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Dallas Cowboys 2020 opponent breakdowns; Los Angeles Rams

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We begin our series by breaking down the Cowboys Week One opponent, the Los Angeles Rams.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL schedule now finalized, we will begin to break down the Dallas Cowboys opponents, week by week. We’ll start first with the team Dallas will face in Week One, the Los Angeles Rams.

2019 Record: 9-7 (Missed Playoffs)

Last Meeting: (12/15/19) Los Angeles 21 - Dallas 44

Head Coach: Sean McVay (Fourth Season / 33-15 record)

Key Additions: OLB Leonard Floyd, DT A’Shawn Robinson, OT Andrew Whitworth (Re-signed), DT Michael Brockers (Re-signed), OL Austin Blythe (Re-signed)

Key Losses: RB Todd Gurley, OLB Clay Matthews, LB Cory Littleton, WR Brandin Cooks, K Greg Zuerlein, S Eric Weddle, DE Dante Fowler Jr., CB Nickell Robey-Coleman

Offense Outlook

The Rams high-flying offense came back to earth a bit last season. After scoring the second most points per game in the league in 2018 (32.9), they averaged just 24.6 per game in an inconsistent 2019 season. The offense scored 30 or more points six times, but also scored 21 points or less six times, losing all but two of those games.

A big reason for the decline on offense was from struggling in the run game. In 2018 the Rams rushed for 2,231 yards as a team, third best in the NFL. Last season this dropped to just 1,499 yards, seventh worst in the NFL. A big part of this stemmed from the issues of running back Todd Gurley. Despite playing in all 15 games, Gurley failed to hit the 1,000 rushing yard mark for just the second time in his career. His subpar performance and injury concerns led the Rams to cut ties with him, and his huge contract, this offseason.

Despite Gurley and the Rams struggles in the run game, the biggest reason for the decline on offense was the poor play of quarterback Jared Goff. After an outstanding Pro-Bowl season in 2018, Goff’s performance took a big dip last year. The former number one overall pick threw just 22 touchdown passes to 16 interceptions. That’s 12 less TD passes than he did in 2018 and four more interceptions.

His QBR also went down from 101.1 to 86.5, a huge drop. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2018 Goff graded out with the seventh best overall passing rating out of all quarterbacks. Last season, he dropped to 20th. To be fair, Goff was not the only one who struggled. Despite allowing a league-low 22 sacks, the Rams offensive line graded out as the fourth worst pass blocking line in all of football, injuries played a big part in their struggles. His receivers played fairly well, but Cooper Kupp was the only one to score more than three touchdowns.

After cutting ties with two of their best offensive players at the beginning of April, Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley, the Rams took to the draft to try to solve their offensive woes. Los Angeles went offense with their first two picks, selecting two players from the state of Florida, RB Cam Akers and WR Van Jefferson.

Looking ahead to this coming season, it’s hard to believe the Rams’ offense will suddenly flip a switch and transform back to their 2018 form. Replacing Gurley with Akers was a needed move, and the combination of him, Darrell Henderson, and Malcom Brown will be a solid backfield. Jefferson should be able to slide in and somewhat fill Cook’s role, and they still have two 1,000 yard receivers in Kupp and Robert Woods. The offensive line, if healthy, should preform better as a unit, but it ultimately all comes down to the quarterback.

If the Rams want their offense to lead them to another deep postseason run, they need Jared Goff to be better. With the talent around him, they don’t particularly need the 2018 version of Goff, but something in the middle of that season and last season. If they can get that, they have a good shot at returning to the postseason this year.

Defense Outlook

When you look at what the Rams’ defense did last season, their stats look pretty solid. They were top ten in the league in takeaways, gave up 22.8 points per game, and recorded the fourth most sacks in the NFL at 50. But, if you take a look at their schedule, you’ll see this same defense gave up 34 or more points four times, losing all four games,

Those four games really caused their overall defensive stats to inflate, and took away from a season that would have been seen much differently if even just one of those games did not happen. In nine of their 16 games, the Rams’ defense held their opponents to 20 points or less. In seven, their opponent scored 13 points or less.

They graded out, according to PFF, as the sixth best defense in all of football. If you took away games against the Ravens, 49ers, and Cowboys, they would have graded out with an overall defensive grade around 87, third best in the league. They also graded out with the second best pass rush grade in all of football, and the eighth best tackling and coverage grades.

