Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: The 3-1 Rams

Film Room: The 3-1 Rams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

The second overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft has thrown 102 passes without an interception, and his team is 3-0. The former stat would be a record, but the 135th pick in the draft has thrown 131 passes without an interception. His team is 3-1.

Only two teams have made it to 4-0. One of them acquired its starting quarterback eight days before the season began; the other is starting a former seventh-round pick who had never thrown a pass before this season. Both of those teams have beat a Super Bowl participant who went 15-1 last season.

And one team beat a participant in last year's NFC Championship Game, on the road, with its backup quarterback, before using the backup to the backup to achieve a 3-1 record over the first quarter of the year.

Yet, out of all the unpredictable results, not one is as shocking as the Los Angeles Rams being 3-1.

It's not just that the Rams have a winning record after a quarter of the season. It's that they've done it without Jared Goff. With Todd Gurley averaging 2.6 yards per carry. With Case Keenum throwing just one more touchdown than interception. With Tavon Austin accounting for fewer than 200 yards rushing and receiving combined. With Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald combining for 3.5 sacks after Donald got ejected from one game and Quinn got dinged up in another. Brian Quick leads the team in touchdowns! Mark Barron has the lead in interceptions. DVOA considers this the 24th-ranked team in football with the 31st-ranked offense and without a top-10 ranked defense. They didn't score a touchdown until Week 3.

This is a team that was blown out by one of the worst teams in football in Week 1. A 28-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers may have come on that dreaded late fixture of Monday Night Football, but it was still a damning performance. This is a team that relocated across the country and lost multiple key free agents in the offseason, and has received nothing from its rookie class so far.

Yet, in a fashion that is fitting for Jeff Fisher, the Rams beat two of the best teams in football -- the Seahawks at home and the Cardinals on the road -- on either side of a road victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They scored 37 points against the Buccaneers, 11 more than in all of their other games combined.

How has this happened?

Case Keenum

Case Keenum is a limited quarterback. He has an aggressive mentality but a weak arm, with spotty accuracy and inconsistent decision-making. He can't mitigate pressure in the pocket with his movement and won't diagnose coverages with speed and precision. The best-case scenario for Keenum is that he hits a few big plays and doesn't derail the offense on the other snaps where he has to hold the ball.

Playing Keenum's style with his skill set and this supporting cast will lead to extreme swings in effectiveness from week to week. In the Rams' sole loss this season, Keenum averaged 3.7 yards per attempt and threw two interceptions with no touchdowns. Since that game in Week 1 he has averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and thrown for four touchdowns with one interception. The Rams haven't been able to run the ball, but they have tried to enough that opposing defenses still set up to stop Gurley rather than focus on the limited quarterback. The Rams have eight passing plays that gained 30 or more yards this season, all eight coming in the past three games. Per Pro Football Reference, only three teams have more 30-plus-yard passing plays for the whole season. Keenum has gained 330 yards -- exactly 40 percent of his season total of 825 -- on those eight plays.

Surprisingly, only three of those plays have come after play-action to Gurley (or any running back on the roster). One was actually thrown to Gurley, and another was the result of a blown coverage.

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Brian Quick has caught two 30-plus-yard touchdowns in the past two weeks. The first came against the Buccaneers when he ran a post route from the narrow side of the field. As Quick advanced downfield, the Rams ran two deep crossing routes towards him from the opposite slot. The Buccaneers were playing quarters coverage, so those crossing routes enticed the safeties forward. When Keenum recognized this, he was able to lay the ball out downfield for Quick to run underneath it. It was the perfect play design to counter the coverage, and Keenum's timing particularly stood out.

The Rams coaching staff deserve credit for their play designs on these shot plays.

One of the staples of the Rams' passing game since Fisher has been their coach is the tight end throwback. It's a play that is typically very difficult to defend, and especially so when you are a team that relies heavily on Cover-3 schemes such as the Seahawks.

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Keenum begins the play under center and fakes a handoff to Gurley running towards the near side of the field. While he is doing that, left tackle Greg Robinson aggressively sells the play fake by trying to engage the linebacker to that side of the field. Robinson risks running too far past the line of scrimmage, but ultimately gets back in time. After executing the fake, Keenum turns to look downfield while Gurley moves into the flat, occupying the attention of the linebacker that Robinson has now turned away from.

The receiver who lined up to that side of the field runs a crossing route. His goal isn't to get open. His goal is to draw the cornerback from that side and the safety with him as he clears out space on that sideline. While Gurley holds the attention of the right-side linebacker and the wide receiver distracts the cornerback and the deep safety, Lance Kendricks fills the gap from the other side of the field.

If you pause the above GIF when Kendricks is at the 45-yard line, you can see the three closest Seattle defenders are all running away from him. The outside linebacker is looking at Gurley, the cornerback is looking at his receiver, the linebacker is recovering to his zone after biting on the play fake. Kendricks working across the formation to release like this makes it almost impossible to cover him in Cover-3.

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Quick has had two huge touchdown receptions over the past two weeks, but Kenny Britt is the Rams' best receiver. Britt has been way more involved this year than he was last year. In 16 games last season he caught just 36 passes and had 11 plays that gained 20 or more yards. In just four games this year he already has half the number of receptions (18) with nearly half the number of 20-plus-yard plays (five). Britt is averaging 15.6 yards per reception for 281 yards. He is tied for 20th in the league in receiving yards. Considering where the Rams passing game was last year, these numbers represent monstrous improvement.

