It’s time to get the lowdown on the Rams before the game with the Cowboys on Sunday. For that, we turn to Turf Show Times, a most excellent Rams site.
Blogging The Boys: Obviously Jared Goff looks like a different player this year. How much is him, and how much is what the team has done around him?
Turf Show Times: It's really hard to parse how much of the Rams' offensive improvement is on Jared Goff or the talent around him or a third factor - a new head coach and offensive system.
For Goff, there's no doubt he's playing better individually. Of course, it would have been hard not to. He was absolutely abysmal last year in his seven starts. Through three weeks, he's doing two things very well: making great decisions and taking what defenses give him. He hasn't been overly aggressive or really pushed things into risky areas, and it's worked very, very well. Because the Rams now have decent weapons all over the field, he's not having to push the ball to one target exclusively or really up the risk factor for any reason. The only time he had to do so was late in the Week 2 loss to Washington. It did not go well... Nonetheless, when he's been in normal offensive situations, he has excelled this year working through his reads and taking the most risk averse option to great gain.
Around him? It's night and day. The top three wide receivers are all new: WR Sammy Watkins and WR Robert Woods through free agency and third-round rookie WR Cooper Kupp through the draft. His top tight end, second-round rookie TE Gerald Everett, is new. LT Andrew Whitworth and C John Sullivan are new at perhaps the two most important positions on this offensive line. Much like his performance last year, given how poor the personnel was around him in these spots last year, any alternative would have likely been an upgrade. To suggest every single one of these changes has been a hit wouldn't be a suggestion out of pro-Rams bias.
And without question, getting an offensively-minded head coach in Sean McVay who has prior experience with Matt LaFleur, his offensive coordinator, has been a decision that nobody is questioning right now. His system is creating multiple opportunities for Goff all over the field. It's made RB Todd Gurley a very effective threat in the passing game out of the backfield. It has invested in deeper passing reads moreso than Jeff Fisher (again, not saying much...).
So because all three have happened at the same time, it's hard to really call out one moreso than the others as the primary factor for Goff playing better. The good thing for Rams fans is that there's no doubt that it's happening at all.
BTB: Todd Gurley also looks like he is in peak form. Is it a new offensive scheme, better offensive line, or what is it that has the Rams looking so much better on offense?
TST: The offensive line certainly is the first thing to point to, but I don't think you can undervalue the effect of the passing game both in terms of Gurley's role and the expansion of the field.
As well-known as Gurley is, it was really just his first four games that put him on the map nationally, and for good reason. After that record-breaking entry into the NFL until the end of last season, Gurley started 24 games averaging just 59 yards per game at just 3.43 yards per rush. It...was...abysmal. And while Rams fans bickered over what was the cause, there was no doubt that his 2016 season was just unacceptable, both given his ability level but also for how important the run game was in the Fisherball offense. Teams were stacking the box and daring the Rams to pass beyond them. That dare went unaccepted.
This year though, Gurley hasn't had to face unusually high levels of crowded defenses just past the line. The ability of the Rams' new passing attack to threaten all levels of the field has opened things up to the point that Gurley isn't running into a crowd. The offensive line is opening space. And these first three games are Gurley's most productive in the passing game notching 13 catches for 140 yards and two very impressive touchdowns. He's now playing more like a dual-threat RB, something no Rams fans were prepared for especially given the offseason signing of Lance Dunbar as what was billed as a move to shore up the position for passing situations. That too is making it difficult for defenses to key in on him in the run game.
Overall though, you're right. He is in peak form. While I could gripe that we wasted a year and a half of his career to get here...welp. That's the real gripe for the end of the Jeff Fisher era. We had to go through it just to get to the other side. It's yet another great journey much like Dante's Inferno or the Fire Swamp in the Princess Bride or Lalotai in Moana (look man, I got a 7-year old daughter. I don't have a lot of time to get new references to stuff. Yall gon have to deal.).
BTB: Aaron Donald is a player Cowboys' fans coveted in the draft. How has he looked this year and did his holdout put him behind at all?
