I want to show you a play from Monday night’s game between the Rams and the 49ers. Third-and-9, early second quarter, 7-3 ball game.
This is a pretty standard pass look for the Rams and a pretty standard pass defense look from the Niners. San Francisco is threatening a rush from about seven defenders, and showing man coverage across the board otherwise. The Niners might bail out some of those potential rushers into zones; they might not.
You’re Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. What do you like against this look? Here, I’ll even draw out the routes and identify the players.
You like Cooper Kupp? Yeah, me too. On third down, I love my star receiver, coming off of the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award, in man coverage, against a second-year corner and first-year starter in Deommodore Lenoir.
Let’s run the play.
There are a few things to notice here. The first is Lenoir’s coverage on Kupp—look at how confidently he swings to Kupp’s inside shoulder, even though his help (deep safety Talanoa Hufanga) is already inside of Kupp. If this were an out-breaking route, Lenoir would be in a bad spot.
But both Hufanga and Lenoir behave like they know where Kupp’s headed. Hufanga sees Stafford reach the top of his drop and immediately stops gaining depth and closes to the middle of the field. He is offering zero help to any outside vertical routes, like the go route from Ben Skowronek at the bottom of the screen.
This makes sense, right? It’s better to get help on Kupp than it is to assist Emmanuel Moseley on Skowronek. But what if Allen Robinson II were running a go route on Charvarius Ward? Wouldn’t that be a concern?
Well, Ward locks Robinson down pretty good. In fact, everyone’s locking Robinson down pretty good.
We've charted Allen Robinson with a 20% route success rate (i.e. getting open) against man single coverage so far in 2022. His average since 2019 is 31%. League average among wide receivers is 30%.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) October 4, 2022
Against man coverage, Robinson is performing substantially below league average. This strongly tracks with Next Gen Stats’ data, which has Robinson’s average yards of separation at 2.2, one of the lowest numbers in the league. This isn’t too different from a lot of above-the-rim, ball-winning, contested-catch gods—Mike Evans, Mike Williams, and Chase Claypool are all in the same family—but the Rams aren’t using Robinson like those receivers. Robinson is running a go on 16.5 percent of his routes this year, which is markedly below the league-average number of 22.5 percent.
The Rams do need to find a way to use Robinson better—giving him more contested catch opportunities on more go balls would be a great start—but that won’t solve the larger problem of having a $15.5 million receiver who can’t separate on third down. And it won’t solve the even larger problem: The Rams have only one player really worth looking at on third down.
Look at the picture again, and tell me this: If Kupp gets well covered, who do you like as your next option?
It probably should be Robinson one-on-one; but as we know, he doesn’t separate. So take the one-on-one shot with Skowronek? That doesn’t feel that great, either. Skowronek has 36 targets on his career and 15 percent of his snaps this season have come as a fullback with his hand in the dirt. His career yards per route run is 1.12, which is less than half of Kupp’s career number.
Skowronek was the 249th pick in the 2021 draft—that’s a slot usually reserved for special-teams players who may hang on the bottom of the roster and challenge for a starting job in a few years. The Rams did not plan on starting Skowronek as a rookie, either; they had Van Jefferson and Robert Woods on the roster, drafted Tutu Atwell in the second round, signed DeSean Jackson, and signed Odell Beckham Jr. Skowronek ended up playing more in the back half of last season, bringing value as an additional blocker where the Rams had previously used a second tight end—but that was the scope of his limited role.
Now Woods and Beckham are off the roster, Jefferson is hurt, and Tutu still can’t crack the depth chart. The Rams signed Robinson to be the foil to Kupp, the Beckham replacement, the high-volume receiver when Kupp gets too much defensive attention—but that hasn’t worked. And now, all of a sudden, the lack of a threat at WR3 starts to hurt a lot more. Remember, the Rams are exclusively an 11 personnel team. This season they have taken just nine snaps in any personnel grouping other than one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. Three of those have been kneel-downs.
