On Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams will defend their lead in the NFC West against the Seattle Seahawks. It’s a scenario that would have been met with laughter just a few months ago before the season began.
Under new head coach Sean McVay, and with a revamped offensive line, however, the Rams have executed one of the quickest turnarounds in recent memory. Now the playoffs are tantalizingly close, but are, by no means, a sure thing. Carolina, Atlanta, and Seattle are all ready to pounce if Los Angeles at all falters, making their matchup with the Seahawks this week a must win.
As division rivals, this won’t be the first meeting between these two teams. If you are a fan of the Rams, it may not be wise to use history as any indication of how the second matchup will go. This is because Seattle slowed down Los Angeles’ high-powered offense, winning the first meeting 16-10.
Jared Goff is enjoying a stellar sophomore year, but was more of a hindrance in the week-five game against the Seahawks. Goff was picked off twice and lost a fumble, accounting for three of his team’s five turnovers. Giving the ball away that many times explains how Los Angeles, which scored the game’s first 10 points, allowed 16 unanswered.
The Rams’ defensive effort is a silver lining that can be taken from this game. Russell Wilson threw an interception of his own, and was sacked three times. The Seahawks have also struggled to run the ball all season, and this game was no different. The team totaled just 62 yards on 25 carries.
Clearly the game against Seattle was an outlier, and not indicative of the kind of season Los Angeles is having. McVay, the one-time offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, has turned the Rams’ league-worst scoring offense from a season ago into the second highest scoring offense in the NFL today. Their 30.5 points per game trails only the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Of course, McVay’s mere presence isn’t the sole reason for Los Angeles’ offensive renaissance. Much of the credit has to go to the moves made in the offseason to shore up the offensive line. Last year, Goff and Case Keenum were sacked a combined 49 times, with Goff hitting the turf 26 times in seven games. Running back Todd Gurley also fell victim to the holes in the line, as constant backfield pressure kept him to 3.2 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns for the whole season.
One big change starts at the heart of the line, with the addition of center John Sullivan, who was the backup snapper for the Redskins last season, so there is already a familiarity with him and McVay. So far, Sullivan has rewarded the trust of his head coach, having allowed just one sack all year, while committing just two penalties.
Los Angeles’ biggest acquisition this offseason, however, was left tackle Andrew Whitworth, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. In 2016, Whitworth played all 16 games without allowing a single sack. This number has jumped a little with the Rams, as he has already allowed five with three games still to go. Goff has only been sacked 22 times in 13 games, meaning the pass rush brings him down less than two times per game.
With more time in the backfield, Goff has been able to show why the Rams moved up on draft day to take him first overall in 2016. He is tied for eighth in the NFL in touchdown passes with 22, matching Washington’s Kirk Cousins, another protege of McVay. Goff has also thrown six interceptions, which is the second least among quarterbacks who have started all season. Only Alex Smith of Kansas City has thrown less, with five.
Those who wrote off Gurley as a one-year wonder due to his sophomore slump last season have a lot of crow to eat. He currently leads all running backs with 10 rushing touchdowns, and is third in total yards with 1,035. The Rams are truly a testament to the immediate impact a good offensive line can make. They will need a big effort from their line when they host Seattle this Sunday.
The Seahawks aren’t always a threat to bring down the quarterback in the backfield, as they are tied for 13th in total sacks for the season, with 32. However, they do know how to slow down the run, which is something Los Angeles relies heavily on to open up passing lanes for Goff. Seattle allows an average of 3.9 yards per carry to opposing running backs, and is third in the league in forcing rushing fumbles, causing seven and recovering four.
This rematch has all the makings of another defensive struggle, as the Rams also excel in creating turnovers. Their defense is fifth in the NFL in interceptions, with 15, and no player has more than three. This balance means an opposing quarterback has to be wary of anywhere he throws the ball, as Los Angeles has players at each position who can snag an interception.
Wilson has 11 interceptions on the year, which isn’t a terribly high amount. However, he has been sacked 30 times this year, ninth most in the league, something Los Angeles’ defense can take advantage of. They have the third most sacks with 40, and should be applying constant pressure to Wilson all game. The more flustered he is, the higher chance of him throwing an interception. With Wilson, however, his ability to avoid being sacked to make a big play is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
The fact that the Rams are already major players in the playoff picture, a season removed from going 4-12 should be seen as a victory already. This team isn’t looking for consolation prizes, though, and won’t be happy if they see their spot in the postseason slip away.
Sunday’s rematch with the Seahawks in Los Angeles may be their biggest game of the year. With the struggling Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers as the last two games of the season, the Rams need to win this weekend for a strong start to that home stretch. Get ready for a gritty game of football that most likely won’t be decided until the final moments of the fourth quarter.