Holding seven opponents to 13 points or less is not easy, and a big part of the Rams defensive success was due to the play of All-Pro Aaron Donald. The best defensive player in football continued to dominate last season, recording 12.5 sacks, 20 TFL, and 24 QB hits in route to becoming a First-Team All-Pro for the fifth season in a row. Los Angeles also got some great play from pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. who recorded 11.5 sacks and 16 TFL, and veteran Clay Matthews who added 8.0 sacks of his own.

Former All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who was acquired in a trade in mid-October, had a solid season as did fellow cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who departed in the offseason to Philadelphia. Corey Littleton, who also departed this offseason, had himself a heck of a season, recording 134 total tackles, six tackles for loss, and forced four turnovers. Their safeties, rookie Taylor Rapp and veteran Eric Weddle, both also preformed well.

Overall, the Rams’ defense was pretty darn impressive in 2019, especially considering their offensive struggles. The problem for Los Angeles is, all but three of the players I mentioned won’t be on their team this season. Robey-Coleman, Littleton, Matthews, and Fowler all departed and Weddle retired.

However, the Rams did not sit around and see if the situation would fix itself, they went out and made some moves. The team signed two starting-caliber defensive players in OLB Leonard Floyd and DT A’Shawn Robinson, and also brought back DT Michael Brockers. In addition, the Rams drafted two players who can make an immediate impact in the third round, LB Terrell Lewis and S Terrell Burgess.

This season, the Rams will have to hope their additions can pan out and replace the production of what they lost. Fowler and Matthews combined recorded 19.5 sacks last season, that’s hard to replace. Littleton led the team in tackles, and Weddle and Robey-Coleman played important roles in the secondary. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey could dominate, but they still will need help from other players. New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley will have a lot of work to do if he wants to replace the production they lost this offseason.

Coaching

Despite a down year on offense, Sean McVay is still an outstanding head coach. McVay is yet to have a losing season, and if the NFL would have implemented their seven team playoff format last season, the Rams would have made it in. The Rams did, however, make some wholesale changes on their staff after last year’s disappointing season.

Los Angeles brought in Kevin O’Connell to take over as offensive coordinator, Brandon Staley to take over as defensive coordinator, and John Bonamego to serve as special teams coordinator. O’Connell and Bonamego both have prior experience as coordinators in the NFL.

It’s hard to say what the changes in coordinators will bring to this Rams team, but it’s hard to bet against a coaching staff led by Sean McVay.

X-Factor

The Rams X-Factor is fairly obvious, it’s Jared Goff. Yes, Donald is clearly the best player on the team, and possibly in the entire league, but no one can have a bigger impact on which direction their season goes than Goff. When Goff had a QBR over 85 last season, the Rams were 6-1. When he did not throw an interception in a game, they were 5-1. When he threw two or more touchdown passes in a game, they were 6-3.

It’s usually the case with almost all NFL teams, but if you have a quarterback that is capable of playing above average, when they do you usually win, and when they don’t you usually lose. Despite a tough game against the Cowboys, Goff played better towards the end of the season. In the last five weeks of the season he threw 11 touchdowns to five interceptions and had an average QBR of 98.6.

If the Rams want to win the NFC West and return the the playoffs, head coach Sean McVay needs to find a way to get more consistent play out of his quarterback in 2020.

How they matchup with Dallas

When looking at how the Cowboys matchup with the Rams, the outcome will likely be determined by who can play better on both sides of the line. In the NFC Divisional Round during the 2018-2019 season, the Rams’ offensive line absolutely dominated the Dallas defensive line. The Rams ran wild on Dallas all night long, leading to a victory. When the two teams matched up again last season, the Cowboys returned the favor. Dallas rushed for 263 yards as a team in a 44-21 beatdown of the Rams.

In September, when the teams meet for the third time in the past three seasons, line play will once again determine the outcome. On the road, with a new head coach, in their first game of the season, the Cowboys are going to need to have success in the running game. On the flip side, if there are two things the Cowboys’ defense needs to do better this season, it’s get to the quarterback and take the ball away. More often than not, if you can do the former consistently, the latter will come.

If Dallas is able to put consistent pressure on Goff all night, he has shown the tendency to be erratic and turn the football over. The Rams are not an offense that is built to play from behind, so if the Cowboys can get them in a hole, they have a good shot of controlling the whole game. When these two teams meet in September, look for a good old fashioned battle in the trenches. Whichever team is more successful almost certainly will walk out with a victory.