As recently as a month ago, the Los Angeles Rams appeared to have an offense that was damn near unstoppable. Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Rams gained more yards than any team in the league and also ranked second in the NFL in scoring. Their offense was both efficient (NFL-high 6.9 yards per play) and explosive (58 plays that gained 20 or more yards, second in the NFL), and as such ranked second in the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA.
At the time, the Rams and coach Sean McVay were being universally lauded for their unique offensive philosophy, where in they used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on 98 percent of their offensive snaps, with the same exact 11 players playing almost all of those snaps. (Todd Gurley would get a breather every now and then, while Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp missed some time due to injuries, but when everyone was healthy, the same guys were on the field for essentially every important snap of every game.) Aligning this way meant they could make almost every single play look exactly the same right up until the moment that it became something different, which allowed them to confuse defenses with motion and play-action, creating enormous holes through which Gurley could run or Jared Goff could throw the football.
And all of that was before the Rams played in what was inarguably the Chiefs as Goff fired the ball all over the field and just about every skill-position player on both teams had a monster game. The Rams took their bye immediately after that game against the Chiefs, and they haven't looked the same since. It's been tempting to say they've been off for the last two weeks -- Week 14 was when the Bears absolutely shut them down on Sunday Night Football -- but the Bears (and the Eagles) actually owe some of their strategy from that win to the Rams' Week 13 opponent: surprisingly, the Detroit Lions, who had the NFL's 30th-ranked defense heading into their game against the Rams., hanging 54 points on the
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What the Lions did against the Rams that week set the blueprint for what the Bears and Eagles have done since: they simply ignored all the bells and whistles that come along with the Rams' offensive play design, steadfastly refusing to react to play-action fakes and daring McVay to run the ball or Goff to complete short passes against soft zones and methodically work the ball downfield. The Rams ended that game with 30 points, but that figure overstates how much of a slog that game was for them -- they had just 16 points until there were seven minutes left in the game, and their two fourth-quarter touchdown drives covered a combined 69 yards thanks to a turnover and an onside-kick attempt.
Goff, in particular, struggled badly in that game, completing only 17 of 33 passes for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception, foreshadowing his more extreme struggles against the Bears and Eagles. The splits for Goff through Week 11 and since are stark, with the drop-off during and since that Lions game extremely noticeable.
Consider the clip below, and pay close attention to the defenders at the second and third levels of the Lions defense, and how they essentially do not react to either the jet motion from Josh Reynolds or the play-action fake to Todd Gurley.
Compare that to the way Chiefs defenders reacted to play-action just two weeks earlier.
The Bears combined the Lions' complete indifference to motion and play-action with a ferocious pass-rush that forced Goff into hurried throws to nobody in particular all night long. It got pretty ugly at times -- even on passes that weren't intercepted.
Because of things like this, what was one the best play-action offense in the league has come to a screeching halt. The chart below shows Goff's play-action passing numbers through Week 11 and then Week 13 through 15, courtesy of Sports Info Solutions. The difference is clear as day, but we made it easier to see anyway, by highlighting the better figure in green and the worse on red.
On his play-action throws, Goff has essentially gone from being better than Patrick Mahomes to being worse than Ryan Leaf. And that's not the only area of struggle for either him or the Rams. Because teams are no longer reacting to play-action like they used to, they are able to either sit back in a soft zone -- which helps neutralize the crossing routes that form so much of the basis of the Rams' offense -- or pin their ears back and come after Goff -- which has resulted in his being pressured far more often over the past three weeks than he was earlier in the year.
Goff and the Rams are seeing zone coverage less often the last few weeks than they were during their hot streak, but those zones have been more effective because the linebackers that usually got sucked up by play-fakes have instead been sitting back, resulting in fewer openings in the intermediate areas of the field. That means Goff has had to either check down and gain fewer yards than usual, force throws that weren't there and result in either an incompletion or interception, or wait for someone to spring open and end up taking a sack.
Similar performance drops crop up when looking at Goff's numbers under pressure. Not only has he gone from being one of the least-pressured passers in the league to one of the most, he has also seen his passer rating drop through the ground. Because the easy throws that were the basis of the offense have not been there, Goff has been trying to fit throws into impossible windows, especially when the pass rush is bearing down on him, and it's resulted in a barrage of picks.
Of course, this change in defensive tactics and the resulting effect it's had on Goff's performance has not happened in a vacuum. The Rams have been playing for the past several weeks without Cooper Kupp, and that has had a cascading effect on their offensive design. Kupp is not necessarily an irreplaceable player based on his skill set, but the function he serves in McVay's offense as a premier route-running technician and excellent blocker makes his importance greater than it theoretically seems. He also plays primarily in the slot when he's on the field, but when he's not, Robert Woods bumps down inside and Josh Reynolds takes his place on the perimeter.
The combination of removing Kupp, bumping Woods inside, and replacing him with Reynolds has a multi-pronged effect: First, there is now one receiver on the field who is nowhere near as dangerous as the other two, which is not the case when Kupp is out there with Woods and Brandin Cooks. We've seen this season that Kupp can be just as effective as either of those players, and he was Goff's most trusted target both in the red zone and when under pressure. Second, moving Woods inside means that the opposing team can always have its best perimeter corner on Cooks, while allowing a weaker corner to work against Reynolds. Do that when Woods is outside and your inferior corner is going to get fried. Reynolds can make some splash plays on occasion but Goff clearly does not trust him as much as Woods, Cooks, or Kupp, and he's also not quite as technically sound as the Rams' preferred starting trio. And third, because opposing defenses don't have to worry as much about Reynolds on the outside when Woods is on the slot as they do about Woods when Kupp is inside, they can devote bracket coverage to the interior receiver (Woods), limiting the passing windows for Goff over the middle.
All of this combines to get Goff to hold onto the ball for longer, which gives pressure more time to get there, which makes him hurry his throws into windows that aren't there, and results in incompletions and picks. And when the Rams try to loosen up the defense by faking a hand-off to Gurley or sending Cooks or Woods or Reynolds on jet motion prior to the snap and the defense doesn't bite at all, all the Rams have really done then is give the defensive line more time to get to Goff, which results in more pressure, which makes him hurry his throws, which results in incompletions and picks. It's all connected.
It's tempting to say that there's just no solution to these issues and that the Rams are done for, but that's too simple. There are plenty of things they can try, from experimenting with formation diversity (more two tight end sets, perhaps) to employing more screens (both standard screens and smoke screens to receivers) to actually running the ball with Gurley when that's exactly what the defense is daring them to do so. Runs are far less efficient than passes and there's a clear downside to employing that strategy (go watch Cowboys-Colts from last week to see it in action), but there are a lot of coaches out there who will junk their game plan if the opposing team just keeps running for five, six, seven yards on every single play. There's too much talent on this Rams offense and too much creativity in the mind of Sean McVay for them to play this poorly for much longer. But for the first time in his tenure, it seems that the league has, on some level, figured him out. It'll be exciting to see how he attempts to counter-act that.