Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP
When the Rams sent what was left of their future assets to the Broncos a month ago to acquire Von Miller, they registered in the grandest of NFL experiments: What would it look like if a team truly went all in? What if they stopped worrying about tomorrow?
The ideal outcome was clear. Miller would redefine the Rams’ defense, allowing them to create all kinds of pressure with a four-man defensive front. Pair that with Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford and an all-singing, all-dancing offense and you have a playoff-ready juggernaut.
Or not. The Rams have now lost three games on the spin. They’ve cratered on defense, falling from fourth in defensive efficiency in Week 8 all the way down to 19th spot at the close of play on Sunday.
Worse: The offense has fallen into a ditch. Over his entire career, Aaron Rodgers has thrown three pick-sixes. Matthew Stafford has thrown three in the last three weeks.
Worse still: The whole tenor of the team is, well, funky.
Since they acquired Miller at the trade deadline, they aren’t quick enough on defense; the stars unable to cover up for the lack of depth at linebacker and throughout the secondary. Up against an addled Packers’ offensive line on Sunday – one that was down its starting center, left guard, and onto its third-string left tackle – they failed to register consistent pressure, despite lining up with Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Miller.
The Rams Experiment was as much about star-hunting on defense as anything else. With Donald, Miller and Jalen Ramsey, the Rams figured they’d tipped the defensive odds in their favor. Defense is not as stable – year to year or week to week – as offense. But if you can land three of the 10 most significant defenders of a generation, all still just about in their primes, your odds get better. An offense might be able to scheme one of those three out of a game, but not all of them – at least in theory.
But good defense resides in the absence of spectacle. If offensive production is driven by its star-power – and it is – then defense is driven by the ability of the 11th-best man on the field. Good offenses will always, always find the weak link on defense. And right now, the Rams defense is running out on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays) with two or three subpar players on each and every snap. Over the course of the last three weeks, they’ve given up an average of 31 points a game.
It’s just as grim on offense. The fun-and-gun early Stafford-McVay days have made way for a plodding, pedestrian attack, one being marshaled by the Real Matthew Stafford™. This is who Stafford has always been. No one should be shocked. A couple of times a year, he’ll win a game almost single-handed, thanks to his arm strength, decisiveness, and willingness to push the ball into tight windows. A couple of times a year, that same moxie means he’ll chuck a game away, by way of brutal turnovers.
The Rams’ best hope coming into the year was that McVay’s play-calling and tactical acuity could limit some of Stafford’s variance, or at the least diminish some of its impacts. Early on, it worked. Recently, not so much.
Stafford has proven that he can push the McVay offense to a level that Jared Goff or other Goff-adjacent quarterbacks could not. But as the season has progressed he has reverted to some of his worst instincts. He also happens to be beaten up. ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported pre-game that Stafford is “dealing with pain in his throwing arm, his elbow, a sore ankle, and chronic back pain.”
It’s hard to measure the impact of those injuries. But it’s clear that something is up with the Rams offense beyond the injury to receiver Robert Woods. Stafford hasn’t been as slick as he was early in the year. The team’s run-game is non-existent. Everything takes an extra beat to unfold; the Rams don’t have the kind of offensive line talent that allows for that beat on a regular basis. If fancy metrics are your thing, the Rams rank 21st in passing EPA since Week 7, a measure of a team’s down-to-down efficiency.
And therein lies the issue with an all-in strategy. You risk the whole house of cards falling down thanks to a receiver hurting his knee in practice, or your quarterback’s nagging back pain flaring up at the wrong time, or your soon-to-be 40-year-old left tackle starting to creak, or your much-ballyhooed defensive strategy failing to produce any results. In the doomsday scenario, all four hit at once.
The Rams still have the makings of a team that could catch fire down the stretch. In a year without a batch of serious contenders, they have the talent to compete with anyone. But they have a bunch of issues to correct before the playoffs – and time is running out for them to find the right answers.
Video of the week
If you want a video that sums up what it means to play in the NFL, here you go:
Yes, you saw that right. That’s Vita Vea’s tooth popping out of his head mid-game. Vea was soon strolling along the sideline, ready to play the very next snap. Bucs coach Bruce Arians described the atmosphere best, even if his numbers were a little off: “I don’t care. He’s got 30 others.”
