The Rams and Matthew Stafford each improved
The Los Angeles Rams hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday – and anyone who didn’t know better would have thought the Rams were the ones trying to win their second straight Super Bowl. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady introduced what was once considered a typical Matthew Stafford stat line: a whopping 55 passing attempts for 432 yards – but just one touchdown, and in a losing effort. Stafford, for the Rams, was Bradyesque: a 71% completion rate on 38 attempts, for 343 yards, four touchdowns, no picks and a 134.0 passer rating. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles defense limited Tampa Bay to just 35 rushing yards on 13 attempts, and the Bucs only managed two total touchdowns to a draw with 1:10 to go. It was definitely a victory against the reigning champions.
But the NFL isn’t old-school college football, where beating the No. 1 ranked team in the opinion polls has made you the new No. 1. Bucs still have the highest Elo odds. in the FiveThirtyEight prediction model, and bettors still believe Tampa Bay (and the Kansas City 1-2 Chiefs) a little more than LA have yet to make their way through the toughest division in the NFL.
Are the Rams good enough to stay on top until January?
Let’s start with Stafford, whom the Rams have made an effort to acquire. Although he’s only 22nd in the league in passing attempts this season, averaging just 31 shots per game, he’s ranked fifth in passing yards and tied for second in touchdowns. He’s # 2 in passer rating, QBR, touchdown rate and average yards per attempt, and he’s # 1 in net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, and adjusted yards per defense Football Outsiders Above Replacement (DYAR). He’s poised to set career highs in each of those stats – with the exception of passing attempts, where his 533 projected attempts in 17 games would be less than in all but one of his nine 16-game seasons.
Stafford’s metamorphosis as a quarterback has been fascinating. After injuries cut short his first and second seasons, he spent four years trying to carry the Detroit Lions with considerable bulk. He averaged 675 shots per year from 2011 to 2013, leading the league twice in attempts. But he’s averaged a passer rating of just 86.9 during that span, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, with an unimpressive touchdown / interception ratio since the 1980s of 1.7-to-1.
In 2014, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi attempted to get Stafford to play a (smaller) ball, bringing Drew Brees’ playbook north of New Orleans. Stafford’s interception rate declined in Lombardi’s first year and the quarterback made his only Pro Bowl appearance to date. But his touchdown rate and yards per attempt also declined, and Lombardi was sacked in 2015 amid reports Stafford had never been on board with his Tory game plan.
Promoted QB coach Jim Bob Cooter let Stafford grab it and rip it up again, and for a while it worked: In 2017, Stafford set highs in passer rating, QBR, and adjusted net yards. by attempt. But the defenses thought Cooter and head coach Jim Caldwell were out, and after the 2018 season they were both sacked. Stafford had to evolve again, adapting to Darrell Bevell’s heavy QB movement approach. Somehow asking a 31-year-old Stafford to beat teams with his athleticism worked; in 2019, he again set or matched career best rate in terms of touchdown rate, interception rate, passer rating, QBR and many other rate stats.
Now, under the guidance of Rams head coach (and oft-described attacking mastermind) Sean McVay, Stafford appears to have reached his final form: aggressive, efficient, efficient and racking up yards and points in clusters despite throwing. much less often than before.
But the Rams don’t make up for it by running the ball. They are 15th in the league in rushing attempts, earning the second-worst average of 3.3 yards per carry. They are ranked 26th in number of offensive games and 28th in offensive training. Still, they’re the best in the league at turning possessions into points, with a score rate of 58.6% per trip.
What McVay is doing becomes more evident in the possession time statistics. They’re ranked 25th in attacking plays but 17th in average driving time, using all of those inefficient runs to slow down controls and keep their defense off the field. In fact, the Rams’ defense is tied for the second fewest records faced all year. That’s for the best, as they allow a record 7.5 games per player and the second-highest opponent’s average driving time.
Certainly some of the successful opponents have had long drives together against them in the first three weeks just Brady and the Buccaneers happen to be one of their opponents. But the Rams limited Brady to two total touchdowns on 446 attacking yards, and they were equally stingy against the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. While they’ve let their opponents run all of those plays and rack up all that possession time, the Rams’ defense is 12th best in scoring rate per practice allowed.
By slowing down their offensive attacks and folding but not breaking the defense, the Rams have both the most explosive and efficient passing game in the league. and a strategy of ball control and refusal of possession. Unlike former Rams teams who could score as fast as they wanted but wore out their defense in the process, the 2021 Rams appear to be built to maximize not only Stafford’s arm but also their chances of winning in February.
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