NFC Best: Where Do The Rams Rank?
It’s the best time of the year! The run-up to the NFL Playoffs. It’s the time to punch in predictions on the FiveThirtyEight playoff simulator and wonder which underdog will sneak in and who will get the first-round bye. It’s when every game matters, even Jets games. Every team has put up 780 minutes of football to be evaluated and now it’s time to take out the measuring tapes and calipers to see where exactly all the best teams in the NFC rank.
The Rams have been a tough team to rank this season. They have looked like the most well-rounded of teams in the league and they have also been slapped around by the 49ers JV defense. But, paraphrasing Bill Parcells, they are what their record says they are. They are 9-4, atop the best division in football with an outside shot of getting the NFC’s lone first-round bye.
It’s an outside shot because the NFC has a few teams whose records say that they are a bit better than the Rams. With their win on Saturday the Packers (11-3) hold the edge with the Saints (10-3) and the Seahawks (9-4) right on their heels. Also, the Buccaneers are loaded up from a talent perspective and if they ever figure out how to put that machine together the right way, they would be among the best teams in the NFC.
Of course, the Parcellian methodology of ranking teams is very limited. To know where the Rams rank among the best teams in the NFC, a few more evaluations are required.
Ranking The Coaches
It’s not often that a good team has a bad coach and all the best teams in the NFC have good coaches, but a few stand out above the others. Both Pete Carroll and Sean Payton have; 1. Won a Super Bowl and 2. Have unparalleled track records of success in the NFL.
Payton in particular gets high marks for not only being a good coach in the traditional sense but also as an innovative offensive mind. This has allowed him to get the most out of Drew Brees, even as he has changed from peak QB to aging QB. Furthermore, turning Taysom Hill into a competent QB is a fun flex and further proof he can move the ball with just about anyone.
The biggest criticism of Carroll has always been about holding Russell Wilson back with conservative play calling. But, his winning percentage does the talking. He has a .601 winning percentage over 15 years as an NFL Head Coach. Not to mention only three losing seasons as a Head Coach and two trips to the Super Bowl. All that without bringing up his days with USC (two national championships, .836 winning percentage, 7-2 in bowl games.) Carroll knows how to build winning football teams, that is undeniable.
Payton and Carroll do the same thing in different ways. They both win. Carroll does it by motivation and organizational control and Payton does it by superior football acumen. It’s hard to rank who is one and two, but they are head and shoulders above the other three coaches in this conversation. Payton edges Carroll out for the top spot because the ceiling of his current team is higher than the Seahawks. Payton 1st, Carroll 2nd.
The remaining three aren’t as hard to rank. Sean McVay is clearly in the third spot. He is among the best play-callers in the league, he has put together four consecutive winning seasons and has already been to the Super Bowl, and he has been able to drink legally for fewer years than Payton has been coaching the Saints.
Just to round out the list, Matt LeFleur is fourth and Bruce Arians is fifth. Despite LaFleur’s small sample size, he has proved he can do a lot with Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, and not much else. This wasn’t something Mike McCarthy could do in 2018. LaFleur changed a 6-8-1 team into a 13-3 team and went to the NFC Championship.
Arians comes in last because his team lacks cohesion. In a year that, more than ever, teams need consistency the Bucs made things more complicated. They added players to the roster that they didn’t need, all while trying to integrate Tom Brady. Even that hasn’t gone very well. Arians and Brady seem at odds and Byron Leftwich is still calling plays like he has Jameis Winston under center. Obviously, it’s not a dumpster fire. It’s a talented team, but they aren’t playing up to their potential and that falls directly on Arians.
Ranking The Defenses
Here there is a huge division between the top three and the bottom two teams. Seattle and Green Bay are bad on defense. They rank 19th and 20th in defensive DVOA respectively. It’s hard to think that they can get through the playoffs unless something drastic happens on that side of the ball. Let’s save some time and rank Seattle 4th, Green Bay 5th, and call it good.
