The Los Angeles Rams remain one of the NFL's best teams, but they're not as good today as they were before Super Bowl LIII and may no longer be the class of the NFC West. Every team, except the Arizona Cardinals, received at least one vote from Bleacher Report's experts to win the division.
The Rams don't inspire the same amount of confidence as they did before their Super Bowl loss and an unimpressive offseason.
A team being exposed has become cliche for why it lost in a big moment. But head coach Sean McVay admitted as much after a 13-3 stifling by the New England Patriots.
"I'm still kind of numb right now," McVay said after the game, per USA Today's Jori Epstein. "I got outcoached. I didn't do nearly good enough for our football team."
The Rams' offensive juggernaut stalled. After months of other teams' attempts to emulate Los Angeles' approach or hire a McVay disciple, the Rams looked lost, incompetent and beaten.
One should expect the team to bounce back after such a horrific performance, and the Rams will to a degree. But the same expectations heaped upon them last season shouldn't reflect their roster's current construction. The added concern of Todd Gurley's lingering knee issue can't be overlooked, either.
First, changes needed to be made to the Rams' approach, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots attacked the middle of the Rams' interior, preventing Los Angeles from establishing the inside zone run, and forced McVay's squad to beat them out wide and in space. The Rams failed miserably in the endeavor.
The middle of the Rams offense is where scheme and roster changes meet on a Venn diagram.
C.J. Anderson took over for an ailing Gurley during the final two games of the regular season and into the playoffs. Anderson amassed 488 rushing yards in the Rams' final five games (including the postseason). The veteran excelled as a downhill runner because of the team's reliance on the inside zone. However, teams began to adjust late in the playoff run. The Patriots, in particular, crowded the A-gaps and didn't let the Rams interior run anyone off the line of scrimmage.
Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan and Austin Blythe served as the Rams' starting offensive interior. Two of the three are no longer with the team. Saffold signed with the Tennessee Titans, while Sullivan remains a free agent after the Rams declined his 2019 contract option.
Los Angeles drafted Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen with third- and fourth-round picks in the 2018 draft. They're expected to start at left guard and center, respectively.
"They've had a great opportunity this offseason to get all the repetition that they needed that can really help them grow to understand how to handle it themselves," running game coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said last month, per Myles Simmons of the team's official site. "It's their line, it's their group, they're one of the top guys now and that comes with a little responsibility, and I think they've handled it really well."
Neither started a single game last year. In fact, the Rams featured the same starting five through all 19 games. Continuity matters when a unit must work in cohesion on a down-by-down basis.
The change from Sullivan to Allen will be vitally important. Sullivan wasn't the best at the point of attack, and the veteran struggled at times, but his pre-snap reads and line calls helped put the Rams in a position to succeed. Allen must grow in this area.
"With the center's job being so important with initiation the calls, whether it be protection or the run game, they need more meeting time, more time to ask more, study, more visual of what defenses look like, what stances look like when people are going to move, all those things," Kromer said. "And that's the time that Brian has put in."
As the rebuilt offensive line learns to work together throughout training camp, preseason and the regular season, more onus will fall on the team's running back stable to create when nothing is available. However, the Rams can't rely on Gurley like they did a year ago. The 24-year-old back led the NFL last season with 17 rushing touchdowns and earned his third Pro Bowl bid.
Less will mean more for Gurley in the future. According to The Athletic's Jeff Howe, the running back has arthritis in his surgically repaired left knee, which limited his participation in the playoffs. Gurley later denied the report, but he missed time in crucial situations for a reason.
The Rams, for their part, backed last year's MVP candidate.
"He's good. I think he's feeling great," McVay said of Gurley, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "One of the things about Todd is, great competitor. I think he's earned the right to be able to have the plan we had this offseason. I can't wait to get him back going and I know he's ready to go and it's going to be fun for the Rams this year."
Gurley could feel great right now and ready to resume regular duties, but the Rams should still manage the game's highest-paid running back. Obviously, some concern exists since the organization used this year's third-round pick on running back Darrell Henderson. General manager Les Snead also matched the two-year, $3.3 million restricted free-agent tender the Detroit Lions offered Malcolm Brown.
Gurley's uncertain status makes quality running back depth a must, even if those replacing him aren't on the same level.
The offense's overall approach will experience ripple effects. The Rams relied on 11 personnel more than any unit last year. McVay leaned on his reliable offensive line and explosive running backs. The coach didn't have to stray outside the group's comfort zone very often. He consistently called the same package yet introduced variations in concepts with one back, one tight end and three wide receivers on the field.
The coach's creativity isn't in question, but he must add to last year's approach because it failed when it mattered.
"Coming into this offense, you see everything we have in—the jet sweeps, the play-action passes, the regular five-step, three-step passes," wide receiver Robert Woods told Simmons. "And you come in Year 3 with Sean McVay, and there's more to it. You already see every angle of the cut, and he's still finding ways to find more cuts, find more routes, more concepts to improve and make his offense more unstoppable."
Tendencies develop even for the best coaches (except the Patriots' Bill Belichick, whose calling card is breaking his own tendencies). McVay must live up to his status as an offensive genius and build upon last year's success, not use it as a crutch.
Defensively, the Rams lost two significant contributors in Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner. Eric Weddle's free-agent addition solves any issues along the defensive backline, but Suh isn't as easily replaced. The five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle played well next to Aaron Donald. Donald is who he is, and he'll terrorize any opponent. Suh used his strength and ferocity in the middle of the Rams defense to tear apart some offenses, even as he entered the downside of his career. The Rams don't have an immediate replacement at 1-technique.
Snead chose nose tackle Greg Gaines in this year's fourth round. The rookie will compete with second-year defender Sebastian Joseph-Day to start. Neither provides the intensity nor all-around skill set Suh brought. So, the Rams will be softer in the middle next to Donald.
As the Rams regressed, the rest of the NFC West improved.
The Seattle Seahawks serve as Los Angeles' primary competition. Russell Wilson is the best quarterback in the division. The Seahawks offensive line remains much improved after last year's turnaround campaign under the tutelage of assistant coach Mike Solari. The Seahawks should get a lot more from sophomore tight end Will Dissly and running back Rashaad Penny. Doug Baldwin's retirement is a setback, but Seattle loaded up on wide receiver talent in the draft with DK Metcalf, Greg Jennings Jr. and John Ursua. Plus, general manager John Schneider successfully rebuilt the Seahawks defense on the fly, including a swap of Ziggy Ansah for Frank Clark.
A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers served as a chic playoff pick thanks to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and an improving roster. Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in Week 3, which destroyed any hopes of a successful season. The quarterback is back, and the 49ers added more to the lineup this offseason with linebacker Kwon Alexander, running back Tevin Coleman and 2019 second overall pick Nick Bosa.
The Cardinals should be improved as well. With Kliff Kingsbury's wide-open offense and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray leading the way, Arizona's competitiveness increased over last year's 3-13 effort.
The NFL doesn't remain static. Either a team gets better or worse.
The Rams are worse because:
- The Patriots provided a game plan to beat them.
- McVay's offensive approach became too predictable.
- The offensive line is in flux.
- Gurley's knee is the great unknown.
- The defense took a slight step back.
Each of these factors could lead the Rams from their previous Super Bowl standard to the second- or third-best team in the division.