As the season progresses for the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, the gulf between offense and defense becomes more apparent. A side laden with veterans breathes fire. The other, decimated by injuries, has no more answers. It’s like two teams in a locker room, and head coach Sean McVay seems to know that.
“Not a lot of positives to take away from that” said McVay the team’s third loss in a row after last Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. “I don’t know what those answers are.”
It’s mind-blowing to hear McVay admit that he has no solution to his team’s problems, particularly their offensive struggles. The Rams have lost five of their last six games and are bottom in the NFC West with just one win against a division opponent this season. Most worrying, however, is the disconnect between McVay’s offense and defense — and that divide is playing out in the public eye.
Just listen Jalen Ramsey. The veteran cornerback has never been shy, but it’s telling to hear him bravely criticize his team’s offensive coaches, like after the Rams’ loss to the Bucs earlier this month, when the LA defense seemed to put the game away before the offense three-and went -out, giving another possession to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay to win the game. “We’re not supposed to come to the sidelines after such a big stop and our coaches tell us, ‘We’re going to need you all again,'” Ramsey said. “What the heck? We made a big stop. Sales down. [With] a minute and some spare change. … We must have some dogs.”
It’s certainly too late to salvage this season — the Rams’ playoff odds are 6.9 percent according to FanDuel, but it’s worth analyzing now what went wrong, especially last month when the Rams pulled out of the Eliminated competition to see how the Rams can mend their differences and become a championship contender again. Let’s look at McVay’s offense first.
McVay’s claim to fame as he rocketed up the coaching ranks was his offensive creativity. He was seen as a visionary who could plan for the future and was lauded as a brilliant play caller – a reputation that lasted until he coached the Rams against Bill Belichick in Super Bowl III. That’s when McVay was tamed by the GOAT. Belichick’s defense schemes force opponents to change their tendencies, stripping them of their first and second options. Essentially, having a team play left-handed. Flexibility becomes an issue when the opposing coach isn’t quick enough. McVay and an offensive led by Jared Goff were up for the day, and the Rams lost despite holding the Patriots to just 13 points. McVay’s offense looked helpless because he was unwilling or unable to adapt after Belichick took his Plan A away.
In many ways that game was a learning experience for a young coach and we saw a different, more aggressive version of McVay in the years that followed. Most notably in 2021 when he made an offensive overhaul by trading Goff for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
McVay’s challenge now is that he has to rely on his creativity and flexibility with a decimated offensive unit and he couldn’t. What we saw against the Cardinals last week was a rigid offensive approach that wasn’t too different from how McVay coached in that Super Bowl loss nearly four years ago.
The Rams’ first 15 scripted games against Arizona looked relatively decent, and they drove down 57 yards in a 14-game drive that ended in a field goal. When the script was finished, so was the offensive production. The Rams’ next 10 possessions included five punts (three of those three-and-outs), two turnovers (a fumble recovered on the Rams 30-yard line, and an interception by fill-in QB John Wolford , which he returned to the Rams 25-yard line). The Rams had two touchdowns (a true scoring drive with an assist from two JJ Watt penalties; another in trash time, 17 points down). (The remaining possession was a kneel to end the first half.)
It could be argued that McVay didn’t have a rib during the game as Stafford was sidelined for the game during concussion protocol. But let’s face it: Wolford’s performance was eerily similar to Stafford’s entire season. The offensive struggles – the inability to run block and pass-protect and a non-existent running game are independent of who is under middle. Stafford is likely to return against the Saints this week, but the other key player on offense, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, won’t. Kupp was placed on injured reserve earlier this week after suffering an ankle injury against Arizona.
Kupp’s loss is a devastating blow for an offense that lacks top-end talent elsewhere. Kupp was McVay’s only true answer this season. And even with Kupp, the offensive is only a shell of itself: The Rams are ranked for 10 weeks 30th on offense total EPA, 30th in points scored, 32nd in yards, and 27th in turnovers. sales happen. But the association with Rams turnovers is particularly detrimental to the Rams defense.
The team has committed 15 turnovers this season, and opponents turned those mistakes into 50 points. Seven of the Rams’ turnovers ended up in their own territory (including their two turnovers last week, a stripsack and an interception by Wolford). It’s a seemingly impossible situation to get the defense in place.
Los Angeles is currently ranking Fourth in red zone defense; they just give up 22.2 points per game and are fourth in yards allowed, although that includes points given directly by offense or special teams — from two Stafford pick-sixes, a Stafford fumble returned for a touchdown against Dallas, and a blocked punt returned for a Score was returned against the Falcons. They currently have the fourth-best running defense in the NFL, at just 96.1 yards per game.
Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who received plenty of praise for his work last year – in his first season with McVay – has drawn some criticism this season as the Rams’ defensive performance faltered. The Rams keep pushing 5.5 percent of snaps this season, versus 7.2 percent last regular season, and notably lacking in consistent pressure from the edge that would complement the inside onslaught of superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald has just five sacks this season and just one in the Rams’ last four games.
Still, an average defensive unit (Los Angeles currently #15 in the Football Outsiders DVOA) with above-average players like Donald and Ramsey should hold the Rams through many games. The problem is when everything is being asked of that one side of the ball. And yet the Rams’ defense appears poised to continue bearing an unequal burden. It has to be on defense, linebacker Bobby Wagner said, to get more turnovers and points. Giving up is not an option.
“It’s not my mentality. The season is not over yet. I am a fighter,” wagner said when asked “everything that could go wrong” after Sunday’s loss. “We still have games left… It’s up to us to decide if we keep playing and creating positive moments.”
And as for Morris, his players have his back.
“Rah Fire”, said Ramsey repeated in defense of Morris’ zoning plan last week. “It’s a blessing for us that he’s not the head coach somewhere.”
Morris has an open-door policy that even offensive players take advantage of when seeking advice on how to attack certain looks. This approach works, Ramsey said. “He can tell them impeccably, not only in his language, but he can tell us in our language,” Ramsey said.
This is the reality of the Rams: two different units in one locker room. No immediate relief for this season. Where are the Rams and McVay in particular going from here? McVay took some time after the Super Bowl to reflect on his coaching future. Still the youngest head coach in the NFL at 36, he’s not keen on the idea of coaching longevity, and earlier this year he told reporters he doesn’t aspire to the kind of decades-long career of someone like Belichick or Don Shula. He got married earlier this year and has spoken about wanting it start a family and be a present father.
What else does McVay have to do? Ultimately, McVay returned to the Rams and signed an extension in August after reportedly turning down a television broadcast deal worth around $10 million a year. The long-term question is whether it is possible to engage with the people but not with the process. Especially when that process takes you into the deep waters, below .500, as is currently the case in Los Angeles.
This season is doomed, but can it serve as a springboard for reinventing McVay’s offense? Losing Kupp for an extended period could be the nudge they needed to finally establish the relationship between Stafford and veteran receiver Allen Robinson II, or a chance to experiment more with 22 staffers. In any case, changes are coming. McVay implied this in most of his words youngest Press conference. “What it offers us is an opportunity for us to meet a lot of other people from that receiver space, really our offense in general. So you have to look at it through that lens,” McVay said.
But are any adjustments enough to rehabilitate this locker room into a cohesive team with a dream and lay a foundation for 2023? It could be McVay’s biggest challenge yet.