How The Rams Can Win The NFC West
PFF and Vegas project the West will fall out thusly:
San Francisco 49ers: PFF projects 9.8 wins, Vegas’ over/under 10.5 wins
Seattle Seahawks: PFF projects 8.8 wins, Vegas’ over/under 9 wins
Los Angeles Rams: PFF projects 8.2 wins, Vegas’ over/under 8.5 wins
Arizona Cardinals: PFF projects 7.3 wins, Vegas’ over/under 7.5 wins
The bad news is clear. The experts and oddsmakers rank the Rams third, but the good news is it’s only a 1.5 to 2 game swing for the Rams to get back on top of the West. According to those same experts, winning the NFC West will require between 10 and 11 wins. According to Sharp Football Analysis, the Rams have the toughest road to get to that win threshold. The Rams have the seventh hardest schedule in the league. The rest of the West is ranked as follows; 49ers – 16th, Seahawks – 17th, and Cardinals – 19th hardest schedule.
But projections are just that. There is a path for the Rams to not only get back into the playoffs but to win the NFC West outright.
Split Or Sweep Divisional Opponents
It seems too obvious to mention but to win the West you have beat the West. The NFC West divisional games are going to be brutal in 2020. The 49ers look as good as they did last season. The Seahawks don’t look as good, but they are always a threat to steal a game. On paper, the Cardinals look, at least, entertaining and are almost guaranteed to be better than last year. Each game will be a must-win for the Rams.
The Seahawks will be the most important of the divisional games. Seattle most directly stands in the way of the Rams getting into the playoffs, so sweeping them this season is step one of winning the division.
Last season, the Seahawks played in 15 one-score games in the regular season and playoffs. They won 11 of those games, including two overtime wins and four games won by three points or less. One of those wins was a one-point win over the Rams.
Certainly, the heroics of Russell Wilson can account for several of those wins, but with so many things in football coming down to luck, there will be a regression to the mean. That is to say, the Seahawks will not get that lucky in 2020. The Rams will need some bad luck on Seattle’s behalf to get to the top of the standings, and the odds aren’t in the Seahawks favor.
Not only will the Rams need a little luck they will also need to determine their own destiny. The 2019 Seahawks struggled against the passing game. They were 27th in the league in passing yards per game and 31st in sacks with only 28. The matchups against the Rams were no exception. Jared Goff threw for a combined 688 yards. The defensive deficiency is obviously no secret to the Seahawks. They added pass rushers Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor in the draft, but adding two untested rookies seems insufficient in addressing this demonstrative issue.
It just so happens that the Rams love to pass the ball, and Goff is a better QB when he has a little extra time to throw, which he should have against the Seahawks. The two matchups will come down to neutralizing the defensive line with smart TE usage and making the secondary try to keep up with the Rams receivers.
Taking two games away from Seattle is the first step in winning the West.
The Cardinals are starting to look interesting, but they are still at the beginning of relevance in the league. The general consensus is that Kyler Murray will continue his upward trajectory. Their offensive attack is really taking shape around their receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald is an ageless wonder and, entering his third season, Christian Kirk is starting to make some noise, as well. Last season, Kirk caught 68 passes for 709 yards in 13 games. Had he not been injured for three games, it was very possible that he would have been one of three pass catchers not named Fitzgerald to lead the team in receiving yards since 2004. Of course, the addition of DeAndre Hopkins bumps the Cardinals passing attack into a whole new level. Kliff Kingsbury must be giddy with anticipation of glorious routes and even more, 10 personnel plays.
Kingsbury’s giddiness may be curbed if he is forced to think about the defense. There was a lot of offseason juggling of various defensive positions, but no additions that automatically elevated the Cards into a winning football team.
In 2019, the Cards allowed the most yards per game and ranked 28th in points allowed. Drafting the most versatile and downright impressive defensive player in the draft was a step in the direction, but putting Isiah Simmons’ skill set to work will take some outside the box thinking and it doesn’t seem like Cardinals DC Vance Joseph knows what to do with the first-round draft pick.
In a news conference in late April, Joseph spoke broadly about how he planned to use Simmons. Saying everything from “…[he] will play linebacker for the Cardinals and it is unlikely that he will spend much time in the secondary,” to “If it’s a job that we think he can do, we will put him out there. That’s why he was drafted. I want Isaiah to be Isaiah.”
Perhaps Simmons will be the kind of mature rookie that can thrive without a role specificity or strong leadership, but more than likely Simmons will struggle until his role is defined. Likely, his ideal role will be one that doesn’t currently exist and Joseph doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, so far.
Last season, the Rams swept both games against the Cards by playing superb offense. Jared Goff threw for 743 yards and five touchdowns. The Rams also rushed for over 100 yards in both games. They only rushed for over 100 yards seven times last season. In 2020, the Cardinals won’t be able to get enough pressure on Goff to slow the Rams offense. On the other hand, the Rams defense will have to contain Murray and Hopkins to pull out the win. No easy task there. The games may become shootouts, but the Rams will have to sweep the Cardinals to hold on to a chance to win the NFC West.
