The Rams succeeded in 2020 when they were able to run well, complete short passes, and play defense. In other words, the goal of their offense was to hide Jared Goff. They ended the season on a six-week offensive cold streak but still ranked 11th overall primarily because Sean McVay played to the strengths of his team and avoided really bad games through creative schemes. Their basic offensive statistics revealed their game plan.
LAR Offensive Structure
Goff is not a terrible quarterback. He took a team to the Super Bowl and has put up fairly good statistics in his career. But he has been situation-dependent. He struggles with reading defenses and reacting to what happens after the snap and has not typically performed well under pressure. McVay schemed an offense in 2020 to avoid bad situations for Goff through creative runs, reverses, and quick-hitter plays designed to limit Goff’s options in a way that helped him make easy decisions.
When the run game wasn’t working, it put too much pressure on Goff. So they were at their worst versus teams that could stop the run.
*Omitted Week 17 and Divisional Round v. GB because Wolford started for an injured Goff
This chart shows the Rams’ offensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by yards per carry allowed on the season. Teams that could stop the run generally held the Rams to sub-par performances. The Bucs (-0.30), Seahawks (-0.21 average), Jets (-0.68), and 49ers (-0.18 average), the four strongest rushing defenses they faced, all performed well against them. But the Cowboys (+0.85), Bills (+1.32), and Cardinals (+1.30), the three worst rushing defenses they faced, allowed some of their best offensive performances. The offense was significantly more effective when the pressure was not all on Goff.
And the outliers in the above chart illustrate other key aspects of this offense. They had an extremely strong showing against the Eagles (+2.78), who are actually decent against the run. But more specifically, the Eagles have a strong defensive middle. So McVay implemented a lateral running game that got his running backs and receivers the ball outside the edges, as well as a short passing game that exploited the Eagles’ secondary and linebackers in coverage. The Rams ran 6 times with wide receivers in that game, illustrating McVay’s creativity and his ability to take advantage of a team’s specific defensive weaknesses.
And the two outlier poor performances against the Dolphins (-0.79) and Patriots (-0.30) came against two of the smartest defensive coaches (Belichick and Flores), who are both known for disguising blitzes and confusing inexperienced quarterbacks. To succeed against these two defenses, the quarterback needed to be able to react once the ball had been snapped and not to rely on the coach’s game plan. Goff struggled against these schemes and the Rams had poor offensive showings as a result.
Teams that implement a low depth passing game to hide the quarterback typically decline over the course of the season as defenses study the film and pick up on the limitations. The Rams began the season on fire offensively but really struggled down the stretch. Granted, Goff’s injury played a role in the decline. But the trend was established way before Goff hurt his thumb. The Rams had a negative offensive Adjusted Rating (meaning they played below average) in 8 of their last 9 games:
Even with Cam Akers emerging against the 49ers and playing well towards the end of the year, the Rams offense struggled down the stretch. I think McVay realized the limitations of this offense with Goff under center, which is why the Rams quickly and aggressively traded Goff for Stafford after the season. For a win-now team, this was a bold but excellent move.
The Rams had great skill players, an excellent scheme, and an okay offensive line. But they did not have a quarterback who could take full advantage. The Rams knew this when they sold out everything for Stafford. It will be interesting to see how the offense evolves with a quarterback who is much more proficient at reading defenses and throwing deep. We have yet to see McVay put trust in his quarterback, because that quarterback has always been Jared Goff. We are about to learn a lot about McVay as a coach and Stafford as a player. But if I had to guess, the arrow for this offense is pointing straight up.
The Rams defense was absolutely dominant in 2020. They ranked 3rd, but that included a terrible Divisional Round performance against the Packers with Aaron Donald on the sideline and several games against teams at their absolute best. They faced the Cowboys with Dak Prescott and the 49ers with all relevant players healthy, skewing their numbers down against each team’s season average. But based on pure statistical regular-season metrics, they were simply amazing:
Rams Defensive Dominance
|Yards Per Play||4.6||1st|
|Net Yards Per Pass||5.1||1st|
|Yards Per Carry||3.8||3rd|
They put up these incredible numbers without exerting a ton of pressure on the quarterback, ranking 17th in pressure rate. They were able to lock down opponents by playing tight on receivers, tackling aggressively without making mistakes, and forcing offenses to struggle for every yard gained. They forced opponents to move the ball slowly.
To counter the Rams’ defense you needed to get big plays. Not many teams were capable of this. MVP Aaron Rodgers obviously accomplished this in the playoffs but Donald was injured during that game, which made it a lot easier. Even in games where Donald did not put up a big stat line, his mere presence on the field commanded the attention of multiple offensive linemen and the quarterback in a way that disrupted most offenses. Josh Allen, another MVP candidate, also played well against the Rams. But several good quarterbacks really struggled, including Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.
