For the first time in Sean McVay’s career as the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, he has to snap a losing streak. The Rams’ back-to-back losses to the Bears and Eagles don’t threaten to knock the team out of the playoffs — the NFC West is already clinched — but it does have the Rams on the verge of losing a first-round bye.
More importantly, Los Angeles no longer looks like the juggernaut that bulldozed through its schedule to an 11-1 start to the year. At the center of the Rams’ recent downfall is quarterback Jared Goff.
When the Rams reached the bye week in Week 12, Goff had 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 113.5 passer rating was among the best in the NFL, and there was still a chance he could challenge for the NFL MVP award.
In his last three games, Goff has one touchdown and six interceptions. His 54.8 passer rating is the worst in the NFL among players who started Weeks 13, 14, and 15. Even the Cardinals’ Josh Rosen — who hasn’t thrown a touchdown since November and was benched in Week 15 — has a 59.2 rating in the last three weeks.
Goff is in a tailspin and the Rams have quickly turned from a Super Bowl favorite into a team that looks like it’s in danger of getting bounced in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive season.
Sean McVay doesn’t take all the blame for the loss and the performance of his players as he did the last two weeks. He needed to hold players accountable after that lackluster effort. pic.twitter.com/Vllqu5D2c0— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 17, 2018
“We’ve got to be able to figure this out and figure it out fast,” McVay said “These last few weeks we’ve been doing things that are totally uncharacteristic of what good football teams do, of what we’ve done through the first handful of games this season. The only thing we know how to do is go back to work, look at ourselves. Everybody’s got a hand in this and we’ve got to get it figured out fast.”
Getting things back on track begins with Goff turning back into the player who started the season with elite numbers. So how do they get him there again?
It starts up front with the Rams offensive line
The Los Angeles offensive line didn’t have a perfect start to the year — it still allowed five sacks each against the Broncos and Packers — but there’s been a noticeable uptick in pressures since the middle of November:
The Rams offensive line has played a big part in the offense's recent struggles:— Zoltán Buday (@PFF_Zoltan) December 10, 2018
First 10 weeks:
78 pressures allowed (6th fewest)
Pass blocking efficiency: 83.7 (t-4th best)
Last 4 weeks (just 3 games):
51 pressures allowed (4th most)
Pass blocking efficiency: 71.4 (3rd worst)
Those problems continued in Week 15 when Goff was pressured 17 times by the Eagles, even if he was only sacked twice.
Injuries haven’t been the issue, the Rams are one of the only teams fortunate enough to have had the same five offensive linemen start all 14 games this season. But Goff also deserves some of the blame for the recent difficulties with pressure.
In the first 10 weeks, Goff had an average of 2.69 seconds per pass attempt and 3.69 seconds until he was sacked. Since Week 11, he’s had an average of 2.76 seconds per pass attempt and he’s getting sacked in an average of 3.54 seconds.
Yes, the offensive line is allowing pressure to come a tick faster, but Goff is getting the ball out a tiny bit slower too. The combination is creating havoc in the backfield.
Shot 2 - Off the run game, the #Rams are the best play-action team in the NFL. Goff drops back off play-action as much as anyone & it results in a lot of deep shots. Those plays take time to develop, however, and the #Bears did a great job of attacking and impacting Goff off PA pic.twitter.com/HlZbuDwUe7— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 13, 2018
It hasn’t helped that Goff has completely lost his mind at times when things got chaotic:
Jared Goff showing everyone how not to quarterback pic.twitter.com/aVmodEtpkS— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 17, 2018
Todd Gurley’s numbers have tailed off too, which is both a consequence of, and a reason for the dropoff in Goff’s play and the offensive line. Through the first 10 games, Gurley had 98.8 yards per game and averaged 4.99 yards per carry. In his last four, he has 65.8 yards per game and is averaging 4.53 yards per carry.
Those small statistical differences are manifesting in big ways in Goff’s play.
Defenses are throwing new looks at Goff
After the Week 15 loss to the Eagles, Goff gave reporters one reason for his recent struggles.
“Teams are doing different things to us,” Goff said. “Teams are trying out different things, and we just need to find a way to respond.”
USA Today’s Doug Farrar detailed some of the ways teams are scheming Goff into getting frustrated. But what teams are doing most is taking away the deep passing from the Rams.
In his last three games, Goff has attempted 13 passes at least 20 yards downfield. Only two were completed and three were intercepted. In the first 11 weeks, he attempted 45 passes downfield and completed 24 with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions.
Pressure up front is part of the reason for the struggles with deep passing, but teams are also forcing Goff to settle underneath. When he does take shots down field they’re well covered.
The loss of Cooper Kupp — one of the NFL’s best receivers on deep balls — to an ACL tear is part of the problem. But the combination of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods should still be yielding more than two deep receptions over a three-week span.
Can Goff get back on track?
Those are a lot of red flags for the Rams to overcome, but the season isn’t lost. The team is still 11-3 and even in the loss to the Eagles, the Rams still had 413 yards of offense and a chance to score a game-tying touchdown as time expired.
It’s not Goff’s fault that Jojo Natson fumbled completely untouched on a punt return, and it’s not Goff’s fault that neither Gerald Everett nor Todd Gurley thought it would be smart to get out of bounds and save some clock in the final minute.
The Rams have been one of the best teams in the NFL at situational football since the arrival of McVay, but those brainfarts cost Goff a couple chances to save the day. And if he had, the Rams would be 12-2 and there would probably be much less hand-wringing about his recent difficulties.
But here we are. The Rams desperately need both a win and for Goff to look more like the player who ripped teams to shreds in the first two months of the season. The good news is that LA finishes the season with the Cardinals and 49ers — teams that lost to the Rams, 34-0 and 39-10, respectively, earlier in the year.
They’re the perfect pair of opponents for Goff to get things straightened out, because if he doesn’t — the Rams are toast.