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Cowboys @ Rams: “There’s not a single expected pass rusher to be concerned about other than Aaron Donald right now”

We get the lowdown on the Cowboys Week 1 opponent, the Los Angeles Rams.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to really know what’s going with another NFL team, talk to the guys who run their SB Nation site. That’s what we did to find out about the Los Angeles Rams. We posed five questions to the fine folks at Turf Show Times, and this is what we learned.

Blogging The Boys: What happened to Jared Goff last year? Was it on him, or was it more of a team breakdown?

Turf Show Times: I was pretty vocal about my opinion on Goff’s 2017-2018 performances, which is that he was benefiting significantly from a terrific supporting cast. In 2019, the offense took a step back following the retirement of center John Sullivan, the decline in ability for Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks, and a multitude of injuries along the offensive line. I expect some regression in 2020 for the offensive line, meaning I’d be surprised if they didn’t improve, and I believe Cam Akers could be capable of being an upgrade to the version of Gurley we saw last season. Second round receiver Van Jefferson could also be the threat that Cooks wasn’t able to be for most of his final season with the Rams. Because of those changes and a healthy offensive line (for now), I think Jared Goff will post better numbers this year. Whether that means he’s improved his flaws and gotten better as a quarterback, including up to the point where he’s a productive player who also elevates the play of every single player around him even when things go south remains to be seen. Short answer: More of a team breakdown.

BTB: With Todd Gurley gone, what do you see happening with the Rams running game, and utilizing RBs in the passing game?

TST: In Week 1, I’d expect Cam Akers to start and Malcolm Brown to be his backup and potentially seeing an equal number of snaps. Second year back Darrell Henderson has missed a couple of weeks with a soft tissue injury and the team recently added running back Raymond Calais to the 53-man roster after he had been waived by the Bucs. Akers was a second round pick out of Florida State and noted for his ability to force broken and missed tackles behind the worst offensive line in college football. The thought process there for most observing the pick is that Akers will be able to elevate the play of the offensive line as compared to what happened in 2019. Can he pick up a first down where Gurley wasn’t able to last year? I don’t expect Henderson to play and if he does, I’d assume it is limited. Undrafted free agent rookie Xavier Jones is also on the team but there wasn’t much mention of him in training camp as a player who’d be involved in the offense this season. And while I’m sure Sean McVay would love to see more seasons like when Gurley had 788 receiving yards in 2018, I’m not sure that’s the plan or goal right now. That’s not necessarily what Akers was known for in college and it’s not going to be a strength of Brown’s. The team has four receivers and three tight ends who they’re fond of as receiving threats (even if not everybody agrees with them on those numbers) so I assume passes to running backs will be as necessary.

BTB: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the defense, besides the obvious strengths of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey?

TST: Troy Hill could be an underrated cornerback if he’s able to replicate his performance last season. He could end up being a starter for another team in 2021 as this is the contract year and Ramsey is their only “franchise” cornerback now. Michael Brockers could be missing out on some due credit by way of playing next to the best player in the NFL. He signed with the Ravens this year but the contract fell through on a failed physical and he returned to the Rams, who had just signed A’Shawn Robinson. As it turns out, Brockers is healthy and Robinson missed all of training camp and is starting the year on NFI. Safety John Johnson missed most of 2019 but returns and could be the third-best player on the defense. Those are some positives. I would have to say that most everything else on defense ranks at best as an “unknown.” They lost linebackers Cory Litttleton and Dante Fowler and didn’t really replace them. Free agent Leonard Floyd showed little pass rush ability with the Bears and was really signed to help with the run defense for LA. Micah Kiser steps in as the de facto new number one inside linebacker in place of Littleton and he’s got virtually no track record to speak of. Next to him may be Kenny Young or Troy Reeder, two players who’ve been benched in the past for not being good linebackers. There’s not a single expected pass rusher to be concerned about other than Donald right now. That could change in four weeks or so if Samson Ebukam or Floyd or “Other” show us something, but it would be something we’ve never seen from them before. The most encouraging news from camp on defense came from rookie safeties Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller, but there’s no way to tell how real that is or how much they’ll play in Week 1. The defense really does hinge — I think — on the dominance of those two players you mention. Then the other players can fall into place and will need to take advantage of their opportunities.

BTB: Is the confidence still high for Sean McVay as the head coach, or did last season put a dent in that?

TST: I’ve maybe noticed that dent more with people who don’t follow the Rams as compared with those who do. Sean McVay made some decisions with the team last season and the offensive personnel that a lot of people disagree with but he was faced with some tough tasks because of injuries and I don’t think that the “correct answers” to those problems were simple, if it was even possible to succeed with the personnel he had at all. People will start to judge McVay based on the success of his coaching tree like Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor, but how about also acknowledging that the franchise may have lost some really good coaches too? It’s not just players, injuries, schedule, coaching or anything specific either, but there are millions of variables to juggle each season and I think if you come out with three winning records, two division titles (in the NFC West for that matter) and one trip to the Super Bowl in your first three years, you’ve earned some leverage with fans. If the Rams had a really poor season, I think McVay would feel the pressure headed into 2021. I don’t think that pressure exists right now after a season in which they very nearly went to the playoffs again.

BTB: The West is stacked, can the Rams win that division? Will the they rebound and be a contender in the NFC?

TST: “Can” is something I can answer: Yes, they can. McVay’s offense has been good enough recently for me to consider it to have top-five potential and I’m curious to see how young defensive coordinator Brandon Staley handles an assignment with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. For them to “rebound” from 9-7 would mean that they’re only a two wins difference from going 11-5 and that’s a really good record. It was enough to win the division in 2017. I also think there are vulnerabilities with every team in the division, including the Rams.

“Will” is something I can’t answer. But it could be a close three or four-team race. With the extra wild card this season, I am even more confident that the Rams will contend for the postseason.

Thanks for the knowledge, Turf Show Times.