Key Matchups: Los Angeles Rams vs Jacksonville Jaguars
The Rams vs The Rest Of Their Season
This game is a ‘Should-Win’ game for the Rams. They are, in fact, 13 point favorites, according to MyBookie.ag. The Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league and the Rams are, despite recent evidence, not. But, it is also now a ‘Must-Win’ game because of that recent evidence. And the Rams must win this game mainly so that their adoring fans can again show their faces in their local sports bars next week.
The Rams have looked like a shell of themselves. The defense is swiss cheese and the offense seems to be missing a few gears. Specifically, the gears that propelled them to great heights in the first half of the season. Not only has the on-the-field performance looked bad but it comes alongside a rash of injuries, including news via ESPN’s Diana Russini that Matthew Stafford has been dealing with chronic back pain and pain in his ankle, elbow, and throwing arm. Although Stafford denied that the injuries have affected his play.
The Jags game should be a ‘Get-Right-Game’ for the Rams, but they are staring down the barrel of a tough stretch. In the remaining games of the season, they will face two potent run-heavy offenses; Baltimore and Minnesota. They will also play the current NFC Leader, the Arizona Cardinals and they finish the regular season against ‘That team up north’ that they haven’t beaten since late December 2018.
Luckily for the Rams, the NFC is incredibly top-heavy. Due to their early success, they are among that weighty top. This has essentially secured them a spot in the playoffs. Seeding is the only question left to answer for the remainder of the season. For the Rams, only the fifth, sixth, or (God help us) the seventh are realistically in play. That means the rest of the season is for pride and for the fans.
Most of the remaining games won’t be easy. Some will have to be gritty wins. They may even have to overcome a first-half deficit once or twice. But this stretch of games will show who the 2021 Rams really are. Will they limp into the playoffs like the last few games have suggested or will they stride in with heads held high? (But also with a limp because football is hard.) A strong decisive win this week will help shake the weight of a three-game losing streak.
Matthew Stafford vs Short Passes
One of the glaring realities for the Rams is that defenses have adjusted to Matthew Stafford’s ability to stretch the field. The Rams are now facing more two-high safety looks than most of the other teams and this has stifled Stafford’s big arm. Whatsmore, Stafford hasn’t really adjusted to it. In weeks 1-8 Stafford attempted passes of 20 plus yards on average four times a game. In the last three games, he averaged the same, but his completion percentage on those passes dropped from 54.5 percent to 16.7 percent.
Long story short is defenses are forcing Stafford to throw shorter passes. This season, Stafford hasn’t been as good when targeting between zero and 15 yards as he is when targeting deep. Even when the Rams were winning, his completion percentage on these shorter throws put him in the middle of the pack and now that the deep balls are being defended, Stafford has looked mediocre.
One culprit is the Rams have had issues establishing a rhythm early in games by hitting high percentage throws; short crossers, slants, and dig routes that keep the chains moving. Stafford is a quarterback that settles down after a few completions. But those passes, especially ones in the middle of the field, are what make those deep completions possible. An effective short passing game forces those high safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage which opens up those deep options.
Stafford isn’t connecting on those shorter passes, especially not early in games when it is crucial to set up those big throws and score points. Stafford has been successful on 64 percent of short passes in the first quarter in winning games according to Sharp Football Analytics. In the four losing games, that drops to 52%. And then it gets worse on third down. In losses, Stafford has converted on third down on only one of six attempts in the first quarter. There is nothing that stops an offensive rhythm like having to punt the ball.
Tyler Higbee has been Stafford’s early short yardage target and in the last few weeks Higbee hasn’t come up with the ball. Earlier in the year, he was a quality option. He was more successful than Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp when it came to catching short passes early in the game. Now that Woods is out, even more pressure will be on Higbee. It also means that either Kupp or Odell Beckham Jr will have to be used to supplement the short passing game or even, if he can’t turn things around, overtake Higbee as the main option. This is less than ideal for the resurgence of Stafford’s big throws. But, Stafford needs to connect on easy passes to not only create deeper opportunities, but he also needs to do it to maintain possession and get points on the board early in the game.
Luckily for the Rams, the Jaguars don’t have elite safeties like the Packers or the Titans and their best coverage corner, Shaquill Griffin, has been ruled out for the game with a concussion. The Rams could use this game to bomb the ball downfield and run up the score or they could use the time a little more wisely. The Rams should try out several ways to methodically pick up small chunks of yardage. They could experiment with using play-action and try operating from the shotgun. Something to unlock Stafford in short-yardage passing.
If there has been one bright spot for the Jaguars, it is James Robinson. He has rushed 140 times for 690 yards. He has picked up 39 first downs as well as seven touchdowns. That accounts for 19 percent of the Jaguars first downs and 37 percent of their touchdowns. Unfortunately, those efforts haven’t translated to wins for Jacksonville. In the biggest game of his career, he rushed for 149 yards including a 58-yard rush and a touchdown. Unfortunately, his team’s defense gave up 130 yards and three touchdowns to Derrick Henry in that game.
While on a whole, the Rams defense has struggled, their run defense has been improving and that has been in part due to the play of Greg Gaines. Gaines’ playing time increased when Sebastian Joseph Day went down with an injury. Gaines has already played nearly twice as many snaps as he did last season, with a bulk of those coming in the last four games. Not only has he earned a higher run defense grade from Pro Football Focus than Joseph Day, but he has also been a bigger factor in the pass rush. Gaines is third on the team with 23 pressures. PFF grades Gaines at a 74 and Joseph Day at 65. Gaines is the Rams second-highest graded interior lineman behind only Aaron Donald.
Robinson has had more success rushing to the left side “A” gap or off the left end. Whereas, Gaines typically lines up shaded a bit to the center’s right side as a nose tackle. The Rams could flip him to cover that gap and dare the Jaguars to send him in the other direction.