone rushing attack that typifies the Sean McVay offense. With big, hulking bruisers at guard and center, the Rams’ running game would have to change identity.
But in these last two games, the Rams have fallen into early deficits and have quickly lost the running game—and in their loss to the Cardinals, the Rams’ running game was thriving, but they abandoned it after taking on a two-score deficit in the second quarter. And after setting league-leading marks in play-action passing rate with Jared Goff at the helm, McVay has let Stafford rock from the traditional dropback game—Stafford’s play-action rate of 23.4 percent is 28th in the league.
It’s fine that the Rams aren’t running play-action and instead are just dropping back to pass—remember, Stafford’s still leading the league in EPA per play! But the practice has exposed an incongruity in their team-building. Corbett, Allen, and Edwards made sense as an offensive interior when the Rams were living and dying with a wide zone rushing attack and the play-action boots that develop off of that; now that they no longer need to dedicate themselves to the play-action game to generate a passing offense, those interior blockers are being asked to hold their water in traditional pass protection. They aren’t built for that.
The solution is clear: McVay needs to dust off the ol’ Goff playbook. They don’t have to major in it—that was the whole point of the Stafford trade—but they do need to protect that interior front with run-action that forces defensive linemen to first work horizontally before getting upfield vertically, with the added benefit of moving Stafford out of the pocket. Plays like this should make up a larger chunk of the Rams offense.
Offensive that Stafford can do whatever he just did in the pocket, then throw the pass he just threw pic.twitter.com/Y3HTb9qYiz— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 16, 2021
This isn’t too difficult of a problem for McVay to solve; the next one is even easier.
Against the Titans, McVay elected to kick a 22-yard field goal on fourth-and-4, down 18 points, midway through the third quarter. Sure, he made it a two-possession game with that decision—but he could have gotten that field goal on the next drive, when he kicked on a fourth-and-12 from the 36.
Against the 49ers, he half-learned his lesson, going for it on fourth-and-8 from the 17 when down by two touchdowns. Only … he didn’t go for it with his offense. It was a fake kick attempt, stopped well short by D.J. Jones.
what a fantastic play by DJ Jones to snuff out that Rams fake FG pic.twitter.com/kbWi8RfzM7— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 16, 2021
If Stafford so improves the Rams offense, then L.A. should have fewer qualms when faced with a fourth down that other teams would balk at. Instead, the Rams are taking their offense off the field on those fourth downs. Before either of these two losses, when the Rams were still 7-1, they were second in the league in lost win probability with cautious fourth-down decision-making—and that caution has finally caught up to them.
The whole point of acquiring Stafford was to elevate the offense, so why isn’t he being given an opportunity to do that, on the most important downs, in the most important contexts? Even with warranted concern about the pass protection, the Rams have to let the man do what he came here to do. It won’t work every time—but the times it does will help them gain leverage in a top-heavy and competitive NFC.
The Rams need to find a balance between Stafford and McVay, and that, unsurprisingly, is taking more than just a few weeks to figure out. By transforming their attack for their quarterback, L.A. has left behind some crucial aspects of its system, forcing Stafford yet again to try to lift up an offense on his own. McVay can relieve his quarterback of that responsibility by balancing the Stafford-designed offense with the McVay-designed offense, and critically, letting Stafford play in it for all four downs. There’s experimentation to be done here, and a careful balance to be struck; that’s never a pretty process, and with it comes ugly prime-time losses to lesser teams. But McVay and Stafford can find that balance—and if they do, they’ll remain the league’s most dangerous offense entering the playoffs.