Improvement needed to reach playoffs – Press Enterprise
The bad loss that ended it don’t erase the good things that happened in the first half of the Rams’ season.
They began with one of the NFL’s youngest rosters after an offseason of departures forced by a salary-cap trouble, with pandemic-year changes leaving less practice time to learn a new defensive coordinator’s scheme, with coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff facing questions after going from the Super Bowl to missing the playoffs in 2019.
But the Rams improved in enough areas to be playoff contenders at midseason at 5-3. Their inconsistency and a tough November-December schedule might be their biggest obstacles.
With the Rams in their bye week, it’s time for a position-by-position look at the team. Each part of the roster is graded between A and F. Unless noted, stats are for the team, not one player.
Analysis: Goff’s four turnovers in the face of Miami’s blitzes in the first half of the Rams’ loss Sunday were jarring because he’d looked more nimble and fundamentally sound after working with new offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Before that disaster, Goff was the most efficient he’d been since the Super Bowl season. He has a great 134.6 passer rating in the fourth quarter, but the team doesn’t want to have to lean on him.
Relevant numbers: Passes attempted: 35.5 a game (14th). Yards per attempt: 7.6 (15th). Goff’s passer rating: 98.6 (19th).
Analysis: Replacing one-time NFC Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley with the “committee” of unproven Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers has basically worked out. McVay has been able to use the run more to set up the pass and protect leads than he could while having to baby Gurley’s knee. An injury set Akers back, and it’s not impossible the Rams’ top draft pick will yet emerge as the No. 1 ballcarrier.
Relevant numbers: Rushing yards: 137.8 a game (7th). Top 3 RBs’ yards per carry: 4.5. Gurley’s yards per carry for Atlanta: 3.8.
Analysis: The two wide receivers signed to long-term contracts in September have been the stars of the short passing game, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods ranking second and fifth among NFL wide receivers in yards after catch. Josh Reynolds has succeeded when asked to replace the deep threat the Rams gave up by trading Brandin Cooks. Rookie Van Jefferson was the revelation of training camp but hasn’t featured in the offense yet.
Relevant numbers: Yards passing: 2,058 (13th). Yards after catch per reception: 6.1 (3rd). Kupp receiving yards: 65.9 a game (18th).
Analysis: Tyler Higbee has started 2020 more quietly than he ended 2019 but is a sure-handed go-to receiver for Goff. Gerald Everett is playing for a new contract and back in the mix, getting more out of the passes thrown his way. Johnny Mundt’s performance in the win over the Bears was the fill-in performance of the early season.
Relevant numbers: Higbee receiving yards: 33.7 per game (23rd). Everett receiving yards: 28.5 (30th). Tight-end touchdowns: 4.
Analysis: The Rams’ most improved unit is a credit to patience on the part of the coaches and front office. There were calls to bring in help in the interior, which struggled in 2019. Guards David Edwards and Austin Corbett and center Austin Blythe now have the equivalent of a full season starting at their positions and are showing the benefit of experience. Andrew Whitworth and a healthy Rob Havenstein have been better this year.
Relevant numbers: Sacks allowed: 1.25 a game (tied for 2nd fewest). Yards per rush: 4.4 (14th). Andrew Whitworth penalties: 5 (tied for 4th most).
Analysis: Aaron Donald shares the league lead with 9 sacks, on his way to a Rams-record sixth All-Pro season and perhaps an NFL record-tying third Defensive Player of the Year Award. The supporting cast of Michael Brockers, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Morgan Fox and Greg Gaines have made plays. A’Shawn Robinson is expected to be activated from the non-football-injury list before the Nov. 15 game against Seattle.
Relevant numbers: Net yards per pass attempt, including sacks: 5.2 (1st). Sacks: 3.1 a game (6th). Yards per rush: 3.9 (6th).
Analysis: Both inside and outside positions were concerns after the departures of leading tackler Cory Littleton and edge rusher Dante Fowler and a knee issue that delayed top defensive draft pick Terrell Lewis. Four of the five leaders in snaps at linebacker are newcomers, with Leonard Floyd second to Donald in sacks (4) and Micah Kiser establishing himself in the middle by winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week for the Philadelphia game.
Relevant numbers: Blitzes: 81 (tied for 11th). Sacks by linebackers: 11.5 of Rams’ 25. Fumbles forced by linebackers: 1 of Rams’ 6.
Analysis: Key to new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s approach has been the versatility of the defensive backs, beginning with cornerback Jalen Ramsey taking on the wide-ranging “star position.” It has made the Rams one of the hardest teams to pass against, which is why they’ve shut down so many opponents in second halves. Darious Williams is one of the 10 hardest cornerbacks to pass against, going by passer rating (62.7). Safety John Johnson has been the quarterback of the defense. Injured rookie safety Jordan Fuller is expected back soon.
Relevant numbers: Yards per pass attempt: 6.3 (lowest). Interceptions: 0.75 a game (16th). Pass completions against Ramsey: 51.5% (8th lowest among CBs targeted 25 or more times).
Analysis: It hasn’t directly cost the Rams a game yet, but the guys trying to fill Greg Zuerlein’s kicking shoe have been a disaster, first rookie Samuel Sloman and then even newly signed Kai Forbath in the Miami game. The kick coverage has given up the league’s highest punt-return average, including the NFL’s only punt-return TD this season. At least punter Johnny Hekker is still doing his thing.
Relevant numbers: Field goals made: 69.2% (28th). Extra points made: 87% (29th). Johnny Hekker’s punting average: 47.5 (11th).
Analysis: The ability of McVay and his young coordinators to identify and address challenges has been vital in a year when teaching periods were disrupted. Giving Staley free rein to remake the defense seems to have paid off. McVay’s reputation as an innovative play-caller means he’ll always draw opposing defensive coaches’ best efforts to outwit him, and sometimes that spells trouble, as in Miami on Sunday. McVay blames himself for the “up and down” offense; it does seem like it should be putting up better numbers more consistently.
Analysis: To continue with that last point, the Rams can’t keep expecting the defense to bail out the offense. If not for the win over the Bears, it would be easy to dismiss the 5-3 record as the result of playing four early games against the NFC East. As it is, this is a team with a better than 50-50 shot at making the playoffs. Those chances will be tested soon with games against Seattle, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Arizona to start the second half.
Relevant numbers: Points per game: 24.1 (21st). Points allowed per game: 19 (3rd). Yards per play: 5.8 (13th). Yards allowed per play: 4.7 (1st).
Cumulative GPA: 2.8
Offensive MVP: Jared Goff. The Miami game is a reminder of how rare it is that he deserves the blame for a Rams loss. His 116.3 rating for Weeks 2-5 was the best for a four-game stretch in his career.
Defensive MVP: Aaron Donald. Pencil him in for next year too, while we’re at it. As Ramsey said: “No matter how great he does, people sometimes don’t look at it as, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ because they’re getting used to it.”
Top newcomer: Leonard Floyd. The numbers with Chicago looked underwhelming for the edge rusher signed as a free agent in April. He has fit in well, his four sacks already exceeding his total for all of 2019.
X-factor: Cam Akers. The rookie running back has to get better at details like blocking responsibilities to earn more playing time. Depending on how quickly that can happen, he could add dynamism to the offense.