The remaining teams are clustered at the top at second, third, and fifth in defensive DVOA. The Saints have a -17.5, the Rams have a -16.3 and the Bucs have a -15.2 rating. Making it even harder to gauge, the rush defense DVOA rankings are as follows; NO-1st, TB- 2nd, and LAR 6th. While the passing defense DVOA is; LAR- 3rd, NO- 4th, TB-7th.
This knot at the top isn’t unraveling when looking at team stats and it doesn’t get looser when looking at game-changing play stats either. They are close in turnovers and sacks, as well. The Rams have the edge with 42 sacks while New Orleans has 36, but this doesn’t provide dramatic evidence.
A look at some games that the individual defenses have excelled in against potent offenses provides a little clarity. The Rams held the Seahawks to 16 points. That was the first time this season Seattle was held to under 20 points. They also contained the Cardinals to 232 yards, the team’s lowest yard total of the year to date.
The Saints have beat the Bucs in both meetings this season, holding them to just three points in their second game. But they also struggled to stop the Raiders early in the season.
Tampa Bay’s best game defensively came against the Packers, they held them to just 10 points and 201 yards. That is almost half of what Green Bay has averaged this season. But alongside the heights, the Bucs have seen some low lows. They have given up big points and yards to good offenses. Their inability to win, at least, a few of those big games makes them the clear third-ranked defense among the best teams in the NFC.
Going from individual games the next criteria to look at would be individual players. In the biggest games, the biggest playmakers are often the difference makers. The Rams, by far, have two of the biggest names on defense in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. They have an outsized effect on the defense. Not only is Donald having a career year, but so are Michael Brockers and Leonard Floyd.
Ramsey has had a similar effect on the secondary. With him able to lock down any opposing receivers, QB’s have had to force throws, which has resulted in 13 interceptions on defense. Ramsey has only snagged one, while Darious Williams has four, Jordan Fuller has three, and Troy Hill has two. Offenses know not to attack the Rams deep in the secondary. They led all defenses with the fewest completed air yards and are second in average depth of target. The Rams have also given up second-fewest first downs through the air and the fewest passing touchdowns.
New Orleans’ biggest names on defense are great against the pass, as well. Flanking the defensive line are Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson leads the team in sacks with 10.5 and Jordan is next with 6.5. Probably their best-known players are in the secondary, Janoris Jenkins and Malcolm Jenkins.
The Saints have been nearly as good as the Rams in stopping passing attacks, but their true talent this season is stuffing the run. They allow only 3.7 yards per attempt and lead the league giving up only seven touchdowns on the ground.
With Donald and Ramsey playing out of their skulls this year and because the passing attack is the predominant weapon of most NFL teams. By the narrowest of margins, the Rams slip past the Saints for the top-ranked defense in the NFC.
Ranking the Offenses
These teams comprise the top five offenses by DVOA in the NFC. If the defenses were knotted, this is a rat king of great offensive football. DVOA will do little to help rank these offenses. They all have their particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be dissected in order to make a quality judgment.
Every starting quarterback on these five teams has been to a Super Bowl. Three have Super Bowl MVPs and two have at least one MVP and four are currently considered future Hall of Famers.
The odd man among all these future Hall of Famers is, of course, Jared Goff. Plenty has been written of Goff’s foibles and propensity to play poorly under pressure. As a result, McVay has done a lot to relegate Goff’s responsibilities. To take the pressure off has installed an impressive running scheme and called plays with high percentage passes.
While a couple of the other QBs can be liabilities, the rest won’t be the reason the team loses a game. Goff has thrown 11 interceptions, a few of which can be directly blamed for team losses. When ranking the best teams in the NFC, QB’s have to be weighted heavily, of course, because of the nature of the position, but also the high bar that the rest of the players set. Goff doesn’t match up to the other four.
Brees and Brady also bring liability to their teams. Theirs is linked to their age and arm strength. Payton’s play-calling has reflected Brees’ inability to throw downfield. He is attempting around 3.7-percent of his passes beyond 15 yards. That’s down from 6.3-percent in 2017.
