The Los Angeles Rams have nearly no chance of making the playoffs. As of today, FiveThirtyEight gives them a 6 percent chance of doing so. I don’t peddle false hope*, so I won’t sugarcoat it. Hardly anything the Rams have put on tape this year gives any indication that they can make a ‘back nine’ run and sneak into the back door of the postseason, much less beat another NFL team.
*One bit of long-shot hope: If the Rams beat the rest of their NFC opponents and Las Vegas and the Chargers, FiveThirtyEight gives the Rams a 68 percent chance of making the playoffs. There are very winnable games in the mix there, but Seattle has shown that they are more than feisty on offense thus far, but they also aren’t unbeatable. The Rams still have to face the Seahawks twice. A win against Denver would give them 97 percent odds. Winning all of those games is an even longer shot, but Angelinos are generally an optimistic lot.
At the very least one Angeleno is optimistic. Jalen Ramsey believes in the Rams chances to win games going forward. “I’m a glass-half-full type of person, I don’t think negatively about each situation. Ramsey said during his Thursday press conference, adding, “We aren’t where we want to be. That’s reality. Right? But last I checked we still have a bunch of Sundays to play, if we win out, I’m sure we will go to the playoffs. That’s how I think in my mind.”
Two weeks ago after the loss to the 49ers, Coach Sean McVay promised changes. It is hard to tell if new things were implemented because of an unexpected and unwelcome change that was foisted upon the team. Matthew Stafford missed the Cardinals game while going through concussion protocol. The offense under John Wolford looked even worse than in weeks past.
Stafford has returned to practice in a full capacity and has been cleared to play against the Saints, so the Rams offense will certainly benefit from his return to action.
While they get one offensive weapon back, the Rams also lose one. Cooper Kupp required a tightrope surgery to repair an injury sustained in Week 10. Kupp, of course, has been the Rams only consistent and effective offensive weapon. So, once again, McVay is forced to enact more change. But not the ideal kind of change. The kind of change that still includes both of your most important offensive weapons.
So regardless if you believe that the Rams are just about to run the table or you are just tired of being embarrassed by your beloved team, the Rams need to win a freaking game! And New Orleans is a good place to start, which is convenient because that is where the Rams play the Saints this Sunday.
Here are some keys to taking home a win and improvements we need to see.
Rams Receivers: The Kupp Solve
There are a million ways to parse it. Cooper Kupp has been the Rams only threat. He has six touchdowns. The rest of the team has three receiving touchdowns COMBINED! I could go on, but I think you get the gist. And the fact of the matter is that the Rams have no other choice but to get more players involved. Kupp is set to miss at least four games.
While I won’t try to convince anyone that playing without him in any way helps the offense, it will force their hand in the game planning and it also changes the way Stafford distributes the ball. Hopefully, this won’t just benefit the Rams in the near term but will pay dividends later in the season as well.
Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen said when asked about the team’s approach without Kupp, “..that’s got to be done by committee.” He went on to list every receiver that he ‘feels good’ about. That list was every receiver currently on the roster. I would guess he feels better about certain receivers more than others. But coaches don’t tell the general population these things. Looking at which receivers have already been entrusted with playing time reveal the pecking order.
Allen Robinson and Ben Skowronek are shoo-ins for more playing time. Skowronek is producing a lot for a second-year, former seventh-round draft pick.
Robinson hasn’t made the splash that many expected and even more desired, but he has been a valuable piece of the offense when he has been targeted. Jalen Ramsey said while on the Thursday Night edition of LeBron James’ The Shop that he thought that Robinsons, “gotta get a little bit more chemistry with Stafford but now with Cooper (out), I think we’re gonna have to lean on him a lot more.”
Without Kupp playing chemistry will be fast-tracked between the two. Stafford is very comfortable throwing to Kupp. There is a lot of preexisting trust built between them. Also, throwing to Kupp is different than to Robinson. A lot has been made of Robinson’s separation or lack thereof. He has just 2.2 yards of separation and that number hasn’t changed all season. That’s how he plays. Kupp, on the other hand, is a master at getting himself open through speed, footwork, and route running. His separation is a full yard more than Robinson, 3.2 yards.
This means that Stafford will have to make tighter window throws and trust that Robinson will get the ball. Robinson has proved that he can get those balls in highly contested situations. Those throws will need to happen in Kupp’s absence. Stafford has to try to make them. The two receivers play two different roles, so its not a one-to-one comp, but Stafford will need to recognize Robinson’s game.
Van Jefferson is another receiver that will see an increased role. In his case, it isn’t just Kupp’s injury playing a role in that. Last week, was his first game of the three he has played in with a catch, and also the first time he seemed to have his sea legs under him. It showed too. He caught three passes including a touchdown. That was the first Rams touchdown thrown to a non-Cooper Kupp receiver since Week 6. Stafford and Jefferson connect 59 times for over 900 yards last season. So, now that he has found his stride he should be plug and play for Stafford.
