Game Preview: Rams look to get an early leg up on the NFC in first road test of season

If you believe that Dallas and Philadelphia will ultimately contend for the NFC East crown and a Wild Card berth – which I do – then what an opportunity this weekend is for the Rams.

Not only would 2-0 feel markedly different than 1-1 going to Buffalo, but Los Angeles would hold head-to-head wins over two NFC playoff contenders.

Consider that Washington was the only NFC East team to earn an opening week win; likewise for New Orleans in the South.

As the Rams vie for what figures to be the best division in football again in 2020, a leg up on the NFC postseason standings would be a tremendous early-season boon.

In McVay's Way

Despite Philadelphia losing from up 17-0 at Washington last Sunday, the Eagles have to rate as one of the most difficult challenges for the Sean McVay Rams.

Outside the division, they're the only franchise to defeat him twice.

On each occasion at the Coliseum, the fundamental formula was the same: building a double-digit lead, playing from in front, disrupting the interior of the Rams offensive line, and winning the turnover battle.

Here's to flipping the script in Philadelphia in Week Two.

Difference Between One and Two

Last week, the contrast between the blueprints for Carson Wentz and Jared Goff could not have been more striking.

According to Pro Football Focus, the top selection from the 2016 draft generated an average depth of target of just 4.9 yards, the second-lowest mark of the week behind Jaguars' Gardner Minshew. Per usual, his accuracy and McVay's design allowed the Rams targets to do what they do best. Over 70 percept of Goff's passing yards were gained after the catch. L.A. also ran the ball 40 times. Combined with heavy pre-snap motion and play-action, this kept the imposing Dallas pass rush at bay and made for a very successful game plan. No surprise, Goff had the lowest rate of negatively-graded plays, per PFF.

Meanwhile, the second pick averaged 12.3 air yards per attempt Sunday, per ESPN Stats & Information, leading the NFL. Only two quarterbacks took more deep shots than Wentz. Behind a patchwork offensive line, stuck in the pocket with hardly any designed roll-outs, this was a recipe for disaster; Wentz took a career-high eight sacks. Also undermining the Eagles approach was a running game that picked up only three first downs and averaged 3.4 yards per carry.

One would have to think that with Aaron Donald coming to town, Wentz and Doug Pederson will revise that approach in Week Two, potentially even borrowing elements of the Rams strategy that was so effective against the Cowboys.

Red Alert

Well, effective in every respective but one: the red zone.

Before the season, we documented what a strength this was for the 2019 Rams, but also how volatile a statistic red zone performance can be.

The Rams regressed to the mean in the opener, going two-for-five inside the opponent's 20-yard line and coming away with just 20 points.

Nickell the Nickle

Can't ask for much more than Cooper Kupp against former teammate Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot this week.

"(They) definitely made each other better," McVay recalled of their competitions in practice over the years.

The Rams opted to let Robey-Coleman move on this offseason, trusting they had his replacement on the roster in Troy Hill (who played 61 snaps in the slot against the Cowboys).

"Troy was that rare kind of guy that can start on the outside, he can start on the inside, but the instincts, you see his ability to negotiate traffic," McVay said of that roster decision. "He's tough."

The Aaron Donald Portion of The Program

The best defensive player on the planet led the NFL with 10 pressures in Week One. This is not noteworthy.

The Los Angeles Rams hit the practice field on Thursday before their Week 2 road game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Check out the top photos.

Just Going to Leave This Here

And yet, not one holding penalty was flagged on the Cowboys last Sunday night. Hmmm...

To be fair, there were no holding flags against the Rams, either. And holding penalties were down sharply across the league.

But can we all agree that any crew that fails to identify at least one holding infraction against an offensive line contending with a human hurricane like Donald is, well, looking the other way?

To-Do List

Donald did record his first career sack against the Cowboys.

He does not have a sack in his three contests versus the Eagles. They are the last such NFC opponent on his list.

(Also Tennessee, New England, New York, and Miami from the AFC – the latter three are all on the 2020 schedule.)

Guard-to-Guard

As a few of us noted on Thursday's Between the Horns, this matchup could be decided on the interior of the lines.

After Donald feasted despite seeing a healthy dose of Zack Martin, now he gets some combination of undrafted Nate Herbig, rookie Jack Driscoll, and Isaac Seumalo in Philadelphia – all favorable matchups.

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has tortured the Rams, and Malik Jackson was superb against Washington last week. Then the Eagles got a pleasant surprise, as Javon Hargrave is on track to make his debut this Sunday after missing all of training camp with pectoral and hamstring injuries.

Hargrave had one of his best games of 2019 against the Rams, as a member of the Steelers, including a strip sack of Goff which teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick returned for a 43-yard touchdown.

That trio represents a huge hurdle for Joe Noteboom, Austin Blythe, and Austin Corbett.

If you love the trenches – and the interior battles, in particular – this is a game for you.

Ageless on the Edge

As for the left tackles contending with edge rushers? This is very likely the final time we'll see 38-year-olds Jason Peters and Andrew Whitworth on the same field.

The nine-time Pro Bowler for the Eagles is a future Hall of Famer. Big Whit is coming off his highest-graded game as a Ram, and will hopefully outlast Peters by a few seasons and cement his legacy, too.

As of the New Year, neither was under contract for this season. As of now, neither team could imagine its offensive line without these stalwarts.

Driving Distance

Against the Cowboys, the Rams had six drives of at least 44 yards, and four of at least 63. The only time L.A. took over possession in Dallas territory was for Victory Formation in the final seconds.

By comparison, all five of the Football Team's scoring drives began in Eagles territory.

So don't mistake this Philadelphia defense for one that surrendered 27 points in a half to Washington.

The Eagles actually ranked fourth in the NFL in defensive efficiency last week; Los Angeles was 20th.

Tackling the Problem

The Rams biggest issue on defense was tackling, something that's been discussed ad nauseam this week in Thousand Oaks.

Kenny Young broke it down for us on the Rams Revealed Podcast.

His running mate in the middle, Micah Kiser, was charged with seven missed tackles in his first game as a starter in that role. That stings considering the player he's been asked to replace, Cory Littleton, missed one all of 2019.

Kiser gets a pass in that it was his first live action since tearing a pectoral muscle in Hawaii last summer against those same Cowboys. He's also one of two men to lead the ACC in tackling three times. The other is Luke Kuechly, now a retired former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Count me among those who expect Kiser to take a nice leap forward after knocking off some rust. McVay has said this week that Kiser already made some of those strides in-game against the Cowboys as he settled in.

Odds & Ends

Per NFL Research, the 87 combined offensive touchdowns were the most in a Week One in league history.

From a receiver-heavy Draft Class of 2020, the Eagles and Rams both had rookies haul in huge first catches in their debuts. Second-round selection Van Jefferson collected a 31-yarder against the Cowboys. First-round pick Jalen Reagor had the 55-yard highlight for Philadelphia.

Speaking of receivers, Robert Woods' extension means the nucleus of this Rams roster is now under contract through the 2023 season: Woods, Kupp, Goff, Higbee, Donald, Ramsey, and Hekker. Plus McVay and Les Snead. And the promising draft class of 2020.

There was no home field advantage in the NFL last week; home teams were 8-8.

This is the first of three games in four weeks for the Rams kicking off in the early window in the Eastern time zone. Normally, this works against the team from the West. However, McVay has never lost one of these games; he's 6-0 when you lump in the two wins in London in his tenure.

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