The L.A. Rams Have Rediscovered Their Mojo
They lost more than just a season in ambling to an empty 9-7 record, in a year where they returned almost all the same pieces that took them to the Super Bowl the year before.
Since moving to L.A., the Rams have been an oddly artificial team, in a major city where football has a detached connection, with few fans and a quarterback who looks and carries himself like Ryan Gosling's character in Drive.
It somehow made sense then that in 2018 they dominated the league in a way that was almost robotic, disconcertingly and magically clean in the effortlessness of their offence, just moving the ball at will in a video-game-like aesthetic.
They had a unique, devastating style, built on an outside zone running game and play-action passing. They ran 11-personnel on 89% of plays, by far the most in the league, with three explosive, pacy receivers in Robert Woods, Brandin Cooksand Cooper Kupp to stretch defences at all levels. They controlled games by running the ball into lighter boxes, with the combination of a dominant offensive line, the three star receivers creating space, and a scheme full of motion and creative play-calling presenting a menu of losing options for defences.
Slowly, though, it all fell apart.
Famously, Matt Patricia and Detroit laid the blueprint for how to stop the Rams, by playing a quarters-based defence that took away vertical seam routes. The Bears and Eagles employed similar schemes to stymy L.A. in 2018, and the Patriots took it to the next level in the Super Bowl, embarrassing an offensive juggernaut into a painfully meek 13-3 defeat.
The pain leaked into 2019.
Warning signs started blaring with a bizarre 20-7 loss to the 49ers where Goff threw for 78 yards total, and the 17-12 Week 10 loss to the Steelers confirmed that the video game Rams were gone.
The offensive line was a mess and Goff was undressed, reduced to mania in manic situations, with no capacity to improvise or create something from nothing in collapsing pockets - Jared Goff is strictly a something from something quarterback.
Coming into this season, expectations were tempered. The Rams completely bottomed out in the 45-6 prime-time loss to Baltimore last season, which in a way felt like a cleansing. It was so jarringly bad that there would have to be new life.
This offseason the Rams lost Brandin Cooks, Cory Littleton, Eric Weddle, Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler, Nickel Robey-Coleman, Greg Zuerlein and Clay Matthews. They added not much. Plenty of questions were left over. Could the offensive line be a strength again, with Andrew Whitworth, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein returning to form and Austin Corbett, Joseph Notebloom and David Edwards a year older? Could Goff improve and be effective outside of a pristinely clean pocket? Would rookie defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, replacing a legend in Wade Phillips, have an idea of what he was doing? Would the defence have anyone impactful beyond Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey? Could Sean McVay, who in three years had completed the transition from prodigy and gelled-hair messiah to kind of an afterthought, re-invent his team?
Through three weeks, little is confirmed, but most questions are moving in the right direction for L.A. The offensive line has been excellent and has unlocked the entire offence again. Goff looks as good as he ever has, playing in control with more time, and even making things happen outside of structure. Against Buffalo on the weekend, he completed 5 of 7 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown under pressure. The skill position players have been typically devastating, and it's all added up to the Rams having the number one offence in the league by DVOA after three weeks, with a balanced attack ranking 4th in passing and 2nd in rushing.
The defence has looked vulnerable, with too few players stepping up outside of Donald and Ramsey. Against Buffalo it nearly didn’t matter, with Donald almost wrecking the game by himself. Donald is a transcendent player and a weekly treasure, an unprecedented mix of size, power, speed and technique. It’s a joy watching him devour offence linemen with a single move, a quick-twitch jolt that in a split second combines and weaponises all of his physical gifts to make an opponent completely useless and out of place.
Outside of Donald, though, the front seven has been dreadful, with an inability to stop the run leading to a 21st ranked defence by DVOA.
What L.A.’s offence has shown to start the season appears to be real, but the same unfortunately can be said for the defence. The Rams will score and overwhelm teams, but against the best their fortunes will likely rest on Donald and Ramsey being able to turn games with individual moments of devastation – which they’re capable of but is dangerous to consistently rely on.
In the NFC, there is no dominant force. Seattle and Green Bay have wretched defences, San Francisco is decimated, Dallas is hovering between a mess and a mess in recovery, Tampa Bay is filled with questions, and New Orleans appears to be broken, for now at least.
The Rams offence looks to be good enough to keep them in that mix. The defence might be too weak for them to be at the top of the list, but in Donald they have the league’s best foundational defensive piece, and hope for mayhem on any given play.
In any case, the Rams seem to have found themselves again. The era will not leak into quiet mediocrity.
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