“I think we are just continuing to learn our identity, Sam. It’s about learning how to utilize a lot of moving parts, that are different than we’ve had in years past. That’s a part of our job as coaches.”
That’s what Sean McVay said at his post-game press conference after the Los Angeles Rams sloppy 20-12 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, even ugly wins are wins, so as far as that is concerned the Rams are 2-1. As far as their identity, it is much harder to quantify exactly where they are. One thing we know is that this offense does not look like what the Rams have come to expect. Anemic on third downs, paltry in the red zone, struggling to create explosive plays. Most of all, they have been wildly inconsistent.
The Rams Offensive Identity
In reality, this period of learning who they are on offense shouldn’t be entirely surprising. There were several off-season movements and they have lost even more to injury. Less than half of the regular offensive starters from last season played in this game. That’s certainly what McVay was talking about. Despite Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp returning, this offense looks very different. The growing pains of this offense were on display against the Cardinals as well as against the Falcons, two teams they should have beaten up on. But all is not lost. There were also signs of they were finding their identity.
The offensive line has seen the most change between both losing players and injuries. The four penalties called on this unit are indicative of a lack of cohesion and discipline. The Rams are playing four very green offensive linemen. Only Rob Havenstein has played as a starter for a full season among the five spots. Offensive lines rely heavily on working together and knowing blocking rules and assignments. Having a very young line only compounds the fact that these five have hardly known another much less played at all. They have done a fair job keeping Stafford off the turf, but he has seen a slight uptick in pressure so far this year and their penalties single-handedly stalled drives.
While having Ben Skowronek lining up as a fullback is fun, creative, and effective, it is also necessary. The Rams are using him that way because he is a good blocker and they need help protecting Stafford.
The offense has started to click in a few exciting ways. They rushed for over 100 yards for the first time this season and for the first time since the wild card game against the Cardinals last season. It took the Rams the better part of the game to get it going, but Cam Akers was able to find some space to get some yards. Akers was the beneficiary of great blocking by Kupp, Allen Robinson, and Skowronek.
In the passing game, Stafford was able to spread the ball around. Someone other than Cooper Kupp led the Rams in receiving for the first time since week nine of last year. In fact, Kupp was third in receiving. Tyler Higbee and Skowronnek caught for more yards than Kupp. Why this is good is it means more receivers are getting open and Stafford is learning what they can be counted on to do. Also, it means the Rams offense won’t stall if a defense is somehow able to slow Kupp.
Where the Rams will need to continue gel is with Allen Robinson and Tutu Atwell. Neither has been a consistent factor on offense. There were flashes of Robinson early against the Falcons, but coming into this season, hopes for him were much higher. Atwell’s flash hasn’t happened yet. But you can see what the Rams are thinking. Stafford targeted Atwell deep in the second quarter. The timing wasn’t right on this particular throw. Stafford either overthrew him or Atwell underran the route. Despite already having a step and a half on the safety, Atwell seemed to have another gear he could engage. If he was all out on that route, he could have hauled in his first catch.
If that play works, this game has a very different tone. Had Atwell scored on the drive it would have put the Rams up 20-0. Thinking back to early last season, DeSean Jackson, a much more veteran receiver caught a few of those balls that effectively tore games open. That’s the narrow difference between an offense clicking versus lacking an identity.
The offense is clicking when Stafford connects with Kupp or Higbee, but the new additions are still finding their footing. It isn’t ideal, but it is the reality. That’s why the Rams offense has either looked like a well-oiled machine or sputtering hooptie. Only certain parts are working at full capacity.
Bent But Not Broken Defense
The defense has found large pieces of their identity, but it just so happens that the Rams defensive identity is dependent on an offense that scores more than 20 points a game. McVay specified 30 points as the point total he expects from the offense.
This defense gives large cushions to opposing receivers. Giving up small chunks of yardage is a feature, not a bug of the defense. This also prevents big plays from gashing them and putting up touchdowns on the scoreboard.
The Rams defense only allowed two plays of 14 yards or more. They gave up four scores, but all were field goals. Jalen Ramsey put it this way, “That’s just knowing the game of football, and being savvy. We played very conservative, but if they were going to keep going short and letting us tackle in-bounds, we’re good with that.”
The moving parts of the defense have largely been injury related in the secondary, which also shapes their identity. Given the personnel, the Rams are forced to play with, “bending” might be the best-case scenario, until more veteran defensive backs get back on the field. Putting inexperienced corners into man coverage is a recipe for disaster. The extra cushion gives those young defensive backs time to read and react to what receivers and quarterbacks are doing.
What is starting to click on defense is the edge rushing group. They did a great job at containing Kyler Murray, taking away his ability to make plays outside the pocket, with either his arm or legs. They didn’t get significant proper pressure on him, just 17.7 percent, but they held him to just 8 yards rushing. In their previous two games, the opposing quarterbacks ran for 72 yards and five first downs. It’s a tactic the Rams have focused on with Murray specifically. The Rams have held him to just 14 yards over their last two meetings.
What is true is that every NFL team goes through several versions of their team every season. Looking back to last season, the Rams were three of four different versions of themselves on their path to the Super Bowl. This team will continue to morph over the weeks. McVay has proven that he knows how to coach this team and this offense can really only get better. Right?