Tough week. Even tougher draw.
On the heels of a Monday Night Football defeat, the Los Angeles Rams and their ailing offense run into one of the most daunting defensive matchups of the season.
The Dallas Cowboys are very much equipped to bother a depleted unit in the manner that Buffalo and San Francisco have.
But as Sean McVay is fond of saying: "Tough times don't last; tough people do."
Sunday will be about creative solutions, executing while short-handed, and tapping into a tenacity that so far has been lacking.
Time to stop searching and start swinging.
The Rams are one of 15 franchises with a 2-2 record, the most such teams through Week 4 of a season, per NFL Research.
No other season had more than 13 such teams.
"I think there's a lot of bad football from what I watch," Tom Brady said Wednesday, with his 2-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers very much in that .500 boat.
And he said that before Colts-Broncos.
Fortunately for L.A., the NFC West is one of four divisions without a single team with a winning record (most such divisions through Week 4 of a season since the NFL merger).
So while the sting of losing to San Francisco is very real, its consequences don't necessarily have to be.
Now About That Dallas Defense
The 49ers have allowed the fewest points per game (11.5) and yards per play (3.8) in the NFL. And this league has a not-so-funny way of finding your weakness and exploiting it.
These Cowboys aren't far behind that San Francisco pace, and in particular, have been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks: first in the league in hits, second in sacks, third in opponent passer rating.
And like the Bills and Niners before them, they don't have to blitz to do it.
Deep In The Heart Of Texas
There are a few other reason Matthew Stafford may have spent some sleepless nights preparing for Dallas.
The Cowboys have allowed a 20.4 passer rating on deep throws, per NextGen Stats – the second lowest average in the NFL. And perhaps nothing illustrates the deficiencies of the Rams offense to date like the precipitous drop in Stafford's deep throw success.
A year ago? More production downfield than any other quarterback.
Through four games of 2022? At the bottom of the NFL with a passer rating of 8.3 and 46 passing yards total on deep throws.
That's not an indictment on QB1, though certainly he has a hand in it. That's a reflection of just how difficult it's been for the Rams to stay on schedule, pass protect, win routes and get separation, and then connect on those opportunities.
Warning: Graphic Content
There were plenty of visual aids making the rounds this week, but I found these two (linked here) to be most illustrative.
The Rams aren’t bad at moving the chains. They did have drives of 14, 10, 16, and 13 plays on Monday in Santa Clara. They earned 21 first downs compared to just 13 for the Niners.
But being locked in on the line to gain is a biproduct of not being able to manufacture explosives.
Take a look back on linebacker Bobby Wagner's big hits on the Niners offense, wide receiver Cooper Kupp's catches from his 122 receiving yards and more photo highlights as the Los Angeles Rams faced the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara.
I remember marveling in real time that the 2017 Rams were able to start the same five offensive lineman for every meaningful contest (they rested starters in Week 17).
Then, they came back and did it again in 2018.
Given the current state of affairs, I went back and counted how many individuals started along the offensive lines in each season of the McVay Era.
2017 – 5
2018 – 5
2019 – 9
2020 – 6
2021 – 8
2022 – 8
If Jeremiah Kolone or another new piece is inserted into the lineup on Sunday, the Rams will have already matched their highest total in the past six years – through just five games.
We warned that a regression to the health mean was virtually unavoidable. But it's been awfully cruel, hasn't it?
Help On The Way?
Reinforcements hopefully won't be many more games away, both in terms of injured starters returning to the lineup – like guard David Edwards and center Brian Allen – and promising newcomers joining the fray.
One such name to watch could be edge rusher and special teams ace Daniel Hardy, who was this week's guest on Rams Revealed.
From high school basketball to junior college football to the Big Sky to the biggest stage in the sport, Hardy's journey is worth familiarizing yourself with, because he's going to be a factor in the Rams future just as soon as a preseason ankle injury will allow.
Rams fans might be rooting against Cooper Rush come Sunday, but in a prior generation, his story was one they loved.
According to NFL Research, Rush is the only signal-caller in league history to win each of his first four career starts and have a passer rating of 90-plus in each game. And besides Rush, there's only been one other undrafted quarterback to win each of his first four starts and register over 1,000 yards passing – Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.
Finish On a Bye Note
In an effort to be more optimistic about the weekend ahead – because there's good reason to be! – I'm looking at the month ahead.
Three home games and an open date between now and Halloween provide the Rams with all the opportunity they need to stabilize and thrive.
Dallas, Carolina, an open date, then the rematch with San Francisco.
We'd never seen a schedule in which the Rams didn't have to leave the time zone until November. Here's the sweet spot where L.A. can leverage a bit of home cooking to build their win total, develop depth, and hopefully – please – get some injured contributors healthy for a playoff push