Here is our conversation.
1. Talk about Sean McVay and the difference a year makes.
Man...I think when the 2017 season is done, I'm probably gonna have to go about 5,000 words long on this. It's such a fascinating set of circumstances.
Part of what has happened in 2017 is the convergence of three different forces: a new coaching staff led by McVay, a wave of new Rams through free agency (and a major trade) and the draft and individual development. Each of those on their own has a compelling argument for being the main reason the Rams have improved substantially on the field compared to 2016, but combined it's just very hard to identify what is the major factor where.
So when we're talking about Sean McVay as a head coach and the coaching staff as a whole in trying to identify how "good" they are at their jobs, it's worth keeping in mind those other two factors. For example, how much better would any coaching staff look in mentoring a passing game with Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp as the top three wide receivers instead of Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Tavon Austin? How much easier is it for fans to buy into their offensive line coaching staff when you've got Andrew Whitworth at left tackle? McVay of course, both as head coach and given his prior experience on the offensive side, gets to soak up all of that praise. Rightfully so. But I do wonder if sometimes the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction as a counter-balance to the horrorscape of 2015 and 2016.
That being said, the 2017 Los Angeles Rams look like a much-improved team with a ton of potential all over the roster. There are still major questions that lie ahead as the more meaningful football remains to be played, but the Rams look like they'll at least give themselves a chance to play that kind of football which they've missed out on for the last decade plus, save for a season or two therein.
McVay certainly deserves the lion's share of the credit for getting this franchise back on that track.
2. Speaking of differences, maybe no player is benefitting more than Jared Goff, are you happy with his progress?
I think it's worth remembering just how bad Goff and the Rams' offense was a year ago.
In his seven starts in 2016, Goff averaged 155 yards per game throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions. That's just beyond abysmal. There is no hyperbole possible here. It's eye-peelingly horrible. Kids should never be subjected to such terror. I struggle to appropriately categorize how bad this is other than to point to the Rams' Week 16 performance against the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 in which Goff threw the ball 24 times for 90 yards with a touchdown papering over two interceptions in a game the Rams lost by a point. At home. Which was the second of San Fran's two wins last year. Both of which were against us.
It was kind of all of the 2016 Rams and Jared Goff boiled down to its purest essence, condensed and intensified.
But beyond Jeff Fisher and 2016 and that chapter, what remained possible for Goff was some kind of reclamation beginning this year. He was still 22-years old (he just turned 23 last Saturday) with just seven starts under his belt. It was too early and remains too early to make any kind of proclamations about what kind of NFL quarterback Jared Goff would or will become.
So that McVay and the surrounding personnel and his own individual improvement have made 2017 Jared Goff entirely distinguishable from 2016 Jared Goff is perhaps the biggest gift of all to Rams fans. Am I happy with his progress? I'm ecstatic with it. His highest mark for yards in a game in 2016 was 235. He's topped that in four games already this year. He threw an interception in four games last year. He's played four interception-free games this year including last week's game against a very good Jacksonville Jaguars defense.
We don't know what Jared Goff's career will ultimately look like, but he's been rescued from the depths of the immediate "bust" label that so many were eager to place on him.
3. The Rams have a lot of name talent on offense, but are they getting the production from those guys?
Well, the answer's yes, but outside of RB Todd Gurley, the production is being shared. That can obviously irk some targets like WR Sammy Watkins who voiced his displeasure following the Rams' Week 5 loss against the Seattle Seahawks, but the variety of the Rams' passing attack is what has helped Goff's improvement and made it possible to keep things as simple as McVay has. What has helped things overall is Gurley's addition to the passing game and the offensive line.
Gurley's on the path for career highs in receptions, targets and yards to top off the fact he's already got three receiving touchdowns...the first three of his career. Clearly, McVay is putting Gurley into the passing game in a more meaningful way than Fisher did. That being said, he's been relatively non-existent in the passing game the last two weeks (5 targets, 3 receptions, 11 yards), so perhaps there's something to be gleaned in gameplans against strong defenses like the Jaguars and Seahawks and less rigid opposition.
Speaking of rigidity, the other big factor in improving production across the offense and allowing Goff and McVay to exploit the versatility of the depth chart is the offensive line. Last year, the line was a huge liability in the passing game which made it impossible for Goff and the offensive staff to run any deeper passing concepts with any confidence. Hell, even intermediate work was threatened regularly by opposing pass rushes. The change between that line's performance and this year's is night and day. The personnel additions of LT Andrew Whitworth and C John Sullivan in free agency have been huge hits and the overall development of the other components has been evident, especially on the right side with a pair of third-year pros in RT Rob Havenstein and RG Jamon Brown. It's allowing the offense to wait for routes to develop, to attack downfield and to allow Goff to go through his reads with a comfort level he didn't enjoy last year. The results are irrefutable.
4. Outside of Aaron Donald, who are the difference makers on defense for the Rams.
Well, some of that is TBD. The system change from former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams to current DC Wade Phillips incurred a bit of a culture shock early this season, something that certainly wasn't lessened by Donald's holdout throughout training camp and the preseason that didn't see him return to the team until the very final moments prior to Week 1. That shock to the system has perhaps affected nothing more than the run defense which has been...not great, Bob. After six games, the Rams rank 29th in run yards allowed per game punctuated by Leonard Fournette's 78-yard TD run on the first play of the game for Jacksonville's offense last week.
The other part of the story here is what came after that play which was largely a lot of nothing. Whether it was the play after the Fournette touchdown or the discrepancy between the first and second halves against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4 or the difference between Week 5 against the Seahawks (241 yards allowed, 62 rushing yards allowed, one touchdown allowed) and the Week 3 near-disaster against the 49ers (418 yards allowed, 113 rushing yards allowed, five touchdowns allowed) the Rams have had a bit of a bipolar year defensively though it's offering hope given that they seem to be correcting much of what has ailed them defensively.
So while perhaps the defensive performances this year are not due for overwhelming praise just yet, the secondary likely deserves the nod to have gotten some of the better showings thus far ranking 13th in pass yards allowed. CB Trumaine Johnson, the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL on a second consecutive franchise tag, has yet again played his way onto what should be a very lucrative contract, whether it's with the Rams or someone else in 2018. CB Kayvon Webster has been a solid addition through free agency as his prior experience playing for Phillips with the Denver Broncos has paid immediate dividends. Slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman has been a fantastic value addition. And the safety rotation of Lamarcus Joyner, Cody Davis, and Maurice Alexander who has been replaced by rookie John Johnson leading to Alexander's release has worked very well.
The Rams need to improve the run defense and the pass rush, but there are signs that Phillips is figuring out ways to work around it as they do so.
5. Prediction for the game.
So I think I said something like 30-24 Rams on the Birdgang Blitz with Blake, but that's still where my head's at. I think this game is gonna see points on both sides, and I think part of that is going to come down to turnovers. The Rams are among the league leaders in interceptions...and fumbles. Ball security has been an issue and it's hard to see that stopping against you guys, though as I mentioned above the secondary has come to our rescue more than once. Given the sheer volume of yall's passing output averaging more than 40 passes per game, I think the Rams get at least one interception on Sunday and that might make the difference ultimately.