Both Jefferson and Robinson are deep threats. With the Rams offensive line in constant flux due to multiple injuries, deep threats have not often been an option for Stafford. That’s another reason that Kupp has been targeted significantly more, he plays in the slot and is excellent at picking up yards after the catch. That will be the hardest aspect to replace.
The front-runner to fill that particular void is Brandon Powell. He leads Rams receivers with 7.7 yards after the catch per reception. It’s hard to tell if that will bear out with more receptions. He has only been targeted 12 times in nine games. But Powell seems to be fueled by the heat of 1000 suns. If there is an offensive player on the roster that will step up when given more playing time it is him.
Robinson and Skowronek also play a fair amount in the slot, but neither measure up to Powell’s production after the catch. Powell has added 11.3 yards after the catch per reception while in the slot. Robinson adds 2.2 and Skowronek 3.6 yards after the catch.
Coen also brought up Lance McCutcheon, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, had a fantastic preseason, and has not seen the field since then. McCutcheon is more in the mold of Robinson, big with length and very athletic. Many were excited by his preseason prowess, but as we learned with Bryce Perkins; the preseason ain’t the season. It’s easy to be optimistic about unknown quantities, so I will withhold all judgments until he has played significant downs.
And of course, there is Tutu Atwell. Two years in the league and has one reception to show for it. The applications of his speed as a go-route-burner are obvious. But as mentioned, Stafford doesn’t have that kind of time. I can see an opportunity for him in the short-passing game. Speed is speed regardless of where he catches it. The difference for Atwell is that the entire play has to be designed around blocking open clean running lanes. Like Powell, he is 5’8”, but Powell outweighs him, some 20 to 30 pounds. Atwell needs room to run before getting hit. So far, McVay has not shown the willingness to script that play.
The Advanced Maturation of Kyren Williams
This is entirely premature. Kyren Williams has played one game. But in that one game, he surpassed every running back in receiving yards other than Darrell Henderson. He also averaged 10 yards per reception. 4 more yards than Henderson. Again, it’s a small sample size. But all three of his catches went for first downs. The biggest problem for the Rams offense is scoring points. The next biggest is picking up first downs.
The Saints have the sixth most missed tackles in the league. Williams has a low center of gravity, making him hard to tackle. Williams could potentially make a significant difference in this week’s game.
I have been advocating for more 21 personnel from the Rams. McVay may now have two backs that could keep defenses guessing, Henderson as the primary running back and Williams in as a threat to catch the ball. It adds a whole new dynamic and also something that’s not already on tape. It also offers Stafford another quick option to target if he has to get rid of the ball early. But it falls on William’s shoulders to keep up the good work and that is far from guaranteed at this point.
Containing Explosive Passes/ Containing Alvin Kamara
The Saints are built to push the ball down the field. It makes sense. It is what Jameis Winston does best. But Winston isn’t the Saints quarterback any longer. Andy Dalton is. Dalton isn’t as good as Winston when throwing deep balls this season and yet the Saints continue pushing deep passes. Winston sits atop the league among qualifying quarterbacks with an average depth of target of 12 yards. Dalton isn’t far behind at 12th with 8.7. It’s his deepest in four seasons.
New Orleans has two receivers in the top 15 in the league for average depth of target. Only Tampa Bay can boast the same. Rookie receiver Chris Olave leads the New Orleans receiving crew with an average depth of target of 15.5 yards. Olave is having a fantastic rookie season. He has 658 yards and is ninth in yard per route run, not far behind Davante Adams.
The Saint’s unstoppable force will face a Ram’s immovable object. The immovable object is the Rams soft zone-two high shell. It’s immovable in two ways. One; it’s not going in where. Regardless of how much fans blame it for the team failures, it is here to stay. Two; it is halting explosive passing.
The Rams average depth of target is 5.5 yards. They are ahead of the next best, San Francisco, by .7 yards. That’s, in fact, a huge chasm. The Rams lead over the 49ers is equal to the difference between the 49ers and Kansas City. The Cheifs are 8th in the league when it comes to the average depth of target. The Rams defense is forcing teams to throw short passes. Period.
The Rams have faced three quarterbacks that have greater ADOTs than Dalton. Josh Allen, Marcus Mariota, and Cooper Rush. One thing is true about all, they all were held to one of their worst ADOT performances of the year when playing the Rams. Another thing that is true; the Rams struggled against those teams. They lost to the Cowboys and Bills and had a hard time closing out the Falcons. The Saints are a tough team to pin down from week to week. For the Rams, beating the Saints will first depend on shutting down Olave. Stopping the explosive plays he brings.
The next thing they will have to do is stop Alvin Kamara. Kamara is first in yards per reception among true pass-catching running backs. Not only that, but when coverage players play so far off the line, it creates one on one open field tackling demands. It’s one thing when it’s Ernest Jones or Bobby Wagner it’s one thing. A cornerback is going to have a harder time taking down Kamara.
In the last three games, the defensive backfield has missed 11 tackles. That accounts for about 30 percent of all the Rams missed tackles this season. The trend can’t continue if the Rams want to win this game.