TST: Yeah, it really did. He came out slow in Week 2 against Washington and wasn't his complete self in Week 3. But Aaron Donald is just so good that even less than 100%, he's still better than nearly any interior DL in the NFL. His sack at the end of the game last week iced the Rams' win much like a nice run from a star RB for a first-down with your opponent out of time outs puts it out of reach.
This is the big week for him, though. Given the quality of this matchup and the new questions raised by your O-line (which you mentioned atop my questions for you this week), Aaron Donald needs to look like Aaron Donald this week. From the word go. He's got to ball. If he doesn't, he's going to resuscitate the ire he engendered with his holdout last month.
The holdout lost him a sizable contingency of Rams fans who were upset that he wasn't willing to end his holdout before the meaningful football began. They haven't forgotten his absence in the buildup to this season. That's the pressure his holdout placed on his play this season. But if he can live up to the bar he set with his first three seasons? Those same fans will likely have no problem with him becoming the highest-paid defender in the NFL.
BTB: Sammy Watkins is a key newcomer, will he be able to play on Sunday (concussion)? What does he mean to the offense?
TST: Yes, he and WR Tavon Austin both passed the concussion protocol and will play.
His role is a bit nascent to try and nail down. The Rams traded for him after the first game of the preseason, so he didn't have the benefit of working through the offseason with Goff or OTAs or the entirety of training camp. He came in mid-stream. So his pickup of the playbook has had to take place on the fly. Essentially a go route on the go (I see what I did there).
So yes, he underwhelmed in the preseason. And yes, he underwhelmed in the first two games. With as much attention as his name and tape garners along with his lack of experience in the Rams' offense with the other offensive players, that was probably predictable. But last week against the San Francisco 49ers, he went off: six catches on seven targets for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns including an amazing 47-yard bomb on a perfectly thrown ball from Goff.
The good thing for the Rams is that it's not Sammy Watkins and a bunch of guys. Woods is a fine WR2. Kupp looks like a strong candidate as the steal of the draft for the 69th overall pick (nice) and the seventh WR taken. Everett has upgraded the threat at tight end in the passing game. So as Watkins continues to develop chemistry with Goff and fit into the offense in general, there's plenty of support around him.
The interesting dynamic here is longevity. While Watkins is without a doubt the best wideout the Rams have fielded since future HOFer Torry Holt, he's here in his contract year. There's no certainty that he'll be here in 2018 as much of this young roster begins to really hit peak. Will he be back in 2018 and beyond? Should he? Even if the Rams are willing to make a substantial offer, would he seek a larger offer elsewhere?
A game like this could help answer some of those more definitively.
BTB: The Rams have become a chic pick to be a playoff team this year with their nice start. How do you guys feel about them as a team? Is the improvement real and solid, or do you fear they could easily regress?
TST: It's certainly more credible than the 3-1 start last season, their best in a decade, in which a 9-3 win in Week 2 over the Seattle Seahawks was followed by a 37-32 freakfest in Florida against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It just wasn't going to hold up (Ron Howard voice: It didn't.). The team was too volatile and the insane level of red zone conversion early on just wasn't going to be sustained.
So you've got a more reasonable start in line with the roster quality for one. Secondly, it's a new head coach. There was already exuberance. I've gone on record all offseason/preseason suggesting the Rams could be a very viable playoff team in 2018. So to get these early returns not only solidified that but has accelerated those expectations for a lot of fans. Lastly, for a team that has been so abjectly horrendous on offense for so long (we've been in the bottom quarter offensively every year since 2007 and at the very bottom...too often) that to be anything close to competent is going to invite all kinds of hyperbole. The Rams right now are tops in points per game and sixth in yards per game. Nobody wants to talk about the run defense (It's been horrible!) or the defense overall that was supposed to be special under Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips (He should be a head coach one day!).
We got beyond the Jeff Fisher era. We have a whole new stable of offensive centerpieces. Points are being scored. Wins are being notched. Life is good again. (Don't @ me when we go 5-10-1 and miss the playoffs)
Thanks for the knowledge, Turf Show Times.