Other teams that had some level of success utilized a wide array of options on offense. When Dak was healthy, the Cowboys played well against the Rams because they had enough weapons in Cooper, Gallup, Lamb, Zeke, and Jarwin, and a quarterback who could get them the ball. The 49ers also played well with Kittle, Deebo, Aiyuk, Mostert, and Garoppolo, a full complement of weapons that San Francisco typically lacked in 2020.
By contrast, teams that relied on one stud wide receiver for offensive production really struggled against the Rams. Jalen Ramsey could lock down the opposing team’s best weapon and when they didn’t have a lot else going on in the passing game, this created a major advantage for Los Angeles. When they faced teams with a highly-concentrated passing attack through their WR1 like BUF (Diggs, 33.2%), WAS (McLaurin, 32.3%), CHI (Robinson, 34.2%), SEA (Metcalf, 33.1%), and ARI (Hopkins, 35.6%), they excelled.
*Omitted Divisional Round v. GB with Donald injured for most of game
This chart shows the Rams’ defensive Adjusted Rating in games against teams who concentrated their pass game through one wide receiver (at least 32% passing yard share) by the blue line, with more balanced passing teams represented by the yellow line. Although the Rams had good games against both types of teams, almost all of their subpar games came against more balanced attacks. You needed options in the passing game to have a chance.
Because the Rams did not get a high rate of pressure on the quarterback, they did not capitalize against teams with poor protection. For example, when the Rams played the Eagles, who allowed an NFL-high 65 sacks on the season, the Rams did not sack Wentz once.
*Omitted Week 1 v. DAL (Dak outperformed) and Divisional Round v. GB (Donald sat most of the game)
This chart shows the Rams defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s pressure rate allowed on the season. Some of their best performances came against teams that typically prevented pressure, like ARI (+1.09 average), TB (+1.66), and MIA (+1.69). In other words, because the Rams did not rely on pressure to win defensively, they had a relative advantage against opponents who combatted pressure well.
Everyone will remember the Rams defense getting rolled by the Packers in the playoffs. It was a poor showing. But what stuck out to me actually reflected a positive. Donald was clearly hurt and sitting most of the crucial game. He was the Rams’ MVP and without him they stood no chance. But when Sean McVay was asked at half time, he said there was no injury. In the postgame he avoided talking about it as well. His mindset did not allow him to admit that the injury played a role in the loss because he doesn’t believe in making excuses. This spoke volumes to me about his future success as an NFL coach.
The fact is this defense was incredible when Donald was on the field and should continue its dominance in 2021 if they can stay healthy.
Putting it All Together
- The Rams are underrated heading into the offseason. They played poorly at the end of the season and flew under the radar most of the year. But after immediately fixing their quarterback situation they should be considered co-favorites to win the NFC.
- Time will tell, but I expect McVay’s offense to thrive with a smart, talented, experienced quarterback considering how he maximized the team’s offense with Goff. Particularly if they can establish a strong ground game, this could be one of the NFL’s top offenses.
- Unless the offense looks totally different, favor the Rams against teams that struggle to stop the run, as their scheme is at its best when the run game and pass game are working in tandem.
- Expect the Rams to outperform on defense against teams that rely on one WR for their passing game, particularly when the rest of the available options are sub-par.
- Expect the Rams to outperform against offenses that get good protection because the Rams don’t rely on pressure to win on defense.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- As much as I love Matthew Stafford, the Rams could still focus primarily on running and defense. He’ll be a better player than he was in Detroit but that may not necessarily translate to fantasy statistics. He likely will not be playing from behind nearly as much.
- Stafford’s arrival brings a slight boost to Woods, Kupp, and Higbee. Look for them to perform at the high level they established in their first few years with the Rams. Van Jefferson makes a fantastic deep sleeper option with Reynolds gone, in case Woods or Kupp gets hurt.
- The Cam Akers hype is massive, and he deserves it after playing well at the end of the year. I don’t feel strongly either way on Akers but any talented running back will likely perform well for this team in 2021. Darrell Henderson is an underrated backup option who performed extremely well in 2020 that you can stash in case something happens to Akers.
- Avoid everyone against the Rams. They have no defensive weaknesses right now.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 7, the Rams were 5.5-point favorites against the Bears on Monday night. This was an ideal matchup for an underrated Rams team against an overrated Bears team. Not only did I project a strong advantage for the Rams, but the matchup was particularly favorable. Outside of Allen Robinson the Bears did not have much on offense. I predicted that, with Ramsey shutting down Robinson, the Bears would struggle to move the ball at all. I knew the Rams offense would not light up the scoreboard, but with an extra day to game plan I anticipated that McVay would come up with a scheme to offset the Bears’ defense. I also didn’t think they would need to score a ton given how strong their advantage was on defense. I put 3 Units on LAR -5.5 and a small bonus bet on the alternate spread of -12.5. Sure enough, the Rams held the Bears to 10 points and won 24-10.
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