The primary benefit to getting a bye in the playoffs is that you get what is in essence an automatic win. No matter how bad the team you’re playing in, the only team that is truly impossible to lose to is the bye. The secondary benefit is rest. The NFL season is a grind unlike any other sport. Despite playing fewer games than every other major sport, football’s inherit violence leads to players constantly being on the scale of hurt-to-injured. The bye provides a respite from the constant battering and an opportunity to get healthy. You can see this with the Green Bay Packers, whose only DNP in Tuesday’s practice was Kingsley Keke.
This was an opportunity that the Los Angeles Rams did not earn. In the game last week, the Rams lost their backup-turned-starting quarterback John Wolford to a stinger in his neck. He was then replaced by starter-turned-active backup Jared Goff, fresh off surgery to repair a dislocated thumb.
The Rams later lost the most dominant defensive linemen in football, Aaron Donald, to a rib injury and, although X-rays determined that he did not break any ribs, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Donald has torn rib cartilage. As of now, Donald is expected to play, likely with the help of some strong medications as rib cartilage tears are typically a multi-week injury. If things hadn’t been bad enough for the Rams on the injury front, their top receiver, Cooper Kupp, went off limping late in the game. Fortunately for Kupp, he appears to have avoided a disaster and is dealing with a knee contusion, and is also expected to play. Still, let’s walk through these injuries one-by-one and see how harshly they will impact the Rams if the players are hampered or are unable to go.
Despite the fact that the Rams’ quarterback situation is far from great during the best of times, this player will still have the greatest impact on the game for Los Angeles. For Tuesday’s practice, Wolford got a DNP designation with a stinger while Goff was a full participant.
Prior to leaving last Saturday’s game, John Wolford was not productive. In seven dropbacks, he averaged -0.21 Expected Points Added per play and a disastrous -17.6 CPOE (completion percentage over expected). While Wolford does offer some escapability, looking that bad against a quite mediocre Seahawks defense is not going to scare anyone.
Jared Goff’s topline numbers from the game aren’t frightening either. In 23 dropbacks, he averaged 0.11 EPA/play and a -12.2 CPOE. Nothing in his throw chart below looks like he was overly-hampered by the healing thumb, but this was also in Seattle where it was 44 degrees.
Goff was only 3/9 on throws more than 10 yards downfield, but the sample size on those throws is not particularly high. Goff was pretty clearly nursing the thumb all game long, as his offensive linemen had to pick him up by his left hand rather than his right. Several throws came out quite wobbly as well, which is likely due to his thumb being unable to provide the necessary grip.
Goff’s struggles in the cold have also been well publicized this week across the Packers blogosphere: 47% completions, 0 TDs, 5 INTs, and a 34.5 passer rating in two games where the kickoff temperature was below freezing. It’s important to know that this has only been in two games. While the weather for Saturday is expected to be quite mild for January, there is still a quite meaningful difference between 44 degrees and 30 degrees.
Goff’s numbers in his playoff career have not been particularly strong either: 54% completions, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, and a 5.72 ANY/A. Even prior to the injury, Jared Goff was not very good this year: He ranked 23rd in EPA/dropback, 21st in CPOE, 22nd in DVOA, and 24th in QBR. Goff is a below-average quarterback, and now the Packers will get to face a damaged version of him.
Kupp was a DNP in practice on Tuesday as well, but is apparently expected to be able to play on Saturday with a knee contusion. He is the Rams’ best receiver by a good amount. Kupp leads the team’s receivers substantially in both DYAR and DVOA. The Rams offense relies heavily on Kupp, as he led the team in targets per game and catch-rate.
Kupp’s importance to the offense isn’t new either. In 2018, after his knee injury, the Rams’ passing attack struggled. Prior to Kupp’s ACL injury, they ranked 3rd in EPA/dropback. After the injury, they plummeted to 22nd. If Kupp can’t go on Saturday, the Rams will have to rely on Robert Woods, who has not been as good in 2020 as in prior years, and Josh Reynolds. Woods ranks 75th in DVOA this year at -11.8%, while Reynolds comes in only a few slots higher at 71st at -10.6% If Kupp is unable to play or is severely hampered by his knee injury, that eliminates the Rams’ best receiver and makes a passing offense that is already quite mediocre potentially quite bad.
Like Kupp, Donald also was a DNP for practice on Tuesday, but is expected to play. There’s really nothing that needs to be said about Aaron Donald that you don’t already know. He’s perhaps the most disruptive interior player of all time. Donald led all NFL defensive tackles in pass rush win rate by 4 points, led the league in pressures by a defensive lineman (according to Sports Info Solutions) with 67, and had 13.5 sacks. He’s a menace. I fully expect Donald to play, but if he can’t be the destroyer of world’s for the Rams, that presents a real problem for them.
Donald can be a one-man wrecking crew for an offense, even one with an elite pass blocking unit like Green Bay’s, but the Rams are not just a one-man wrecking crew up front. Leonard Floyd had a breakout season mustering 10.5 sacks. Morgan Fox and Michael Brockers chipped in with a combined nine as well. Still, none of them can compare to Donald, and if Donald is out, there performances will all suffer drastically from that. No one in the NFL sees more double teams than Aaron Donald, but if he is unable to play or his snaps are limited, it could be disastrous for a Rams defense attempting to slow down the league’s best offense.