Mon, Oct 14, 2019

Here we are once again, headed into a monster game between the Rams and Seahawks, with the two teams battling it out for positioning near the top of the NFC West. They’re both 3-1 after four games despite looking terrific at times and terrible at others. The 49ers are in first place at this point, but each of these two teams looks like a legitimate NFC contender, flaws and all. 

On Thursday night, Jared Goff and company travel north up the coast to do battle with Russell Wilson’s boys up in Seattle. This should be a fascinating game, with playoff implications to boot. Let’s break things down.

You can hear more about this matchup from Dubin and Will Brinson on the latest Pick Six Podcast. Listen below and be sure to subscribe:

How to watch

Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: CenturyLink Field (Seattle, WA)
TV: FOX | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)  

When the Rams have the ball

Much has been made of Jared Goff’s struggles so far this season. And they are … well, they’re pretty bad. Goff is coming off a four-turnover game against the Buccaneers, which doubled as perhaps the least-inspiring 500-yard game of all time. Goff’s 64.2 percent completion rate does not look much different than the 64.9 percent rate he posted last season, but his yards per attempt average has dipped from 8.4 to 7.2, his touchdown rate is down from 5.7 percent of passes to just 3.5 percent, and his interception rate has spiked from 2.1 percent to 3.5 percent, and the latter figure is actually higher than the mark he posted during his disastrous rookie season. 

But more concerning for the Rams is that Goff’s struggles have been spurred on by a dramatic drop-off in offensive line play. When throwing from a clean pocket, Goff has been disappointing, but not terrible. His 97.0 clean-pocket passer rating is down significantly from the 117.1 mark he posted last season, per Pro Football Focus, but it’s a number you can live with. But he’s been a disaster when under pressure, completing just 32 of 70 passes (45.7 percent) for 409 yards (5.8 per attempt), two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 62.1 passer rating. That’s actually a better under-pressure passer rating than Goff posted in 2018 (59.8), but the difference is he has been under pressure on 43.2 percent of his drop backs, up from 32 percent last season. 

The Rams graded out as the NFL‘s seventh-best pass-blocking offensive line at PFF last season. This year they are down to 31st, better than only the decrepit Dolphins. The run-blocking in Los Angeles has also fallen off, going from being the league’s No. 1-graded unit in 2018 to dead last in 2019. Guards Joseph Noteboom, Austin Blythe, and Jamil Demby grade out as the No. 169, No. 163, and No. 157 run-blockers, respectively, among all offensive linemen who have played at least 100 snaps this season, per PFF. And to be clear, only 169 players qualify for said list. 

It should be no surprise, then, that the Rams have seen 17 percent of their rush attempts stopped behind the line of scrimmage this season, per Football Outsiders, up from 14 percent last season. Additionally, after setting the Football Outsiders record for Adjusted Line Yards per carry last season, the Rams are down to seventh in the league in the same stat this year. That might not sound like such a big deal, but going from “best ever” to “seventh in the league” is a pretty significant drop-off. 

The combination of poor run-blocking, poor passing under pressure, and teams’ reluctance to react to the Rams’ varied play-action fakes has undermined much of the basis of Sean McVay’s offense. As The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen has expertly demonstrated, teams are loading up against the Rams with a 6-1 defensive front to guard against the outside zone runs that underpin McVay’s system. The Rams have found a fix to get their ground game going against the front, using crack toss plays to ensure that Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown can hit the edge, but those toss plays can’t be used as effectively in play-action concepts as can the Rams’ preferred stretch and zone hand-offs. As a result, Goff is just 29 of 49 on play-action throws this season, and he’s been picked off three times without throwing a touchdown pass.

So, look, if the Seahawks are able to get pressure on Goff, it’s unlikely the Rams will see success in the passing game. Goff struggles under pressure; that’s just who he is. But if the Rams get their protection in order, they have some favorable matchups with their trio of wide receivers working against the Seattle secondary. 

