The opening 20 seconds of the Rams 17-12 loss to the Steelers was the most optimistic of the entire afternoon. Dante Fowler Jr. returned a fumble for a touchdown and it looked like the Rams would cruise to 6-3 and remain in the wild card hunt. All of that optimism was erased as the Rams offense took the field and were eaten alive by the Steelers pass rush. It was a throwback to all the pitiful Jeff Fisher years where the defense would single handily carry the team because the offense would sputter.
This is not how it was supposed to be after the Rams offense seemingly got its groove back in decisive wins over the Falcons and Bengals. They were going to head into their bye week and then come back and run the table on their way to a playoff spot. Unfortunately, Sunday showed fans what they’ve always known in the back of their minds all season. The Rams offense is fundamentally broken.
For the first few weeks, there was this sense that the team was just off to a slow start. Sean McVay was trying new things to combat the 6-1 defense and to a minor degree found a tweak. He implemented a little more outside rushes but other than that the Rams offense was the same. What hasn’t been the same is the offensive line isn’t the great blockade it was last season. Todd Gurley is clearly still not right.
It’s understandable that the Rams want him to have some load management but this goes beyond that. He’s only rushed 104 yards with 6 TDs and as a receiver, he’s even worse catching 5 of 28 targets. All of this would be worrisome but manageable if Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown were able to give the offense 80% of what Gurley gives it but that hasn’t happened. All hope that the Rams offense would break the emergency glass on Gurley as the season descended into a free fall were dashed when McVay held out Gurley for nearly the entire 4th quarter against Pittsburgh.
The primary source of on-field anguish comes from the offensive line. They aren’t the primary culprit in the Rams offense taking a major dive but they’re a key contributor. Andrew Whitworth is showing his age and Rob Havenstein is having a disastrous fall. The young guns in Joe Noteboom (out for the season), Brian Allen (out for the season), and Austin Blythe have not developed the way everyone hoped and it’s caused Jared Goff to both drastically regress and to get pummeled nearly every play.
He stood virtually no chance against Pittsburgh’s pass rush. When he did find time, he just couldn’t get it to his receivers causing drives to stall. On Sunday against the Bears, the Rams will be without Havenstein who is dealing with a knee injury leaving Whitworth as the only adult on a line that will otherwise have a combined one start between them this season. Unless Goff wears Mandalorian armor under his pads, Khalil Mack is going to flatten him like Judge Doom. Furthermore, Goff could potentially be without tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett as they have injuries of their own.
Jared Goff‘s weaknesses as a starting quarterback are now being magnified. He still can’t handle pressure and couldn’t improvise if he spent a year at the UCB theater. When he has the time, he’s capable of making big throws but now that he doesn’t have protection or a running game, defenses have destroyed him all year. He’s thrown for 11 TDS and 9 INTS which is only slightly better than his rookie campaign.
Even his ardent defenders can see that he’s not what he was the first two McVay years which makes his $134 million dollar extension devastating. The system QB label he’s tried to shed is instead now a tattoo for which he can never get removed. It’s heartbreaking for him and the fans but that’s the truth. He needs everything to go right in order to make the offense work but he’s not the only one.
Sean McVay has struggled to adjust. Whether it’s out of stubbornness or he’s truly confounded by what his roster can and can’t do is irrelevant. He hasn’t come up with a plan B and that’s disturbing. He must know deep down that his line can’t adequately give the skill players time to run what he’d like so it’s strange he hasn’t altered the game plan to work around their limitations.
There have been moments such as the Seattle game or late against Tampa where the offense actually looked explosive. Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh was rock bottom for this unit and sadly there’s a chance they could somehow sink lower. McVay rightly has worked to solve the 6-1 that befell him in the Super Bowl but outside of that he hasn’t figured out how to put his guys in the best position to succeed. Still, he’s not the main culprit.
Les Snead deserves the biggest brunt of all criticism surrounding this team. Not just because he mortgaged the next few years of picks on Jalen Ramsey but because during the offseason he took a bet on the young lineman and now it’s coming back to haunt the rest of the roster. He’s obliterated their cap beyond repair for at least four years.
Brandin Cooks can’t stay healthy and given the number of concussions he’s taken in his career that extension (which counts for $15.1 million next year) looks awful. Havenstein being ranked in the 70s among lineman per PFF makes his extension look equally problematic and that’s not even to mention Gurley or Goff. It isn’t clear if he had extended Rodger Saffold that the Rams offense would be in a similar predicament but they’d at least have someone who is proven rather than a bunch of second-year guys.
It was understandable that Snead would want to reward his players and lock up his core but things change at ludicrous speed in the NFL so what is once a formidable group could regress just as quickly. He can’t wheel and deal his way out of this quagmire. The only moveable piece they have is Higbee and removing him would only free up about $6 million.
The Rams’ problems go well beyond that. Some have written that they could cut Gurley or Goff but the dead money they’d have to eat would only make things worse. There aren’t any teams that would trade for either one at this point, ditto Cooks. He’s still obviously going to extend Ramsey otherwise trading the farm for a compensatory 3rd round pick would be damn right idiotic. Ramsey would tie up about $15 million a year which further complicates matters. The defense, while a solid unit, has a plethora of contracts up in the next two years as well.
The future is Blade Runner level bleak as is the present. The Rams have the 5th hardest schedule going forward and at first, it seemed like the defense could carry them past a Trubisky-led Bears team but considering the Rams couldn’t best Mason Rudolph, whose biggest 2019 highlight was getting his dome crushed in by Myles Garrett, who’s to say they have the upper hand on Trubisky?
They still have Seattle, Dallas, San Francisco, and two games against a frisky Cardinals team. It’s a brutal stretch and given the Vikings are having the opposite of the Rams’ woes they might as well be climbing the Murderhorn fueled by nothing but Powersauce bars.
They can’t tank because they don’t have their first rounder so the best they can hope for is the Vikings, Seahawks, and Niners to hit a wall and they sneak in. Even if they pull that off they’d get drummed out in the playoffs. This team came into the year seeking redemption but now they’re simply seeking a way to survive. It’s a shame that a team with a high ceiling and wide-open championship window is now in a windowless prison of their own design. The Rams offense was once a leader in innovation and now like Johhny Bananas, they’re getting by on reputation.