Tonight, the Green Bay Packers close out the 2017 preseason with a home game against the Los Angeles Rams. Joe McAtee (aka 3k) from Turf Show Times was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Rams and provide insight into the team's strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Jared Goff struggled during his first and only year under Jeff Fisher's staff. How has he performed thus far under new head coach Sean McVay?
Inconsistently. In the second preseason game between the Rams and the Raiders, the offense looked much improved as Goff led three scoring drives out of the first four possessions in the first half including a gorgeous deep ball to newly-acquired WR Sammy Watkins. In the Rams' last game against the Chargers, Goff looked...bad. Two throws underneath with a bunch of YAC had the Rams in the red zone when Joey Bosa stripped Goff and Melvin Ingram returned it for a TD. The next possession was even worse as Goff threw an incomprehensible interception.
To be fair, there's clearly an issue of sample size. If Goff comes out in the second half of the Chargers game and performs well and helps the Rams get a win (something he has yet to do in his seven-game NFL career...), it would change how we view his performance in a game like that. Without knowing how he's going to perform as McVay and Offensive Coordinator Matt LeFleur put in their halftime adjustments into the gameplan, it's hard to really assess his performance overall with respect to the approaching regular season.
What I don't know is how much tolerance the McVay-LaFleur pairing will have for Goff if he doesn't perform to task. The Rams have a bye week at Week 8. At that point, Rams fans will likely have a firmer conclusion on their assessment of Goff's play. If it's anything close to 2016, I'd be shocked if the chorus calling for a new starting quarterback isn't much louder.
Here's hoping we don't have to find out.
APC: Aaron Donald has decided to hold out in pursuit of a new contract. Do you expect one side to acquiesce to the other or will the stalemate continue into the regular season?
I honestly don't see why it wouldn't continue into the season. Clearly, there's something about the Rams' offer that Donald is unwilling to accept, whether it's salary-related (which it doesn't sound like) or more related to the flexibility and/or job security it would give Donald (which it does sound like). If the Rams aren't budging on giving him whatever his representation is demanding, I'm not sure why they would in the next week. He's under contract through next season with the fifth-year option, so he may well have to play out his current deal if he's that committed to free agency. And given that the Rams aren't in win-now mode with a head coach in his first year, there's no reason to capitulate for the purposes of helping the on-field product.
The real problem is that the Rams are adding to the perception of being a poorly-run team from the top with this saga. This is a franchise that gave an extension to both OLB Robert Quinn and WR Tavon Austin before their fourth NFL seasons. There's no question Donald has outplayed both and in Austin's case it's laughable to compare the two. Given that the Rams lost CB Janoris Jenkins to free agency where he joined the New York Giants on a major deal and proceeded to provide them with a Pro Bowl season and help them get to the playoffs last year while CB Trumaine Johnson has been tagged in successive years while suggesting this might likely be his final season as a Ram, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest the Rams deserve much praise if any for their personnel management.
The Aaron Donald saga is perhaps just the biggest piece of evidence to give Rams fans concern. And with key players like Johnson ILB Alec Ogletree, CB Lamarcus Joyner and WR Sammy Watkins all playing on deals that expire after this season, the franchise is going to be tested yet again on this front very soon.
APC: The Rams invested significant resources into their offense this year, augmenting the offensive line with Andrew Whitworth, signing wideout Robert Woods, and trading for former No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins. How have the new personnel fit in so far?
Very well, but the bar was so low it was almost impossible for them not to. Many people have suggested the biggest addition this year was either McVay as head coach or Whitworth at left tackle. I've made the suggestion it was the subtraction of Greg Robinson as the starting left tackle. GRob was so bad for the Rams over the last few years that simply moving on might have improved the offense more than anything. Whitworth will clearly be an improvement, but at 35-years old he simply can't be included in any long-term plans. I doubt he'll be a cause for concern in 2017.
