What happened to the Rams’ juggernaut?
A look at how L.A.’s season has turned upside down the past two weeks
With four minutes to go, the Los Angeles Rams, down by 7, kicked the ball off to the Philadelphia Eagles and forced a three-and-out. The defense did its job perfectly and set the Rams’ offense up with plenty of time and good field position on a crucial drive. Except JoJo Natson fumbled the punt return, giving the ball back to the Eagles on the Rams’ 36.
But coming right back onto the field, the Rams defense again forced a three-and-out, giving up just one yard. The Eagles missed a long 53-yard field goal, giving the Rams the ball near midfield with 1:08 left. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, its celebrated offense failed to reach the end zone.
This is not what we are accustomed to seeing from the Rams in big moments. The defense is getting the job done, while the offense is coming up short. It appears there’s been a role reversal in L.A. Over the past two weeks, the Rams are 31st in offensive efficiency using ESPN’s expected points added (EPA) metric. Their defense is fifth in defensive EPA over the same time period, but both contests resulted in losses.
Should the Super Bowl contenders be concerned? Let’s take a closer look.
Through the first 13 weeks of the season, the Rams’ offensive EPA was 13.8 points per game, good for third in the NFL. Todd Gurley was breaking big runs from inside and outside zone schemes. Which set up play action bootlegs and deep shots from Jared Goff to Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp, who always seemed to be in tight alignments to avoid press coverage, confuse the defender’s man coverage responsibilities, and allow them to block in the running game. It appears their strategy hasn’t changed, but the results clearly have. Over the past two weeks, their offensive EPA (OEPA) is almost the exact inverse of what it was. They have a per game OEPA of -13.2 in their back-to-back losses, which would make them worse than the worst: The Arizona Cardinals have a league-worst OEPA of -9.6 for the season.
The difference between the Rams’ OEPA for weeks 1 through 13 and their OEPA for the last two weeks is 27.1 points per game. For context, the Kansas City Chiefs have a league-leading OEPA of 14.8 points per game. So, you could fit almost two Chiefs’ offenses in that delta. Excuse me as I take a moment to fantasize about a world with two Patrick Mahomeses.
Some of the Rams’ offensive decline can be explained by the season-ending ACL injury to Kupp and the questionable health of Gurley. But the lion’s share of the blame has been laid at the feet of Goff, whose inaccuracy and poor decision-making warrants criticism. He has turned the ball over six times in the last two games.
Interestingly, very few fingers are being pointed at coach Sean McVay. He is absolutely deserving of all of the acclaim that has been heaped upon him since he first transformed Goff from draft bust to potential MVP. But in the last two weeks, McVay has failed to introduce the simple and effective plays for which he has become revered. Though it is unfair, coaches’ careers are defined by Super Bowl championships. And the Rams, who are obviously in win-now mode, just lost what could prove to be their two most important games of the season. According to FiveThirtyEight, their Super Bowl win probability dropped from 19 percent to 14 percent to 9 percent over the past two weeks.
Wade Phillips’ defense, on the other hand, has been going in the other direction. For weeks 1 through 13, the defense was a net drag on the team, with a DEPA of -3.8 points per game. But their per game DEPA for the last two games is 6.4. That makes them better than the best. Currently, the top defense in the NFL by EPA is the Chicago Bears, who have a DEPA of 6.1 points per game through 15 weeks. The difference between the Rams’ DEPA in weeks 1-13 and weeks 14-15 is 10.2 points per game. That’s about 1.7 Bears defenses.
It is possible that some of the Rams’ defensive improvement may be a result of their offensive decline. Opponents were more aggressive when they needed to keep pace with the Rams’ scoring. That would certainly be true for stats such as yards per game. But I would argue that defense is easier to play when your offense is moving the ball and scoring points. Defenses tend to perform better when they play fewer plays and have a lead. Desperate one-dimensional offenses are easy prey.
The fairest critiques of the proposition that the Rams’ defense is much improved would be that two games is not enough to make sweeping claims. Plus, they’ve faced mediocre offenses. The two-week EPA is based on 127 defensive snaps, while the 13-game EPA is based on a sample of 849 snaps. And their opponents, the Bears and Eagles, were the 11th and 15th OEPAs, respectively (when they faced them). But the Rams held the Bears to an OEPA of -13.1, which is 18.3 points below their average headed into that game. Granted, it was a cold game in Chicago, which tends to benefit the defense. They didn’t fair nearly as well in the ideal offensive conditions at home against the Eagles, but they still held Philly 3.1 points below their per game average OEPA of 3.45.
The Rams’ final two games are against the Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers, divisional opponents with nothing to play for. The Rams dominated both earlier in the season, beating the Cardinals 34-0 and the Niners 39-10. So, the Rams are likely to enter the playoffs feeling good about themselves. But, hopefully, for their sake, they don’t let a false sense of security set in after their previous two games, since they are going to have to beat teams like the Bears and the Eagles in the playoffs.
I think the Rams should be thrilled if their defense can maintain its recent level of play. Which is not to say it’s a perfect unit. The persistent problem of giving up deep pass plays reared its head in the Eagles game. On two of the Eagles’ three touchdown drives, Alshon Jeffery caught passes of 36 and 50 yards.
As for the offense, it’s McVay time. After putting up only 13 points in last season’s first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, it’s time for McVay to apply his offensive genius to the postseason. His team has earned a first-round bye this season, which will allow his players to get some rest. But, maybe more importantly, it will allow McVay some time to cook up and install some new plays. The Rams have gotten predictable, which is a much bigger issue when your best players aren’t healthy enough to dominate their matchups.