On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers return from the bye to take on the NFL’s only undefeated team, the Los Angeles Rams. Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Rams and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Sean McVay arrived in Los Angeles less than two years ago and has already earned plaudits as one of the best coaches in football. What in particular does Sean McVay do with his offense that, in your view, separates him from the pack?
Well it’s two-pronged. Part of it is scheming to players’ strengths and the other part is sheer unpredictably due to masking.
Last year, the Rams underwent a pretty quick personnel overhaul bringing in LT Andrew Whitworth, C John Sullivan, WR Robert Woods, WR Sammy Watkins and WR Cooper Kupp all before the 2017 season started. Despite bringing in five new starters at some obviously crucial positions, McVay made it all work immediately by using players to their strengths. For QB Jared Goff, it was about simplifying a system that allowed them to identify areas to attach pre-snap and then make simple decisions based on quick reads. It wasn’t perfect, but it was miles (nay, leagues) (double nay, light years) better than the system Goff worked in during his rookie system under former Head Coach Jeff Fisher. And by optimizing the opportunities to get RB Todd Gurley in space especially with the screen game, it opened things up for Goff and the passing offense with consistency. That obviously hasn’t changed much in 2018, though replacing Watkins with WR Brandin Cooks has made the Rams even more threatening especially deep downfield with Cooks’ speed.
As for masking, McVay runs a large majority of his plays from very similar looks. The Rams run nearly every single play out of 11 personnel -- one running back and one tight end. So there’s no tell by switching things up with extra tight ends or showing a pass by going with five wideouts (though I should point to Gurley’s versatility in the passing game both as a receiving option and a blocker as he’s very good in both aspects that might make it easier for McVay not to have to switch personnel more often). And even then, there aren’t many formation switches. And from those few switches? The Rams run and pass the ball sufficiently to suggest a run out of shotgun or to keep safeties off under center. Combine that with Gurley’s skill as a runner, and it’s why despite that latter point he faces some of the lightest boxes in the NFL. There’s no real way to know what the Rams are running or who it’s going to. And for an offense with that many weapons, that’s just a huge, huge problem for opposing defenses.
APC: Todd Gurley currently has 14 touchdowns from scrimmage, putting him on pace to break Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson’s record of 31 for a single season. Do you think Gurley will break that mark, and if he doesn’t what do you expect will stop him?
He certainly has a shot. He’s got the talent, he’s got the system, and he’s got the personnel around him.
Gurley wasn’t cranking out touchdowns at the rate he is this year simply because the passing offense wasn’t getting the Rams into the red zone frequently enough. Through seven games a year ago, Gurley had five rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns; so far this year, it’s at 11 and three, respectively. It’s just down to the passing game cranking out more as Goff has upped his output from averaging 245.6 yards per game through seven games to now hitting 304.3. So not only are the Rams getting into the red zone more (37 times in seven games in 2018 compared to 31 in 2017), they’re also more successful (21 RZ scoring drives for a 56.8% compared to 15 and 48.4% a year ago).
Will he break Tomlinson’s mark? Maybe. I’m not great in the prediction game. But if there’s something to stop him, it would have to be personnel-wise. Any injuries to the offensive line or passing game would reduce the offense overall and simply give him less chances to get to 31. Otherwise, it’s hard to see him not reaping the benefit of the offense overall regardless of the volatility of week-to-week outputs.
So I mean...don’t go bet on him doing it. Unless you’re comfortable betting on sports and you think he can do it then you should cause that’s how betting works! I’m a hot darned gambling genius!
APC: The success of the Rams offense overshadows Wade Phillips’ defense, which has done a fine job this season as well. Besides Aaron Donald, what defenders should the Packers look out for?
It certainly all starts up front with Donald who’s simply unstoppable over the course of a game with Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers who are each extremely skilled in their own rights. And despite not having Aqib Talib as he’s on injured reserve, the Rams’ secondary is still full of talent with CB Marcus Peters, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, S John Johnson III and S Lamarcus Joyner. That the weakest point is CB Troy Hill and his rotationmate CB Sam Shields who Packers fans obviously will remember alludes to how strong the unit is overall.
The weak point is without question the linebacking corps where the Rams don’t have a plus edge rush and exploitable inside linebacking play. Still, I’d point to LB Cory Littleton’s uncanny nose for big plays. Aside from his special teams exploits where he’s seemingly available for a weekly punt block, he’s been a plus in his linebacking play as a third-year undrafted free agent who was actually the Rams’ team rookie of the year in 2016, Goff’s rookie year.
APC: If you were game planning against the Rams, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
On offense, the first thing would have to be to establish the run. Trying to pass the ball is just too risky to lean into overall, and the Rams have been much more susceptible to the run since Phillips arrived. It’s not that passing success is impossible; Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins had a fine game against the Rams, though they avoided the run after struggling with it early on. But testing the Rams’ secondary while dealing with Aaron Donald up front has undone many a passing attack regardless of talent at the skill positions.
Defensively...I’m honestly not sure I have an answer. Part of it is situational. You’ve got to find a way to get to third downs. The Rams do so many things well when they have the ball, if you let them start working the field with their various passing weapons and allowing the offensive line, the NFL’s best in 2018, to start developing things in the run game for Gurley, it’s just very hard for me to think of how to stop them.
APC: Finally, it’s prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
I’ll go with the Rams in an offensively powered game, but I don’t feel anywhere near as certain as I did the Rams’ last game against the 49ers. Really, it just comes down to Rodgers. He’s that individually spectacular that he can make things happen on his own. So I’ll stick behind the Rams’ offense to go toe-to-toe with the Packers’ offense, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
UNLESS YOU’RE COMFORTABLE BETTING ON SPORTS AND THE REST OF IT. WE WENT OVER THIS ALREADY. JEEZ!
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 this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers versus Rams.