Los Angeles Rams: The curious case of the 2019 Sean McVay offense

The Los Angeles Rams offense has taken a step back in 2019. What exactly is the issue?

One of the big stories of the 2019 NFL season is the Los Angeles Rams offense. It feels weird typing that a week after the group scored 40 points and passed for over 500 yards, but that’s where we are. 

For a fourth-straight game, the offense failed to score a first-quarter touchdown. The offensive line went from winning the “Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year” to being one of the worst groups in the league. Todd Gurley went from leading the league in rushing touchdowns to having a diminished role. Lastly, the NFL has begun figured out Sean McVay. 

Slow Starts

As mentioned above, the Rams offense failed to score a first-quarter touchdown for a fourth-straight game. The Rams have never gone four straight games without finding the end zone in the first quarter prior to this year. The McVay Rams had only once gone three games without scoring a touchdown in the first quarter. The last time the Rams went four games? 2014. 

Through four weeks, the Rams offense ranks 31st in points scored in the first quarter with only the Houston Texans trailing. The Rams are tied with the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, and Pittsburgh Steelers, all of which have played portions of their seasons with their backup quarterbacks. 

The Rams are slightly better in the second quarter to rank 17th in first-half points, while they go on to lead the league in second-half points. For reference, the Rams ranked second in the NFL last season in first-quarter points and led the league in 2017. Since McVay took over in 2017, the Rams trail only the Chiefs in first-quarter points.

In the first three weeks of the season, the Rams defense was able to keep the offense in the game to overcome the slow starts. That wasn’t the case last Sunday when the defense gave up 21 points; albeit, two offensive turnovers didn’t help.  That 21-0 hole was primarily the reason Jared Goff was forced to throw the ball a whopping 68 times. However, that also doesn’t explain why Goff ranks seventh in the NFL is passing attempts in the first quarter or why Gurley ranks 28th in first-quarter rushing attempts. 

The first quarter is when scoring should be easy. These are teams’ scripted plays that they come up with during the week that are specifically supposed to work against that particular opponent. However, two things are happening. The first is that the Rams are way more unbalanced than they have been in the past. So far this season, the Rams have called 36 pass plays to 12 run plays on their first two possessions. Because of this, they are putting themselves in much more difficult second and third-down situations. 

The Rams have been forced to punt on six of their eight opening two drives this season. On those drives that they’ve been forced to punt, they have been in a 3rd-and-5 situation or worse on five of them, averaging two-thirds of a yard on first down. When you’re not having success on first down and putting the offense in 3rd-and-long situations, the offense is being set up to fail. 

Through four games, the Rams are averaging just 3.24 yards per play on first down with the average third-down being 3rd-and-6.7. Again, this is only on the team’s opening two drives.  Comparing that to the first four games of 2018, and the Rams scored 28 points while calling 27 passes to 20 run plays. That’s 1.35 pass plays to every run compared to an even 3:1 ratio in 2019. 

However, while the Rams were more balanced, they were also more efficient. The 2018 team averaged 5.5 yards on first down and outside of the Cardinals game in Week 2 in which the team failed to score in the first quarter, the team tallied just four third downs, averaging 3rd-and-5.5. If you include the Cardinals game, the average third down was 3rd-and-6.38 which isn’t that far off from where they are this season. The Rams punted just three times on their opening two drives in 2018, averaging 0 yards on first downs that led to a punt. Again, however, the 2018 offense was much more efficient. The Rams offense in 2018 converted four third downs of 3rd-and-6 or worse compared to this season’s one. 

Opponents have also been breaking their defensive tendencies and bringing a specific gameplan for the Rams. While the Rams bring a particular gameplan for a particular team’s defense, that team more often than not has been showing something that the Rams haven’t seen them run before. As the game goes on, McVay is smart enough to adjust; however, that leads to a slower start. A lot of that has to do with the 6-1 front that teams have been running specifically against the Rams to take away the outside zone that the offense is based around. 

Falling behind in the first quarter and then coming back to win was never going to be sustainable. The Rams were 3-0 before last week in spite of their inability to score early. Not being able to do so finally came back to bite them against Tampa Bay. 

The NFL figuring out Sean McVay?