Cooper Kupp tore up the Seahawks last year, racking up 11 catches for 129 yards and a score in essentially 1.5 games. (He left the second game against Seattle with a torn ACL, having already caught five passes by the middle of the third quarter.) The Seahawks have rarely used slot corner Jamar Taylor this season, but they’re extremely unlikely to get away with using a linebacker or safety against Kupp in the inside. Taylor is going to be tested in this game more than he has all season. Brandin Cooks doesn’t have as much of a speed advantage against Tre Flowers as he does against many other corners, but his change-of-direction skills should give Flowers — who is having a tough season to begin with — a decent amount of trouble. Robert Woods will draw a lot of Shaquill Griffin, but Seattle’s style of Cover-3 and Cover-1 defense often forces opposing offenses into throwing the types of intermediate routes that Woods tends to run in this system. 

When the Seahawks have the ball

While Goff’s poor play has gotten a ton of attention, it feels like Russell Wilson’s scorching start has flown a bit under the radar. As we wrote earlier this week: 

Through four games, Wilson is leading the NFL in completion percentage and is on pace to set career highs in completions, yards per attempt, yards per game, passer rating, and QBR. According to NFL.com’s NextGen Stats, no quarterback in the NFL has outperformed his expected completion percentage by a greater amount than Wilson, whose 72.9 percent completion rate is 10 percent better than the 62.9 percent expected rate based on receiver separation from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field, the separation the passer had at time of throw from the nearest pass rusher, and more.

And Wilson has done all this despite losing the most reliable receiver he’s ever had (Doug Baldwin) to retirement this offseason, despite working with a raw rookie receiver (DK Metcalf) as one of his top options on the outside, and despite being routinely put in awful situations by the design of his offense through the first three weeks of the year. (Seattle’s 8.9 yards-to-go average on third downs ranked 27th in the NFL through three weeks.) 

Wilson is still not getting a ton of throw volume (he’s on pace for 532 pass attempts, which would be the third-highest total of his career), but his efficiency remains off the charts, and he is still one of the premier out-of-structure playmakers in the entire league. He is wildly tough to get a hold of, and even tougher to bring down if you do manage to get hands on him. And when he breaks the pocket, he’s always got his eyes downfield and looking to make a play. 

He now runs up against a Rams defense that was absolutely torched by Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers last week after looking terrific through the first three weeks of the year. Winston went 28 of 41 for 385 yards, four touchdowns and a pick, and he did not discriminate when it came to which Rams defensive backs he picked on. 

Nickell Robey-Coleman gave up four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown; Aqib Talib was beaten for three catches for 33 yards and two scores; Marcus Peters gave up 70 yards and a touchdown; Taylor Rapp yielded five catches for 72 yards on five throws in his direction; John Johnson, Corey Littleton, Clay Matthews, and Bryce Hager forced a total of zero incompletions. Much of the damage came on throws to the middle of the field, where Wilson is 39 of 42 for 516 yards and three touchdowns so far this season. So … that’s not great for the Rams.

Additionally concerning for L.A. is that Seattle finally seemed to get running back Chris Carson back into a rhythm last week. Carson struggled through the first three weeks of the season, in more ways than one. He not only averaged just 3.5 yards per carry; he also fumbled three different times and largely struggled to make hay after first contact. Last week saw an almost total reversal of fortune. Carson gained 104 yards on 22 totes against the Cardinals, adding 41 yards on four catches, fumbling zero times, and breaking a completely ridiculous 21 tackles, per Sports Info Solutions. (Those 21 broken tackles were the most SIS has ever tracked in a single game, by the way.) The Los Angeles defense remains stronger against the pass than the run, and ranks just 18th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards so far this season. 

The Seahawks are very much an establish-the-run type of offense despite having Wilson as their quarterback, and they love nothing more than getting Carson rolling downhill and then allowing Wilson to take shots over the top of the defense. Tyler Lockett has been Wilson’s favorite target this year, but he has also shown an affinity for Metcalf on shot plays and in the red zone, and he’s found a connection with tight end Will Dissly as well. Lockett has a speed advantage over almost every corner in the league; Metcalf is an athletic marvel who can out-run and out-jump nearly anybody; and Dissly just sort of seems to always be wide-open somehow. Wilson doesn’t have his most-trusted target anymore, but he’s got options. 

Of course, the Seahawks also have to deal with the fact that the Rams have a guy named Aaron Donald. He’s good enough to negate every advantage Seattle has anywhere else on the field. Whether he actually does so, is a different question. 

Prediction: Seahawks 26, Rams 24

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