Also, Brees is tied for second least intended air yards per pass attempt with Alex Smith. But what remains true is that Brees is still an accurate and efficient passer, but his game lacks that explosiveness that had set him apart in past seasons.
It must be pointed out that Brees has missed time this seson and the status of his recovery from 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung will be interesting as he makes his return this week.
Meanwhile in Tampa, the Bucs continue to throw deep passes. Brady is second in the league in intended air yards per pass attempt. But unlike Brees, Brady has seen a dip in his accuracy. He is sandwiched between Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield in “Bad Pass” percentage and is 25th in overall completion percentage.
Furthermore, his completion percentage drops on passes over 15 yards from 72.7 to 43.7. Yet, Leftwich continues calling deep passing plays and a lot of passing plays in general. They throw on nearly 63-percent of all offensive plays. All that to say, that’s a lot of work for an old QB who has already set the NFL record for career attempted passes.
The game plan makes a lot of sense on paper. They have some amazing pass-catching talent. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown just to name a few. With all that talent it makes sense to throw the ball, but only if it’s working and it isn’t. For whatever reason, adjustments haven’t been made to the game plans, and unlike New Orleans, they can’t or won’t look for help from the running game.
New Orleans can and does rely on Alvin Kamara. He is running the ball at 4.7 per attempt. But he is also the top short distance option for Brees. He has caught 77 passes for 699 yards. That leads the team in both respects. His yards after catch is what makes him truly impressive. He is sixth in the league in YAC, but no one else in the top 15 has more than 46 receptions. Kamara has led the team to a second overall rushing DVOA this season.
The team above them in rushing DVOA is the Rams. You wouldn’t guess it by looking at raw rushing totals, but they are the most efficient rushing team in the league. The Rams have used a well-rounded triad of backs to get the job done. It’s more evidence that McVay is a good coach and schemes well with his personnel. He learned how to use the running game and it was on full display against the New England Patriots. The Rams ran the ball 36 times for 186 yards. Cam Akers ran the ball for more yards than Goff threw. It wasn’t as if he had a monster game, but Akers was used at the right times and they were still able to put up 24 points.
But, when you have a quarterback like Wilson or Rodgers, a running game is an afterthought. It certainly doesn’t hurt that QB has a top-notch wide receiver to throw to. DK Metcalf and Adams are putting up amazing stats this season. Metcalf has an incredible 17.1 yards per catch so far this season. Of course, when you catch for more than 10 yards, you are going to be gobbling up first downs, as well. He has 55 this season. That accounts for 29-percent of the teams passing first downs.
Adams is no slouch in that arena. Before Saturday’s game, he had 58 first downs, which was 32-percent of the Packers passing first downs. He also is the only receiver this year that has averaged over 100 yards per game.
While Seattle has Tyler Lockett to lighten Metcalf’s load, Adams is pretty much the only target for Rodgers. Even if you add up the targets to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Robert Tonyan (111 targets) it doesn’t match Adams 121 targets. So, the fate of the Packers’ offense swings on Adams. In their games against the Buccaneers and the Colts, the two best pass defending teams they’ve played, Adams was held in check and the Packers lost those games.
In summation, the offensive ranking among the best teams in the NFC is tight, but with Goff’s propensity to cost his team the game the Rams fall to fifth. With the Buccaneers ahead of them. They don’t have the right game plan, but they have too much talent on this side of the ball. Green Bay comes in third since much of their success falls directly on two players and against good defenses they can be contained. New Orleans with Brees comes in second, leaving the Seahawks as the best NFC offense.
The Final Ranking
By these rankings, the Rams come in third, behind New Orleans in first and Seattle in second. Green Bay comes in fourth and Tampa Bay comes in fifth.
There is still a lot of football to be played and much to be proven. If Goff can string together three good games to wrap up the season, the Rams will rise to the top. If Brees doesn’t return to form following a brutal injury, the Saints will fall. So the fun continues as we march toward the postseason. These teams will inevitably cross paths when the playoffs come, so that will be the true test of who is on top of the NFC.