Not every great offense lasts forever. Even the best offenses eventually need to adjust. Over the past 20 years, the NFL has seen coaches like Chip Kelly have short-term success, but an inability to adjust led to an eventual downfall. In Kelly’s last season, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff expressed that defenses were calling out what the offense was running. Everything from the zone-read running plays that were a staple of the Chip Kelly offense, to the up-tempo pace was being exposed. Kelly led the Eagles to back-to-back ten-win season and didn’t survive a third. After dropping to 6-9 in his third season, Kelly was fired. He went on to coach the 49ers and win two games. 

That’s not to say that is going to happen to Sean McVay, but it was only a matter of time before the NFL figured him out. Defensive coordinators are too smart. The Buccanneers loss is the worst in the McVay era, and with the loss, the McVay Rams find themselves out of first place in the NFC West for the first time in his three years.  

Last season it was the Detroit Lions and Matt Patricia who put out the blueprint. Vic Fangio and the Bears took it and made it their own. Then, it was the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl who perfected it. 

Teams have started to take away the outside zone that the Rams offense is based around, which limits the ability not only to run but also run play-action which is crucial to run a  west coast offense.

According to NFL Network’s Steve Wyche, teams are keying in on the Rams quarterback and saying that if they take away the outside zone that the Rams offense is based around and eliminate vertical routes from Brandin Cooks all while forcing Goff to throw more than 40 times from the pocket, they have a good chance. According to Wyche, teams finally feel like they’re starting to crack the Sean McVay code and it starts with stopping the run game and changing the defensive look after the communication between coach and player ends with 15 seconds on the play clock. 

The Rams have attempted to change it up. McVay has utilized the crack toss a lot more than they have in the past as well as wide receiver screens to get the ball to the outside. However, it’s still a work in progress, and it’s showing. 

More Goff, Less Gurley

Jared Goff threw the ball 68 times on Sunday against the Buccaneers. Todd Gurley ran the ball five times. Goff’s 68 throws are tied for the third-most in a game in NFL history. Gurley’s five carries are his fewest in a regular-season game in his career. When it comes to the Rams offense, Sean McVay seems to be leaning on the wrong guy.

According to Pro Football Network Guest Columnist Dov Kleiman, “Many around the league have long speculated it is McVay that should get sole credit for how the Rams’ offense operates – that he’s spoon-feeding Goff the plays and checks before each snap and all Goff has to do is deliver a catchable ball to the open receivers in McVay’s creative schemes.” 

With the Rams’ curious usage of Gurley, which included the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year not getting a carry until 20 minutes into the game against the Buccaneers, more of the offense has been put on Goff’s shoulders. If Gurley’s pace through four games continues, he will finish with 196 carries for 876 rushing yards to pair with 44 receptions for 248. Both the rushing and receiving yards would mark the worst of his career.  

The Rams are supposedly trying to preserve Gurley for later on in the season when they need him most. But his 49 carries are down over 60% of what they were to start the last two seasons and rank 23rd among all running backs. Less Gurley, combined with an underperforming offensive line, and defenses are able to exploit Goff and force him into some of the same bad decisions that he made his rookie year. 

According to The Athletic’s Mike Sando, prior to the Bears game last season, the Rams’ production on early downs included 37 Goff touchdown passes to seven interceptions. Since then Goff has six touchdowns with seven interceptions on early downs. The Rams are down to 10 percent explosive passes in those situations this season as well when they were up in the 22-26 range in 2018. 

The Rams paid Goff to be a top-10 quarterback. While his situation has changed with less of a run game and a broken offensive line, he’s still missing throws he should make more times than not. 

The Offensive Line

As I wrote last week, the Rams offensive line has been atrocious in 2019. Father time has officially caught up with Andrew Whitworth, while the inexperience of Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen is clearly showing. Combine those three factors, and it affects the entire offensive line. 

When the Rams offensive line is playing the way it has, it certainly affects playcalling and timing. A pocket that was generally clean for Jared Goff hasn’t been clean this season. Holes that were open in the run game haven’t been the same. Defenses have been able to exploit the inexperienced interior, which has led to a Goff that is more turnover prone and a McVay that seems to be second-guessing. 

Every team deals with issues on the offensive line, some more than others. This type of adversity is something that the McVay Rams haven’t faced. McVay must find a way to run the ball and run his offense behind a  shaky offensive line and re-establish the play-action game. If they don’t the Rams won’t just be lucky to make it back to the Super Bowl, but they’ll be lucky to win what looks to be a competitive NFC West.