When Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay first arrived in Los Angeles, the first thing he made a point to do was to put better pieces around quarterback Jared Goff. That meant giving him an offensive line to protect him as well as a more talented receiving corps. After all, Goff went 0-7 as a rookie while leading the NFL with an 11.3% sack percentage.
McVay and general manager Les Snead did just that. The team brought in Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, veteran center John Sullivan, and wide receiver Robert Woods. That doesn’t mention trading for Sammy Watkins or drafting Cooper Kupp.
Whitworth and Sullivan weren’t long-term solutions, they would be stop-gaps and give the team time to prepare for the next step while also getting Goff more comfortable.
With the help of a better offensive line, weapons, and coaching, the Rams second-year quarterback helped lead one of the most prolific offenses in the league. They key? Goff’s sack percentage was down to 5% and 5.6%, half as much as 2016.
The effect didn’t stop there. After a sophomore slump, Todd Gurley returned to his rookie form, winning the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.
After signing with the Rams, Whitworth was named first-team All-Pro for the second time in his career. Rodger Saffold had the best year of his career and Sullivan allowed the fewest sacks of his career.
In 2016 the Rams fielded an offensive line that consisted of Tim Barnes, Greg Robinson, Jamon Brown, Cody Wichmann, and Andrew Donnal. The Rams rightfully improved that group in 2017 and reaped the benefits.
Fast forward to 2019 and Whitworth is three years older, Sullivan is no longer on an NFL roster, and Saffold left to the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
Again, the Rams offense has felt the effect.
The 2019 Rams offense has brought 2016 flashbacks. Gurley’s 10 yards from scrimmage in the first half against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night were his fewest since 2016 at the Jets, when he also had 10.
For the first time since 2016, Goff’s passer rating has fallen below 100 and his interception percentage is the highest its been since his rookie year. The Rams invested a lot of money in Goff, therefore it’s even more crucial now to keep him upright.
There’s little doubt that Goff and Gurley’s turnaround were largely because of not only a better offensive system but even more so because of the additions of Whitworth and Sullivan, improving the offensive line.
With the Rams not re-signing Sullivan and Whitworth continuing to age, paired with the departure of Saffold, the offensive line is in as big of a flux as its been the entire McVay era.
Sure, the team opted not to sign any free agents on the offensive line as they drafted Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen in 2018 to take over this year. But with a young, inexperienced offensive line, there are going to be issues, especially early, and that’s evident.
The Rams have failed to score a first-half touchdown in two of their three games this season which only happened once all of 2018. The offense currently ranks 16th in yards per game and 22nd in passing yards per game. Both marks being much lower than Rams fans and the rest of the NFL are used to seeing.
That trend continues into some of the analytics. The Rams’ -78.7 adjusted yards of offense rank 25th. The team also ranks 14th in offense DVOA. Again, for an offense that has consistently been in the top-5, this is concerning.
The Rams entered the year young and very thin up front. With the injury to Austin Blythe in Week 2, the team was forced to throw Jamil Demby into the fire. Blythe’s injury marked the first time in three years that an offensive lineman missed a game due to injury.
Every team goes through injuries, therfore Demby’s porous play is not an excuse. Right now, the issue isn’t about Demby needing to raise his level, but rather the typical starters.
The offensive line as a whole through three weeks has allowed 49 total pressures and ranks 30th in pass-blocking according to Pro Football Focus. The team’s 49 pressures through three weeks is more than four times the number of pressures in 2018 (11) and exceeds 2016’s pressures through three weeks by 16 (33).
That’s just as a group. Individually, it doesn’t get much better.
Whitworth’s decline is more evident now than ever. Father Time eventually catches up to even the best players, and it appears that he has with Whitworth. The 37-year old has allowed nine pressures in 2019 which puts him on pace for 48 for the season. That would by far be the most allowed in his career. Even so, he’s been the Rams’ best offensive lineman, which right now, isn’t a good thing.
Whitworth has dropped off on the left side and the same can be said for Rob Havenstein on the right. He’s allowed nine pressures as well, while also allowing two of the team’s three sacks.
It doesn’t get much better moving inside.
The transition to a starting role for Noteboom has been rocky to say the least as well. His 10 pressures lead the team and he is just one of 22 offensive linemen in the NFL to allowed double-digit pressures.
That story is the same for first-year starting center, Allen, who has allowed eight. That number is the second-most in the league among centers as he currently grades as the third -worst pass-blocking center in the NFL through three weeks.
This drop-off in play from the offensive line has not only had an effect of Goff and Gurley, but McVay as well. There have been times when the play-calling has been curious and it’s hard to wonder if McVay is avoiding things or making certain calls because of it; the most curious call being a wide receiver screen on third-and-11 last week.
The Rams took a risk “redshirting” Noteboom and Allen last season to prepare them for now. Noteboom didn’t allow a single quarterback pressure in the 2018 preseason while Allen played well in spurts.
The team felt so confident in Noteboom and Allen that they traded away the opportunity to draft arguably the best center in the draft in Erik McCoy from Texas A&M, not once, but twice.
For reference, McCoy has allowed just two pressures this season and is the second-highest graded pass-blocking center.
Maybe that risk pays off as Allen and Noteboom get more snaps together, but right now it looks like the wrong one. The offensive line has taken a serious drop-off and it shows.
An inexperienced line, coupled with some key injuries, has resulted in a porous start from Gurley and Goff. Both are Pro Bowl caliber players and both have yet to show it. They are all reasons why the Rams have labored to put together four quarters of consistent offense.
The offensive line remains a work in progress. Despite investing five draft picks on the offensive line over the last two years, they don’t have anything to show for it. Losing a quality starter in Austin Blythe and Tyler Higbee — a tight end who greatly impacts the Rams’ run and pass blocking — only inflates that issue.
For now, the offensive will have to work around a struggling unit up front. With it being a mere three weeks into the season, there isn’t much the Rams can do but hope that it gets better. The Rams opened the season with two new starts and an inexperienced group of backups. There were always going to be bumps. However, if the Rams offense is going to improve, that improvement is going to have to start up front. With the Rams opening this year with two new starters and with an inexperienced group of backups, their only option appears to be internal improvement.