Let’s talk tight ends. The Rams snagged Tyler Higbee in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, and a year later, took Gerald Everett in the second round. That gave them two decent options at the position, and accordingly, expanded their personnel options. Head coach Sean McVay dialed up tons of 11 personnel in 2017 and 2018, and then threw more 12 personnel curveballs in 2019 and 2020. The Rams’ running game evolved. They changed, and even as they endured offensive line injuries, stayed ahead of the curve offensively.
But now, there isn’t anyone behind Higbee. I mean, there isn’t anyone behind Higbee. Higbee has taken at least 90 percent of the snaps in each of the Rams’ four games, just as Skowronek has taken at least 80 percent of the snaps. The Rams and the Bears are the only teams in the league to have multiple skill position players drafted Day 3 or later take at least 80 percent of the snaps on offense this season.
Getting drafted late doesn’t make you a bad player. But it is an unavoidable consequence of the Rams’ team-building approach. With all of the picks the Rams traded away for Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford and Von Miller (who is no longer on the team), they were always going to be forced into developing later draft picks quickly, then playing them. And if they didn’t succeed? There would be no depth behind them.
For other teams, fourth-round tight ends and seventh-round receivers are the depth. For the Rams, they’ve become starters. Higbee doesn’t come off the field because he can’t—undrafted free agent Kendall Blanton is the best option behind him—and Higbee is just an average player. Skowronek plays fullback because run blocking is his best trait, and he has to be on the field—so you might as well toss him into the backfield and confuse opponents with a good ol’ fashioned I-formation. When you trade away all of your apples and bananas and pears, you’re left with just lemons, and you have to make lemonade.
This is true elsewhere on the Rams roster. They’re enduring tons of injuries along the offensive line, but lest we forget, they walked into the season planning on starting Coleman Shelton, a career practice-squad player who struggled mightily this year before hopping on IR; David Edwards, a 2019 fifth-rounder who graded out as one of PFF’s worst guards while starting last year; and Joe Noteboom, a 2018 third-rounder and oft-injured guard forced to play left tackle following the retirement of Andrew Whitworth. The offensive line coach who developed all these youngsters, Aaron Kromer? He’s now coaching in Buffalo.
Pass protection has been a massive issue for the Rams—they’ve endured a slew of unfortunate injuries, and it will be a while until they pull themselves out of that tailspin. But even when the line gets healthy, it won’t solve the team’s issues.
You can see the symptoms festering under the line. It’s not a great unit, but it can run block well—and McVay can scheme up a run with the best of them. But Cam Akers’s rushing yards over expectation is seventh-worst in the league right now, and Darrell Henderson Jr.’s is 11th-worst. Both drafted, both developed—neither bringing enough to the table. When pressured, Stafford gets sacked at a 29 percent clip—only Justin Fields and Matt Ryan are worse. Stafford tends to shred the blitz, yes—but opposing defenses are blitzing him at one of the league’s lowest rates, as they don’t need to blitz to beat this offensive line. Throw it all together, and that lemonade the Rams are making? It’s pretty bitter. They’re 28th in EPA per play, 26th in DVOA, and 29th in offensive ANY/A. This is the worst offensive unit McVay has put on the field in his Rams tenure.
It’s easy, then, to figure out on whose shoulders the blame rests: McVay and general manager Les Snead. They’re the ones who make the draft picks, spend the money, and try to fill in the margins. McVay’s been doing a lot with a little on offense for a while. It’s unfair to criticize the genius of living in one personnel grouping when it works, then demand more personnel uniqueness when the offense falters. In the same way, it’s difficult to criticize the same aggressive team-building approach that won a Super Bowl last season on the back of such players as Von, Odell, and Stafford, now that the chickens are home to roost.
So perhaps it’s less about blame and more about responsibility. McVay has to make the offense work with fewer pieces than any other coordinator or designer has in the league. This was the challenge he created for himself when he signed up for this team-building enterprise. Snead has to hit on more picks than other general managers, because he has fewer of them to utilize and less money to spend in free agency.
It’s tough to be kings. Super Bowl hangovers are real and almost inevitable. And when you drank from the cup of glory as fully as the Rams did, the comedown hits even harder. This is the comedown: bad personnel, static offense, poor injury luck, and very few escape hatches. As the Rams get healthier, we’ll see what solutions—if any—can bring this offense back to the land of the living.