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19 Dec 2017

Any Given Sunday: Rams Over Seahawks

by Rivers McCown

The Seahawks have been one of the most frequent teams to grace this column over the past few years, perhaps in large part due to the value Las Vegas places on their home-field advantage. The Jeff Fisher-era Rams were frequent tormentors (see 2012, 2014, and 2016). That is about all these current editions of the Rams and Seahawks have in common with their pre-2017 selves.

The Jeff Fisher Rams would have hung with the Seahawks by playing great defense, having Johnny Hekker throw a fake-punt touchdown, and annoyingly winning 20-17 while hitting a Seattle skill position player after the whistle every other down. They weren't a great team, they were just a team of ruffians that could keep things close.

This Rams team dispensed with all that and proceeded to toy with the Seahawks for four quarters, dismantling their season and baring their issues for all to see. The result sent the Rams leaping into the running for one of the best teams in the history of DVOA.

Best DVOA Through Week 15, 1989-2017
YEAR TEAM W-L DVOA
1991 WAS 13-1 57.3%
2007 NE 14-0 56.3%
2013 SEA 12-2 40.4%
1995 SF 10-4 40.4%
2010 NE 12-2 40.1%
2012 NE 10-4 39.8%
2004 PIT 13-1 39.7%
1999 STL 12-2 38.9%
2005 IND 13-1 38.5%
2012 SEA 9-5 38.5%
1996 GB 11-3 38.1%
2017 LARM 10-4 38.0%
2004 PHI 13-1 37.4%
2012 DEN 11-3 37.2%
1998 DEN 13-1 37.1%

But we'll talk plenty about the Rams. Let's talk about why Seattle lost this game by the margin that they did, which was the real surprise.

Seattle fumbled three times, and Los Angeles fumbled twice. Seattle recovered one of those five fumbles. More importantly, Russell Wilson was hit early and often. The Rams landed seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Even when they didn't hit Wilson, he was often running for his life. And, when given a clean pocket, his deep ball was not clicking.

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Seattle went 1-for-8 throwing deep, and the one completion was to running back J.D. McKissic. Another would-be completion to Tanner McEvoy was called back because Wilson wandered beyond the line of scrimmage before throwing it. It was a clunky game for the signal-caller, who probably wandered out of MVP consideration by not being able to carry the offense here.

At the same time, Seattle's other two bugaboos have been injuries and an inability to run. Both showed up here. Seattle managed 39 yards on 12 non-quarterback carries, and Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner got into a public dispute over whether Wagner was healthy enough to play.

Wagner left after the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, while linebacker K.J. Wright missed the game entirely. Corner Richard Sherman was out. Kam Chancellor was out. This Seattle defense isn't easy to exploit, even with those guys gone, but the depth concerns showed up as the Rams were able to put this one away on the ground.

Seattle's still a good team, and still has a chance to make the playoffs. A 10-6 record would get it done in a normal year. But they have put themselves at the mercy of the rest of the league after a two-week stretch where they were eaten up by the Jaguars and Rams. The problems this team has have been evident. At one point, solutions looked like they might be in place, but Seattle hasn't been able to get off the ground.

Where the Game Swung

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Here are the five plays that swung this game the most, using EdjSports' Game Winning Chance:

  • Pharoh Cooper's punt return to the Seattle 1-yard line cost Seattle 8.3 percent GWC. This set up L.A.'s second touchdown. (25.8 percent to 17.5 percent)
  • Seattle's fumble on their first drive, when Tanner McEvoy coughed it up on what would have been a third-down conversion, cost them 7.1 percent GWC. (45.2 percent to 38.1 percent)
  • Russell Wilson's fumble when they had the ball at midfield cost 3.6 percent GWC. (6.4 percent to 2.8 percent)
  • When Russell Wilson got sacked on third down on their second drive, they lost 3.3 percent GWC. (37.3 percent to 34.0 percent)
  • Seattle gained 2.6 percent when they intercepted Jared Goff in the second quarter. (11.2 percent to 13.8 percent)

The game, obviously, was pretty much over by the middle of the second quarter. It's still worth pointing out how Cooper's punt return changed the game. The Rams had struggled on their first two red zone journeys, and Cooper set them up with first-and-goal from the 1.

By the VOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
LARM 3.9% -64.5% 27.4% 95.9%
SEA -56.1% -6.0% -25.3% -75.4%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
LARM 3.7% -64.0% 27.4% 95.2%
SEA -77.1% 6.4% -25.3% -108.8%

This was the third-best single game DVOA of the season, behind only Jacksonville-Baltimore (104.9% for the Jaguars) and New Orleans-Carolina (99.7% for the Saints), both in Week 3.

The Rams, It Turns Out, Are Good at Defense and Special Teams

Way back in August, we posted our DVOA season predictions. We still had the Seahawks as our favorites in the NFC West, but we also had the Rams far, far higher than Vegas season over/unders or any other major media outlet that does a season forecast. There are a number of reasons why our projections defied Vegas, most of them based around Wade Phillips' history of turning around defenses in a hurry. Phillips' defenses have improved in his first year with a new team by an average of minus-18.3% DVOA.

Our projections for Los Angeles had them with a -6.8% DVOA on defense and a 3.8% DVOA on special teams, second-best in both categories. They've actually been better at both of those: -14.3% DVOA on defense, and 9.3% DVOA on special teams. The rankings were close to dead-on, though: the Rams are third in defensive DVOA and second in special teams DVOA.

But the reason the Rams have become a potential No. 1 seed and not just a fringe playoff contender isn't the defense and special teams. We projected the Rams with the 29th-ranked offense, and instead they are sixth. You may have heard about Sean McVay's offensive turnaround, as we are hardly the only outlet to cover it. (I like Doug Farrar's view from the preseason, where he pointed out a lot of the basic things that McVay did to the offense.) Stealing Andrew Whitworth away from a Bengals team that didn't understand his value was also helpful.

But it must be pointed out that McVay's passing offense is streaky, and that this game was another data point in favor of that. The Rams have five single games with a pass offense DVOA of 50% or higher. They now, after this game, have four games with a pass offense DVOA of 10% or lower. Both games against Seattle and Arizona have had the Rams with four of their five lowest pass offense DVOA ratings of the season.

Los Angeles' Passing Numbers in Their Worst Games

Weeks 2, 5, 7, 13, 15 Other
Short Passing 17.5% (21st) 62.7% (1st)
Long Passing 24.5% (25th) 168.8% (3rd)

The drop-off is pretty ridiculous in both phases.

Jared Goff has been reined in fairly well by McVay, but there are still times where the quarterback looks uncertain of his first read. And while Goff now is better at recognizing when he's under pressure and throwing the ball away for a zero-yard gain, he's still not going to create much outside of the structure of the play. Goff spent a lot of the early part of this game throwing balls away under pressure.

Los Angeles is obviously a threat to anyone with how they can win in all three phases of the game, but it's worth thinking about how exploitable Goff is if his division is so keyed into him already. McVay can scheme around and create the easy yards, but Goff isn't the elevator of this offense, he's merely the driver.

Will that hurt them in the playoffs if none of their division rivals make it? Who knows. But if you're building an attack plan to run down this team, it probably starts with forcing Goff to think and asking the Los Angeles defense to stop the run (20th in run defense DVOA) rather than the pass.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 19 Dec 2017

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