At wide receiver, the Rams let both Kenny Britt and Brian Quick exit via free agency and drafted a pair of WRs in Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds to add to the current crop. It's definitely a deeper group than in years past and should negate the excuse of the quality of targets for Goff. If nothing else, doing that should be of comfort for Rams fans as the team tries to accurately assess whether or not the franchise can be placed on his shoulders over the coming seasons.
APC: Todd Gurley looked like a budding star as a rookie, but averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season. Which Gurley has shown up in 2017?
Well, I think you have to go back and look at that rookie season first. In his first four starts, Gurley was an incredible talent who excelled in creating space and then picking up huge gains. But the final eight games in 2015 were much more pedestrian including a two game stretch in which he ran the ball for a paltry combined 60 yards. So while Rams fans (and fantasy football players) were leaning on those first four games, there was a much larger body of work to suggest that for all his talents, the Rams' running game was going to present a wall that Gurley was not going to be able to break through.
That's exactly what happened in 2016.
The blocking was poor. The passing game was poor as well which allowed teams to keep their safeties tight and play a contracted passing defense that allowed them to attack the run with more aggression. And over the course of the season, Gurley stopped trusting his line. Runs designed for specific gaps are hard to execute when that gap is filled with a defender; I think it's fair to understand why Gurley stopped heading into the assigned gap and looked to create space on his own outside of the playcall unlike in 2015 when he could do so according to the script.
The question is if he'll face more of the same this year. The Rams didn't draft any offensive linemen in the 2017 NFL Draft. They augmented one of the worst lines in the NFL with a 35-year old left tackle and a new center who started one game over the last two seasons. There's plenty of reason to believe the line could struggle again this year, and that's before building in any worry for injury (something the Rams arguably faced less than any NFL team in 2016).
Suffice to say that if the Rams can't move the ball on the ground in 2017 regardless of to what degree that's Gurley's fault, fans won't be pointing to that record-breaking four-game stretch to justify continued underwhelming performances.
APC: What are some under-the-radar Rams players to keep an eye on during Thursday's game?
On offense, perhaps the two brightest depth performers of the preseason have been WR Josh Reynolds and RB Justin Davis. Reynolds, a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M, has scored a touchdown in each of the last two games. After missing much of training camp, those two touchdowns have clearly assuaged any concerns about his ability. I would have liked to have seen him get some time with the starting offense, but that time he missed left him with too much work to do as a depth option first. Davis, on the other hand, came in way under the bar. A rookie UDFA out of USC, Davis joined a crowded running back field that given the Rams' signing of FA Lance Dunbar seemed like it was perhaps too crowded for Davis. Aside from a pair of fumbles against the Dallas Cowboys in the opener, Davis has excelled in the preseason as a clone of former Rams and current Colts RB Daryl Richardson. A decisive runner who attacks the line of scrimmage, Davis has certainly made a name for himself in three games. I wouldn't be surprised if ultimately he lands on the practice squad rather than the 53-man roster, but he's earned that spot based on his play. For a rookie UDFA, that's a success nonetheless.
Defensively, there's a ton to work through. The Rams are a much better team on defense among the starters and many are hoping new Defensive Coordinator Wade Philips could improve them enough that the Rams could be in position late this year to pull off their first winning season since 2003 (don't @ me). While that would take a minor miracle to achieve (for injury avoidance alone), it does mean that the depth are in much less of a position to need to contribute compared to the offense. So while we've seen some decent performances on this side of the ball, I'm not sure how much that will factor in to roster decisions. Someone like OLB Samson Ebukam, the Rams' other fourth-round pick, hasn't even played yet; so compared to Reynolds who has pushed for playing time above board, there are some situations on defense of much more confusion. In terms of who has stood out, NT Mike Purcell has played his way into discussion. And CBs Mike Jordan and Dominique Hatfield have put up some good work as well.
Tonight's the last audition for a lot of these guys, so motivation's going to be high. Some surprise performances tonight on both sides wouldn't surprise me in the least.
We'd like to thank Joe and Turf Show Times for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Rams. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Rams vs. Packers.