One of my favorite NFL games came in Week 16, 2018 when Los Angeles traveled to Arizona, trying to snap a two-game losing streak (and really, a three-game offensive funk following their bye). At 11-3, the division had been clinched weeks before, but the Rams had lost their way a bit. And complicating matters was the absence of running back Todd Gurley.
I recall watching the All-Pro pregame, as he tested a knee injury and was ultimately inactive. Then we all marveled as C.J. Anderson came off the street to rush for 167 yards and a touchdown in a 31-9 trouncing of the Cardinals.
It was a masterstroke by Sean McVay, executed to perfection by the offensive line and all those who contributed in the running game. And it felt like in that game plan were the seeds of what would also be a road-grading playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys (via 273 yards rushing) en route to an NFC Championship.
Last week's product – a bruising, mold-busting triumph over the lowly Jaguars – had a similar vibe. In it, the Rams seemed to forge a new identity.
For all the success they've had in empty, shotgun, 11-personnel looks in 2021, the game has changed. Their personnel is different following the losses of Robert Woods, Johnny Mundt , and most recently (temporarily) Darrell Henderson Jr..
Defenses have changed, in an effort to tamp down the video game numbers McVay and Matthew Stafford were achieving.
And so, perhaps a bit later than fans would have liked, the Rams offense changed as well.
Stepping into the lead role was a figure reminiscent of 2018 C.J. Anderson – Sony Michel. A professional chain-mover, he kept the Rams on schedule and the clock spinning in a wire-to-wire victory while running behind, at times, six offensive linemen and as many as three tight ends. Next thing we knew, the defense was performing to its prowess, the kicking game came alive, and the Rams were once again playing complementary football.
I can't predict whether or not McVay will deploy a similar approach on Monday in Glendale. And to be honest, I'm hardly a card-holding member of Team Establish The Run.
However, the Rams became a more difficult team to prepare for – and a more viable contender – by leveraging more of their depth chart and dictating terms with their physicality, something we advocated for in last week's column.
It was awesome to behold against a two-win opponent; time to see how it plays against a two-loss division leader.
Always Sony in Arizona
Michel's Week 4 fumble against the Cardinals is on the short list of plays the Rams would love to have back from this season. So I'm psyched for him that redemption against the Red Sea could be just hours away.
This week on Rams Revealed, I asked him if he can feel an opposing defense wearing down over the course of four quarters attempting to tackle him.
"Definitely," Michel answered. "When a team is struggling to stop the run, eventually you're going to break their will."
If that sounds a bit like an offensive lineman talking, you're on to something. Turns out, the 26-year-old started in the trenches in youth football and brings a bit of that mentality to the huddle.
Now that we've seen what it looks like with Michel in the lead role, I can't help but go all-in with the running back cliches, envisioning a "Thunder and Lightning" pairing with a healthy Henderson. In retrospect, maybe starting the game with body blows from Michel makes more sense, allowing Henderson to deliver the haymakers once that defense has been pummeled.
"I think those guys are really good complements of one another," McVay said on his show this week. "Getting Darrell back is going to make us better, and you talk about expanding on some of the personnel groupings? Hey, who's to say you can't have those guys in the game together at the same time? Those are creative things we're going to look to expand upon moving forward."
Before we go too much further, let's refresh the playoff picture and the stakes for Monday Night Football.
With a win in Week 14, Arizona can punch a playoff ticket for the first time since 2015. They would then be able to clinch the NFC West with a win in any of their final four games, because they'd have any and all tiebreakers over Los Angeles. Therefore, Los Angeles would have to win out and Arizona lose out to prevent the Cardinals from capturing the West.
So for all intents and purposes, the Rams getting to 13-4 is the only path to the division title, home field advantage, and maybe even the NFC bye that could accompany it. Even winning out, they'd need a lot of help.
Putting that aside, though, the playoff picture looks very promising for the Rams going into the weekend, with their odds pegged somewhere between 89 and 92 percent. They don't need any assistance, but a Washington loss to Dallas and-or a San Francisco stumble in Cincinnati this weekend would further soften the NFC bubble and bolster their odds.
Get Off His Back
The only thing more nonsensical than "Quarterback Wins" as a statistic are "Quarterback Wins Against Opponents At Least Five Games Above .500."
But for the purposes of this week, I'll play along.
Per NFL Research, Stafford is 0-17 against opponents at least five games over .500. Sliced another way, he's 5-62 in his career (including playoffs) against teams that would go on to win 10-plus games that season. And to drill down one more layer and really beleaguer the point, Stafford is 0-9 in his career (including playoffs) versus opponents with 10-or-more wins entering the matchup.
Turns out, when you're on bad teams, things tend not to break your way against great opponents.
The Rams aren't bad, but the Cardinals are really good. This would be a nice statement for Stafford to silence some naysayers.
(P.S. Do you remember when he passed for 343 yards, four touchdowns and zero turnovers against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Pretty sure the Bucs are winning 10 this season…)
Bring the Blitz
Here's an interesting tidbit from Next Gen Stats: The Cardinals blitz on 35% of dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL.
Stafford's 142.8 passer rating against blitzes this season is the highest by any qualified quarterback in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). In fact, all nine of Stafford's interceptions in 2021 have been versus four-or-fewer rushers, as was the strip sack he took against Green Bay in Week 12.
So I guess the moral of the story would be, "Bring it?"
Kupp Half Full
If your season-low performance is five receptions for 64 yards, you must be having an incredible year – and Cooper Kupp certainly is.
Kudos to the Cardinals for keeping the potential Offensive Player of the Year in check back in Week 4. Ever since, he's been busy re-writing the Rams and NFL record books.
Well, that, and giving graduate-level postgame interviews.
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
I mentioned this before last week's win, but it bears repeating, because the Rams are overdue.
They've yet to score a non-offensive touchdown. Perhaps we can type it into existence.
Similar story last year – nothing doing until Week 12. Then, the defense exploded for four touchdowns before season's end, plus a Darious Williams pick-six in the Wild Card win at Seattle.
So for the love of Troy Hill, let this be the week.
The Big (Whit) Four-Oh
Lastly, wishing Andrew Whitworth a very happy 40th birthday weekend. Here's to a win in the desert to cap it off.