Last season, the 49ers swept the Rams. The second game came down to the wire, but the San Francisco offense was able to march down the field late in the fourth quarter and put the game away with a last-second field goal. Beating the 49ers will be the ultimate test for the Rams. In order to do so, the Rams will have to be firing on all cylinders.
On defense, they will have to drape George Kittle with defenders and get pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo. In their second meeting, they were able to keep the game close by sacking Garoppolo six times and coming up with two interceptions. On offense, they will have to establish the run and stick with it. If there is a weak spot on the 49ers, it is their run defense. Last season, they were 17th against the run and lost their leading run-stopper, DeForest Buckner in a trade leading up to the draft.
If the Rams want to win the NFC West they will need to find a way to steal at least one win from the defending NFC West champions.
Brandon Staley Unlocks The Defensive Potential
Under Wade Phillips, the Rams defense was serviceable but never lived up to expectations. Given the big names on those defenses, the expectation had been a mile high. For whatever reason, Phillips was unable to tap the potential. New DC Brandon Staley has been tasked with the job of finally elevating the defense to the level the talent demands.
The defense needs to be improved across the board, even at the top. In 2019, Aaron Donald led the team in sacks, but his production was cut by 40% from 2018. In addition, the Rams traded a first-round pick for Jalen Ramsey but didn’t see the immediate impact they were looking for. Staley will have to get the most from those stars. He will also have to integrate two backups moving into starting roles, Troy Hill and Samson Ebukam. Both have been dutiful players and have excelled when given playing time.
Although it will be his first coordinator position, Staley has already made strides in overhauling how the Rams defend. He played a big role on draft day in the decision to select both Terrell Lewis and Terrell Burgess. He has also made an impact through free agency, the Rams signed A’Shawn Robinson and Leonard Floyd. Staley coached Floyd previously with the Bears.
All these moves were made to increase versatility, which is a cornerstone of Staley’s scheme. “That’s something you’ll probably hear me talk about a lot, having the versatility to play any place in the front, any place in the back,” Staley said, via the Ram’s official site. “We’re fortunate that we have that here, guys that have played a lot of roles. Groups that are connected, those groups depend on each other a lot.”
Staley has been in his position since February and despite limitations because of the lockdown due to Covid-19, players have enjoyed what they’ve seen so far. His energy and football acumen has earned the buy-in from the squad with Troy Hill stating, “I mean, the energy (Staley) brings, it’s just new. It’s kind of like a (Sean) McVay of the defense almost, with the way he talks, how smart he is, and things like that. Thinking outside the box, I feel like that’s what I needed. He’s younger in a sense that he can relate to the players a lot.”
Last season the defense gave up almost 23 points per game, which ranked 17th in the league. Their rushing and passing defenses were ranked 19th and 12th respectively. Those stats show just how average the Rams have been despite having good talent. In 2020, the Rams will face some of the most potent offenses in the league; Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa Bay. Staley will have to vastly improve the defense across the board to give the Rams a chance to win the West.
A Vast Improvement On The Offensive Line
The fate of the Rams hangs on the improvement of the offensive line. The front five went from one of the strongest to one of the weakest in a flash. 2019 was a particularly unlucky season for the o-line. Injuries ravaged the line. Only Andrew Whitworth’s snap count percentage was above 90%. Compare that to 2018, when every starter played at least 94% of snaps.
It is unlikely that the Rams will have as much rotation due to injury in 2020, which is a huge step in the right direction. But, the rest of the improvement will have to come from existing players. The Rams had no cap space to go out and sign a substantive free agent and they used only their last pick to draft a lineman, Clemson guard Tremayne Anchrum. Anchrum is currently slated as the fourth right guard on ESPN’s depth chart.
The Rams showed their confidence in both Whitworth and Austin Blythe, resigning both this offseason. Outside of those two, the rest of the spots will be up for grabs for the one who wants it most. The most intriguing competition will be for the two guard spots. Brian Allen is heading into his third season, which is often when linemen show their true colors. There is no reason to believe he won’t make the leap, but if he doesn’t, Joseph Noteboom, David Edwards, and Austin Corbett better be ready to play better than last season.
The Rams have found themselves between a rock and a hard place with the line. Last season, Jared Goff faced a lot more pressure and the running game rarely ever found its proper footing. Many things changed within the Rams organization, but the offensive line essentially went unchanged. Sean McVay and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer must see something more in this group than last year’s performance would warrant. Hopefully, this is well sorted out before the start of the season. If beating Seattle is the first step, fixing the line is learning to crawl. Without an improved line, the Rams have no shot at winning the NFC West.