MVP of the week
Joe Mixon celebrates one of his two touchdowns on Sunday. Photograph: Aaron Doster/AP
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals handed Mixon the ball eight times on the team’s opening touchdown drive against the Steelers. It was a statement of intent. Cincy continued to find creative ways to get Mixon the ball on the ground and through the air. He finished the day with 163 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on 32 touches. Thirty-two!
It was over to the Steelers’ offense to keep pace. With a fossilized Ben Roethlisberger and an offensive system that isn’t tailored to create chunk yards, they had no chance. The Bengals ran out 41-10 winners.
Stat of the week
Five. That’s the number of rushing touchdowns by Niners receiver Deebo Samuel this season, more than Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, David Montgomery and Saquon Barkley.
He may well be the best offensive weapon in the NFL right now. Samuel is on pace to become the first player to total more than 1,500 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards in a season. With Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm, the Niners offense has been a tough watch. But Samuel brings an element of electricity to an otherwise stodgy unit.
Quote of the week
“I believe Bill Belichick has done his best coaching job this season, ever – in his entire career.” – Rex Ryan on Belichick, Mac Jones and the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are playing the best all-around football of any team in the league. They hosed the Titans 36-13 on Sunday, flashing in all three phases of the game. It wasn’t perfect, but it rarely is with the Patriots these days. It’s about limiting mistakes, and then hoping that the defense and Mac Jones can make a few game-changing plays to seal a win.
It was Belichick’s receivers who stepped up on Sunday, with both Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers hauling in otherworldly grabs to bail the offense out of some iffy down-and-distance situations.
Beating the Titans keeps the Patriots in the race for the AFC’s No 1 seed. To do that with a rookie quarterback, in the same division as the loaded Bills, does indeed represent one of Belichick’s finest achievements.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Dolphins picked up a sneakily important 33-10 win over the Panthers. All of a sudden, Miami are 5-7 with the Giants and Jets up next. Both games are at home. The team’s defense has been marvelous for the better part of a month, and Tua Tagovailoa and the offense have started to hit some sort of form. There’s a decent chance the Dolphins will head to New Orleans for Monday Night Football in a fortnight’s time at 7-7, right in the wildcard mix. It’s been that kind of season.
— Lamar Jackson pulled off some electrifying plays on Sunday Night Football but he also gave up four interceptions. The Browns couldn’t exploit those chances though as they went down to a 16-10 defeat. Baker Mayfield attracts plenty of criticism, but it was Cleveland’s usually excellent running game that let them down, averaging a little over two yards per rush.
— It was a rough day for Cam Newton and the Panthers. Carolina sent Newton to the bench in the fourth quarter with the game all but lost. Newton completed just five of his 21 pass attempts, tossing two interceptions and somewhere in the region of 10 did-he-really-throw-that efforts – a Newton staple. Newton has been lively since he returned to the Panthers, but this is one that he and the team will want to quickly forget.
— We need to talk about the Colts’ Darius Leonard. It’s rare that a middle linebacker serves as a walking turnover-creating machine. But Leonard forced another fumble recovery with a Peanut Tillman-style punchout against the Bucs. Since he entered the league in 2018, Leonard has 15 forced fumbles, which ranks second over that span only to TJ Watt (19), who has the handy advantage of being the league’s premier pass-rusher, opening up sack-fumble opportunities. Leonard has made forcing turnovers into an art form.
— – All is not well in Minnesota. Head coach Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins spent the last week squabbling about how aggressive the quarterback should be. Zimmer wanting his quarterback to ramp it up; Cousins sticking to the mantra of efficiency above all else. Then, in a one-score game, late in the fourth quarter, Cousins lined up behind the right guard to try to take a snap on fourth and goal. The Vikings were forced to take a timeout. When Cousins finally found himself lined up in the right spot, he took the snap and launched it over the head of Justin Jefferson on fourth down, sealing a 34-26 defeat to the Niners. The Vikings are now 5-6, with games against the Packers and Rams still on the schedule.
— It was a day to forget for Philly receiver Jalen Reagor. He dropped two potential touchdown passes in the final minute of the Eagles-Giants game. A touchdown would have been enough to lift the Eagles to a one-point victory. Instead, the Giants picked up the 13-7 win.