Even though Halloween is in the rear-view mirror, it is never a bad time to talk about curses.
Many football fans are aware of the Madden Curse. It almost caught another victim this season, when 2019 cover athlete Patrick Mahomes went down with a dislocated kneecap. Mahomes is back in the lineup, but the Kansas City Chiefs are suddenly in a dogfight with the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West.
Another football curse is the curse of the Super Bowl-losing team. Some recent examples of this phenomenon include the Carolina Panthers, who went 6-10 the year after losing Super Bowl 50. The Atlanta Falcons did manage to return to the playoffs after losing Super Bowl LI in dramatic fashion, but they were bounced out by the eventual champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The 2019 Los Angeles Rams are well on track to becoming the latest example of this curse. They currently sit at 5-4, looking up at both the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West. While a year ago Sean McVay was the talk of the football world with his offensive concepts and how he was guiding Jared Goff to a near-elite level of play, their offense is anything but elite this season.
So how has the offense gone off the rails?
We can start by looking back to last season. Just under a year ago I penned a piece for PFW titled “The Madness of McVay,” which examined some of his concepts that were keeping defenses guessing. That piece highlighted how McVay stringed together plays, the outside zone running game, and how McVay incorporated motion to confuse defenses before the snap.
For example, look at the blocking on this outside running play:
Pay attention to the angles the Rams get here for their offensive linemen. That sets up Todd Gurley (#30) for a great run to the right edge.
We can return to the running game in a moment but while everyone - myself included - was heaping praise on McVay around this time last year, something else was happening, and it began in that game against the Detroit Lions. As previously mentioned, the use of motion by McVay in the Rams’ offense was setting up Goff for some big plays in the passing game. Most of the time, that motion was just eye candy. A ruse. Something to distract the defense with before hitting them elsewhere on the field.
Like on this play:
Brandin Cooks (#12) comes in jet motion before the snap, and as this play begins Goff (#16) fakes a sweep to him, as well as a run to the left with Gurley. This is all eye candy for a Sail concept to the right side, with a deep corner route and an intermediate route from TE Tyler Higbee (#89). Cooks continues to the right flat, giving Goff an outlet. But the QB doesn’t need to take that, as his tight end is open on the out route. Because of the motion and the eye candy, the linebackers are slow to get into their drops here. As Cooks releases to the flat, he pulls the cornerback down toward the line of scrimmage, expanding the throwing window for Goff to hit the out route.
As that game wore on, however, Lions’ head coach Matt Patricia and his defense started ignoring the motion. That was a defensive tweak that Vic Fangio would employ a week later:
Here, the Chicago Bears get a big stop on an outside zone running play by ignoring the motion. They simply slide their defenders, which gives them the ability to set the edge and stop this run in the backfield. Two plays later they would post a safety, enabling them to take over the game.
This schematic element would be copied by additional opponents of the Rams. The Philadelphia Eagles would employ it a week later in a huge win over the Rams, and as you might expect it was part of Bill Belichick’s game plan in Super Bowl LIII. In addition to using Cover 4 and calling two defensive plays in the huddle (and switching to the second one after the radio in Goff’s helmet was turned off) Belichick’s defense also ignored the motion.
So how would McVay and the offense look in 2019?
As we have seen, they have taken a step back.
It begins with their inability to effectively run the football. So much of what the Rams did last season began with their running game, particularly their outside zone run game. Building off of their success on the ground it would set up the play-action and boot-action game for Goff. A year ago the Rams averaged 4.9 yards per carry, which was third-most in the league. This year? The Rams are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, a whole yard less per attempt, which is just 22nd in the league.
This is something that showed up last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Here, the Rams try and run rookie running back Darrell Henderson (#27) to the right side, but the Steelers’ defensive front gets push up front and stops this run for a loss.
As a result, McVay has tried different ways to get the ground game going. On this example from last week, they run Gurley on a pin-and-pull toss design to the left side. Where last year the Rams were so effective at getting great angles for their blockers in the running game, they fail on this attempt:
Without the great angles up front, the speed from the Steelers’ defense is able to flush Gurley out of bounds for a loss of four yards.
In addition to their struggles on the ground, the Rams are finding it difficult to protect Goff this season. A year ago Goff was hurried 66 times over the course of the season, and hit 34 times. This year, through just nine games, Goff has been hurried 36 times and hit 30. That is also reflected in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric, which measures the rate at which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. This season, the Rams’ offensive line ranks 25th in the league, accomplishing this task just 54 percent of the time.
As you might expect, there were examples of this early and often against the Steelers. On this first example, a third-and-8 play to start the second quarter, Goff is almost immediately sacked:
On this second-and-9 play late in the second quarter, Goff is pressured virtually right after the ball is snapped:
While Goff is finishing his drop, the pocket is already collapsing around him. It is hard to execute as a passer when the world is crashing down around you before you get a chance to set up in the pocket.
Then of course is this scoop-and-score strip sack:
Goff hopes to throw a route to the left side of the field, but before that route comes open the pressure gets home.
Some of these problems can be attributed to injuries and changes along the offensive line. Center Brian Allen is out for the season, and right tackle Rod Havenstein suffered an injury against the Steelers that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks. Headed into their matchup with the Bears this week, it is expected that Los Angeles will have four new starters in new or almost-new positions. Austin Blythe is moving from guard to center, rookie Bobby Evans is slated to start at right tackle, and their guards are expected to be David Edwards and Austin Corbett, who both have limited experience.
Putting all of these elements together (struggles running the football, defenses figuring out how to handle motion, a quarterback playing under duress and changes up front) are tough for an offense to overcome. If there was perhaps just one play that could encapsulate all of these factors…it would be this one:
The Rams use jet motion before the snap, and the Steelers’ defense simply ignores it, sliding rather than trailing the motion man. The Rams use play-action here, but the second level defenders do not bite on the fake and retreat into their underneath zones. Goff faces pressure in his face, and the throw is off target and intercepted.
Many offenses would be able to overcome just one of these flaws. But when an offense faces all of these issues at once, it is usually too much to vanquish. This snowballing effect is taking its toll on the Rams’ offense, and unless something changes almost immediately, they will be the next team to suffer the Super Bowl Loser’s Curse.