Every NFL season has its share of surprises, but the Los Angeles Rams becoming an offensive juggernaut in 2017 was more than a little unexpected. Last year, the Rams scored a league-low 224 points — 40 fewer than the Cleveland Browns, the next-worst offense in 2016. In eight games this season, they already have 263 points, making them the second highest-scoring team in the league, with four games scoring 35 or more points. Only three teams had more high-scoring games through the first nine weeks of the season since 2002, the year the NFL expanded to 32 teams: the 2013 Denver Broncos (seven), 2007 New England Patriots (six) and 2009 New Orleans Saints (five). All three appeared in the Super Bowl with the Saints winning it all during their offensive breakout season.
At the heart of the change is first-year head coach Sean McVay, who has transformed a stale, plodding offense into a dynamic whirlwind centered around third-year running back Todd Gurley and second-year quarterback Jared Goff. But it is the upgraded offensive line that is having the most impact.
McVay brought in veterans Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan to shore up a unit that allowed 49 sacks last season. This year, the offensive line has allowed just 10 through the first nine weeks. And Whitworth, who played his first 11 seasons in Cincinnati, is paying dividends. He ranks fourth among 59 offensive tackles in his first season in Los Angeles, per Pro Football Focus. Sullivan ranks 10th among 29 qualified centers and has allowed just one sack this season. These upgrades give Goff more time in the pocket, allowing him to pick apart defenses. He has 2.6 seconds or more to throw on 54 percent of his dropbacks in 2017, compared to 42 percent in 2016, and he has improved his passer rating on deep throws traveling 20 or more yards in the air from 87.4 to 98.6.
|Jared Goff||Time to throw (in secs)||Time to sack (in secs)||Time to scramble (in secs)||Percent of dropbacks with 2.6 secs or more to throw|
The fear of the Rams’ vertical passing game has also opened up space underneath, forcing linebackers to not stray too far from the middle of the field and forcing secondaries to stay in zone, rather than play man coverage. This has helped all of the Rams receivers. Robert Woods leads the team with 451 receiving yards after producing 613 yards in 13 games in 2016. He has also caught four of six deep throws from Goff this season. Rookie Cooper Kupp has caught 26 of his 47 targets for 370 yards and three touchdowns. Sammy Watkins, acquired via trade this offseason, is averaging a team-high 17.4 yards per catch. And Gurley has 29 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns after a season of 327 yards and zero touchdowns receiving. It all adds up to the league’s highest-rated pass-catching unit in 2017, per Pro Football Focus.
|Rams||Yards per reception||Yards after the catch per reception||Air yards per target||Reception %||TD %|
There is a bigger improvement on rushing plays, as this is the best run-blocking unit in the NFL this season, per Pro Football Focus. Through the first nine weeks of 2016, the offensive linemen collectively earned PFF run-blocking grades of minus-20.4. This season they have been awarded a cumulative grade of plus-27.5, with left guard Rodger Saffold, right tackle Rob Havenstein and Whitworth the standouts at creating holes for Gurley.
Gurley, it’s worth noting, has 686 yards (4.3 per carry) and seven touchdowns, giving him more rushing yards than five NFL teams this year and more rushing touchdowns than 19 teams have gained on the ground. And thanks to a more potent rushing attack, Goff’s passer rating on play-action has improved from 81.8 to 115.6 in just one season.
The end result is the Rams’ heightened ability to control the line of scrimmage, thus sustaining drives. And through eight games the team’s 49.1 percent conversion on third downs is a league high this season, and the eighth-highest since the first nine weeks of 2002. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles is also second in the league for points per drive (2.56), just a few ticks behind the Dallas Cowboys (2.58).
It’s easy to look at how well Goff and Gurley are doing in McVay’s system, but a revamped offensive line is why the Rams will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Read more on the NFL: