Week 1 Game Preview: All Eyes on SoFi Stadium for Rams-Cowboys

A year ago, this column probably said something very similar. And don't be surprised if the 2021 copy does, too.

But this feels like Sean McVay's greatest challenge yet.

Outsiders might call it a referendum year. I think that's hyperbolic. After all, his seat is anything but hot. In fact, if every head coach was available, and all 32 teams were allowed to bid for them in the open market, I have little doubt that McVay would fare very well, if not draw top dollar.

That being said, as I've written previously this summer, the Rams are back to being the underdogs – in Week 1 and this season in the NFC West.

Most authoritative outlets rank their roster as average, at best, going into a new season.

So, a lot falls on McVay, still the youngest head coach in the game. And that's as it should be. Because the Rams are banking on him to be elite; to motivate and mastermind as he has for three seasons; to be the value-added that enables the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Additionally, McVay hired three new coordinators and made the hard decisions with respect to Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks. So, I understand why more than ever, the perception is that it's "on him" this year.

Thankfully, the shelf life on offseason narratives is about to expire. And the Rams get to write their story anew beginning Sunday night.

No Offense, But…

The other part about the pressure on McVay is that, relative to last season, it really is the offense he commands that has to improve.

Except in a couple disastrous instances – which we'll address momentarily – the defense did its part last season. In Wade Phillips' final campaign, L.A. ranked ninth in DVOA, top 10 against both the run and the pass. Pro Football Focus graded them sixth overall on defense last year.

The Rams Remember

Don't tell me this defense doesn't remember Week 15 at Dallas, though. With the postseason at stake, the Rams laid an egg. And frankly, that might've been the game that convinced McVay the defense had to be overhauled – it was the third time they allowed 44 points or more.

Before and After

I must admit I was surprised when the defensive strategy employed by the 2018 Bears resurfaced this week (credit also to the Detroit Lions, et al.).

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers actually brought it up regarding last year's loss in Dallas, saying, "I think everybody switched to the 6-1 that everybody kind of ran after the Bears. That kind of was our thing…our kryptonite last year."

Which of course drove me to update just how much of an inflection point that frigid night by Lake Michigan has been for the McVay Era:

Cumulative Points For/Against (Regular Season Games)

Before Chicago 2018: 897-627 (32.0-22.4 = +9.6 per game)

That Night and Since: 502-450 (25.1-22.5 = +2.6)

Brockers went on to reference that look is something the Rams offense has apparently still been working on "this whole offseason."

"So I think we'll be straight, against that," he concluded.

Best in the West

Lest we be accused of besmirching the 2019 team when we should be focused on 2020, I would like to state one final time, for the record: Against the best division in football, the Rams should have been 5-1 last year.

They were a missed 44-yard field goal from sweeping Seattle. If not for a brutal pick-six before the half or either of the gut-punch third-and-16s surrendered at San Francisco, the Rams likely beat the eventual NFC Champion on the road in December.

And the next time the Cardinals beat McVay will be the first time.

Target on His (Running) Back

The untold component of the Rams offensive regression last year might be the absence of the tailback in the passing game.

Todd Gurley went from being one of the most lethal two-dimensional threats in the game to utterly invisible through the air.

Only McVay can speak to the causality, but the Rams had the lowest percentage of running back targets last season, by a wide margin – 10.1 percent according to FanDuel.

No Days Goff for Jared

Much of the conversation in the next eight days will center on Jared Goff dueling against the two other high-profile quarterbacks from his draft class, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz.

So, I'd like to take the QB comparison in a different direction – namely, backups.

With the pandemic season looming, Los Angeles could not have taken more disparate of an approach from the organizations in Dallas and Philadelphia.

Behind Goff, there isn't another signal caller who's dressed for an NFL game, nor is there a draft pick. Not on the active roster; not on the practice squad.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys signed a three-time Pro Bowler with 70 career wins in Andy Dalton as their safety net.

And the Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round, then decided to pay $12,000 per week in insurance premiums to Josh McCown, who's going to work from home back in Texas!

Now, let's hope the only snap John Wolford takes this season is in victory formation. And who's to say he's not capable of outperforming Dalton, Hurts, and certainly McCown at this stage, anyway?

I just love the contrast in a league known for its copycat reputation.

All about the OL?

On this week's Rams Revealed podcast, I asked Austin Corbett if he believes – as so many of you do – that the offensive line is the key to the season.

"I think 100 percent. Whatever organization you're talking about, it's always going to come down to the offensive line," Corbett said.

"That's a mentality that a true offensive lineman holds and carries with him. There's five of us, and we have to be working as one at all times."

Corbett is the highest-drafted offensive lineman the Rams have (33rd overall in 2018). So it's a huge season for him as he enters his prime and flips from left to right guard to accommodate Joe Noteboom's return to the lineup.

What a stretch for Austin: He celebrated his 25th birthday last Saturday; first child born Tuesday night; prime time opener against the Cowboys on Sunday night.

Staley Brings Fresh Feel

What a first test for first-time NFL defensive coordinator Brandon Staley: a primetime showcase against arguably the best roster in football, particularly on offense.

Have the Rams found the "Sean McVay of Defense?" No better way to find out, I guess.

But per usual, my mind races 16 games into the future. If they have stumbled upon another coaching phenom, what if the results are so good that he's one-and-done in Los Angeles?

If the Rams dominate on defense this season, wouldn't you expect Staley to be interviewing for head coaching jobs this winter?

Cornering the Market

The Rams feel so strongly about their cornerback talent, they opted to keep just four of them on the initial 53-man roster (the position flexibility of safety Terrell Burgess helped, in that regard).

According to Pro Football Focus, in Weeks 12-17 last year, there were no corners with better overall defensive grades than Darious Williams and Jalen Ramsey.

Williams got his opportunity when Troy Hill was injured against the Cowboys. Up to that point, Hill – who figures to replace Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot this year – ranked second among corners in receiving percentage and fifth in passer rating when targeted.

We could be watching the best receiver-corner matchup of the NFL season in Week One at SoFi Stadium.

Rush and Cover

A month ago, we also made the case for Aaron Donald and Ramsey as the best rush-cover tandem in the NFL.

However, Donald had only one pressure in Arlington last year, tying his season-low (also versus Tampa Bay). Suffice it to say, he has to make a bigger dent this time around if the result is going to be any different.

As he embarks on a new campaign, however, let's note that Donald has a chance to become the first player in franchise history to earn six First Team All-Pro honors.

Resetting Ramsey

In the aftermath of Ramsey's record-breaking contract extension this week, I was reminded of the hints Staley dropped about how he'd be utilized.

"(Ramsey) can play outside or inside or safety," the new defensive coordinator said. "So we can move him around if we need to."

What better opponent to test those possibilities against than the 2020 Cowboys, because…

Dak for MVP?

Dallas led the NFL in yards last season and ranked second in efficiency. And they probably got better this offseason by drafting CeeDee Lamb and turning over more tight end targets to Blake Jarwin.

Amari Cooper is proclaiming that Dallas can have three receivers go over 1,000 yards receiving. Prescott is saying Jarwin is just as explosive. And since he was drafted, Ezekiel Elliott has almost twice as many 100-yard rushing performances as the next NFL rusher.

As a result, the Cowboys are drawing preseason comparisons to the 2004 Indianapolis Colts who are not only one of the handful of teams in history to accomplish 3x1000, they also had a 1,000-yard rusher in Edgerrin James.

Peyton Manning won the MVP that season. If Dallas fulfills their potential on offense, don't be surprised if Prescott does, too.

Favorable News for Floyd

The first stumbling block on that path is a hip injury to right tackle La'el Collins, coming off a career season. He'll be replaced in the opener by Cameron Erving, who won a ring with Kansas City, but graded 80th out of 81 tackles last season, according to PFF.

That news immediately made me think of Leonard Floyd, who is a left edge rusher, and therefore has a favorable matchup for his Rams' debut tomorrow night.

Nolan Knows

The Cowboys are also under new management on defense. Mike Nolan is a known commodity relative to Staley, and he's no stranger to the Rams.

A former head coach in San Francisco, Nolan has also been a defensive coordinator for a half-dozen NFL franchises. And most recently, he was with the Saints linebackers. So, he's studied these McVay Rams as thoroughly as any coach outside the division, having faced them in each of the past three regular seasons, plus the 2018 NFC Championship game.

Greg the Leg versus Slammin' Sammy

I'm glad Bones Fassel and Greg Zuerlein will be at SoFi Stadium on opening night. They were wonderful members of the organization and massive contributors to the recent run of success.

And the fact that his predecessor will be across the field Sunday night wasn't lost on Samuel Sloman, who says he believes in his range out to 62 yards. I found that interesting considering Zuerlein's career-long is 61.

But that's neither here nor there.

Of greater concern is Sloman's efficiency from 40-to-49. That's what cost Greg the Leg his job in Los Angeles. He was 9-for-17 from that distance over the last two seasons. Sloman won the three-man competition in training camp with a strong final push and by being the most accurate in the 40-to-49 distance.

Why is That Important?

Because the Rams should be going for it more often. A field goal attempt measuring less than 40 yards means the line of scrimmage is inside the 23; a field goal of 50-plus puts the ball outside the 32.

Assuming reasonable yards-to-go on fourth, those would be sweet spots to go for a new set of downs.

While franchises like the Ravens went all-in with analytic-driven fourth down decisions last year, the Rams were 29th in attempts and 31st in conversions, ahead of only Pittsburgh.

Maybe having a Pro Bowl kicker with across-midfield range played into that?

Career Years

Lastly, we wish all the Rams career-best campaigns, but for two in particular, 2020 could make all the difference.

Tight end Gerald Everett and safety John Johnson strike me as being in remarkably similar situations. Same draft class, meaning it's their contract year; both have been solid pros, with flashes of brilliance along the way; each had their 2020 derailed by injury.

You'd be right to point out that Johnson had a Pro Bowl-worthy campaign in 2018, whereas Everett hasn't reached those heights, yet.

The Rams need both to deliver in a major way to get to where they're trying to go this season. It's an integral part of this roster's calculus.

And if Everett and Johnson do, each has a chance to earn a very lucrative second contract.

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