For the third week in a row, I sit here reporting on a loss for the Los Angeles Rams, all of which I expected Los Angeles to win. As a Rams fan, I have been spoilt in recent seasons and have grown accustomed to watching a potent offense blow teams away, and so reflecting on three consecutive losses is not something I am used to doing!
Have the Rams imploded? I don’t think so. Is there cause for concern? Definitely. In last night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, the LA offense was absolutely and resolutely nullified by the Niners defense, to an embarrassing degree. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who has had the third-most passing attempts by a QB in a two-game stretch in the last 70 years, totalling more than 900 yards, had a painful crash back to earth against this suffocating 49ers defense. They rationed #16 to a meagre 78 yards passing, starving the Rams of both field position and touchdowns.
Strangely, in comparison to the other five games this season, the Rams started well on offense. In the very first drive of the game, they enjoyed a long, steady trot up the field which was set up by the rushing attack of running back Malcolm Brown, and finished with a misdirection and handoff to wide receiver Robert Woods who went in for his first touchdown of the season.
After that, things went rapidly downhill: the 49ers responded almost immediately with a touchdown drive of their own, and after that, the team from LA hardly threatened the end zone again all evening. The run game never really developed after the first drive, Goff was hassled and hurried by the excellent San Fran pass rush, and the Rams usually effervescent trio of wide receivers; Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks and the previously mentioned Woods were all well contained by the 49ers’ secondary. The clearest evidence of this dismal offensive showing is in the 3rd down-conversion numbers, where the Rams were 0-9 on third-down conversions and 0-4 on fourth-down conversions.
But whilst Goff and the Rams were certainly uninspiring on offense, I think their inability to move the chains and hold on to the ball had has much to do with the relentless San Francisco defense as it did with the poor Rams offense. Niners’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has done a stellar job developing this unit into one of the fiercest defenses in the league from top to bottom, and the team bore the fruits of his labour on Sunday holding the home side to just seven points.
Saleh’s passion for stumping offenses is clear to see – he was whooping and punching the air with delight all game as his defense made play after play; whether it was defensive end Nick Bosa rushing off the edge or cornerbacks Richard Sherman and co. bullying and harassing the Rams receivers, the Niners kept finding a way to stop this previously potent Rams offense.
This was epitomized in the third quarter when, for two drives in a row, LA were forced to punt from their end zone on fourth down after being smothered by Saleh’s men. Bosa and the rest of the Niners D-line were menacing once again; they didn’t allow Goff any time or movement in the pocket to let his receivers’ routes develop enough to get open, which forced Goff into either throwing to a covered man or throwing the ball away to avoid the sack.
I have to say I thought the Rams QB did a respectable job in going through his reads and avoiding pressure and sacks. Especially considering how dominant the San Francisco pass rush was over the home-sides’ offensive line, where tackles Andrew Whitworth and Joe Noteboom were particular causes of concern. Whitworth looks a shadow of the all-pro calibre player he was last year, and it is clear to see that the unit as a whole has regressed from last year. In my game preview, I hinted that the battle at the Rams line of scrimmage would be key to victory, and it is safe to say they came off very much second best.
The same could be said regarding dominance on the line of scrimmage for the opposite side of the ball. The Rams’ defensive line, including two-time defensive MVP Aaron Donald, got somewhere between very little to zero penetration of the Niners O-line, who did an excellent job of protecting their passer Jimmy Garoppolo. A solitary sack from Donald in the first quarter and a forced fumble in the last quarter constituted the unit’s entire pickings for the night.
This was partly down to the quality of Head Coach Kyle Shanahan’s run game and the respect that Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was forced to give it. Donald, famous for his incredible pass rushing abilities, had to limit himself to a more inconspicuous role among the rest of the Rams D-line to ensure they stopped the opposition running backs Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman. In fairness, they did a very good job of this, limiting them to 2.4 yards per rush. The problem was it gave the 49ers a huge advantage in running play-action fakes, and the lack of a pass rush from the Rams granted Garoppolo a mass of time and a perfect pocket to work with on throwing plays, allowing him to make several great connections with the ever-reliable tight end George Kittle.
After another rushing touchdown put the 49ers up 14-7, Garoppolo’s passing nearly put the visitors ahead by another score in the middle of the third quarter when the Niners had two opportunities to increase their lead after a long drive upfield, but were stopped on both occasions. On one such play, a gutsy effort by Rams cornerback Marcus Peters tackled the Niners would-be-scorer, receiver Dante Pettis, out of the back of the end zone on second down to prevent what would have been a certain touchdown.
Despite this, Shanahan’s men managed to come away with two consecutive field goals to put his team 13 points ahead with 13 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. At this point I felt the game was all but done – if there is one thing this San Fran team seems to do well (among a lot of other things), it is their ability to close out a game that they are leading, by suffocating the opposition through their grinding run game and impervious defense.
A flicker of hope alighted when Aaron Donald managed to get some pressure onto the opposing quarterback and forced a fumble. Linebacker Cory Littleton picked the ball up and charged downfield before showing some impressive handling to offload a rugby-style lateral pass to Nickell Robey-Coleman for a nice return. But that flicker of hope was quickly extinguished as Saleh’s defense yet again got in the face of Goff, preventing him from finding any open receivers, and they recorded another stop on both third and fourth downs, leaving the visitors the simple task of killing the game off.
It wasn’t all negative for us LA fans. Rookie RB Darrell Henderson looked extremely evasive and dangerous in the few touches he received, particularly in the first half. The defense overall did an adequate job against one of the most miserly offenses in the league. Okay, that’s about it.
The biggest concerns for the Rams are the lingering offensive issues that were already there pre-game: the lack of Todd Gurley III, and the horrendous showing from the O-line. Unfortunately, neither of these problems are easy fixes, and both are limiting factors to Goff’s current level of play. Something will have to change if the Rams offense wants to get firing again.
Head Coach Sean McVay has been labelled an offensive genius during his short time in the league. Now is the time to prove it.
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