Britt has always been an outstanding deep threat. He doesn't need to be schemed open. His athleticism and route-running have allowed him to average 16.1 yards per reception for his career. That despite never playing with a truly impressive quarterback and while dealing with health and drop issues. In the above GIF you can see the type of play that Britt makes routinely. His sheer size and athleticism allows him to overwhelm even bigger cornerbacks before he uses his positioning to manipulate them downfield.

The Rams passing game isn't very good, but it's vastly improved on last season and has done enough to get by so far.

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Todd Gurley

If you had read before the season that Todd Gurley's statistics through four games were startling, you would have presumed he had rushed for 500 yards or more. Instead, Gurley has 216 yards on 82 carries. Twenty players have more rushing yards than Gurley this year, and only three of them have more rushing attempts. Gurley's production has been abysmal, but his performances haven't been. He is still showing his worth to the Rams, as all of the defenses they've faced have made stopping him a priority -- except for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers were content to keep two safeties back and rely on their defensive line to beat the Rams' offensive line to contain Gurley.

It's the offensive line that has been the problem for the Rams. Like Superman trapped beneath five slabs of kryptonite, Gurley's elusiveness, vision, and athleticism often count for nothing as he is crowded out behind the line of scrimmage. Finding a play where a block wasn't badly blown for Gurley this year is difficult. The consistency with which his blocking fails is why his average is so low, and also why his longest run for the season is just 16 yards. Against the Cardinals last week, his longest run of the game went for just 5 yards.

Gurley's blockers are bad, and the offense doesn't help them by refusing to scheme more space into the offense.

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The majority of Gurley's runs feature a fullback or tight end and often both. Using six and seven blockers offers you more options and diversity in how you scheme up your run designs, but it also brings more defenders to the football and puts a greater emphasis on those blockers winning one-on-one matchups.

This is why a team such as the Seattle Seahawks can continue to run the ball well despite not having a talented line. They regularly use their quarterback to hold the backside defender, while using the lineman who would have had to block that defender to create an equal competition or advantage for the offense inside. They use a base offense with three receivers, and also regularly split the tight end out to stretch the defense horizontally.

You don't need Russell Wilson to use those types of play designs. The edge defender will always have to honor the quarterback, even if he's not a great athlete. An adaptive head coach would recognize the desperate state of his running game and focus on scheming space rather than continuing to literally run into a wall.

Sometimes when great players aren't producing, you need to go into great detail to explain why. With Gurley, it's simple: the Rams can't block anyone, and they scheme in such a way that they are trying to block everyone.


The Rams might have three of the best defensive players in the NFL. The first two are obvious. Aaron Donald is a destroyer of worlds, and Robert Quinn is the most under-appreciated superstar in the league. With J.J. Watt on IR, Donald is the favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year, while Quinn has a measly 36.5 sacks in his last 43 games. The duo together consistently wrecks the designs of running plays while collapsing pockets as pass-rushers even when they don't make it all the way to the quarterback.

Michael Brockers would be a fine guess as the third-best player on the Rams defense, but that title appears to belong to Trumaine Johnson now.

Johnson received the franchise tag in the offseason ahead of fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who got a huge deal in free agency from the New York Giants. Jenkins has always been celebrated for his natural talent and ball skills, but he was never a reliable player in St. Louis. He searched for the interception on every play, which made him susceptible to double-moves and drew him out of his zones. Ironically, Jenkins' pursuit of interceptions cost him more opportunities than it created.

Johnson was a polar opposite player to Jenkins early in his career. He was reliable and not flashy in any way. He played better coverage than his former teammate because of his discipline while developing his ball skills and improving his footwork year by year.

By the time the 2015 season finished, Johnson had caught seven interceptions and registered 17 pass deflections -- in that season. Jenkins had never registered more than 16 deflections in a single season and had 10 interceptions for his whole career. After four games of the 2016 season, Johnson has been consistent in coverage, and he has excelled at finding the football. He already has a surreal eight pass deflections and one interception. He was unlucky not to add another interception at the end of the Cardinals game when he couldn't complete a difficult catch on the sidelines.

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The Rams blitz more than they should. It's Gregg Williams' philosophy. In 2015 they ranked 15th in the league in rushing three players after the quarterback, 30th in rushing four after the quarterback, sixth in rushing five, and fifth in rushing six or more. Williams blitzed a defensive back more often than any other team in the league, 21 percent of the time. Williams blitzes because it's what he believes in, but his willingness to be so aggressive also reflects on how he trusts his cornerbacks in space. Johnson doesn't travel around the field much; he's at his most comfortable when playing on the left side of the defense. As the above GIF shows, that doesn't mean the defense doesn't ask him to do more than other cornerbacks.

In the above GIF from this past weekend's game against the Cardinals, Williams uses a six-man blitz with a form of Cover-1 behind it. The safety immediately runs to the opposite side of the field where Johnson is. His posture suggests that he was running there by design rather than following the quarterback's eyes. That leaves Johnson and the slot cornerback alone in single coverage to the other side of the field.

Johnson began the play in off coverage. He can't afford to give up the home run with no safety help, but doesn't want to be too soft on the short and intermediate routes either. This means he has to find a perfect balance with his footwork. Positioning himself the way he does allows him to keep an eye on the quarterback and on the receiver. When the receiver aggressively cuts across his face, Johnson shows off great body control to react and stay tight to his hip. He could have easily bought the post route being in such a precarious position, but his athleticism allowed him to explode back towards the ball when the receiver turned for the curl route. He smartly doesn't go through the receiver, but instead reaches around him to knock the ball away.

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Having seen Johnson's aggressiveness and tested the waters beneath his off coverage with a couple of throws, Carson Palmer eventually tried to manipulate the cornerback for a deep shot. In the above GIF Johnson is again lined up to the top of the screen. This time he's working against John Brown, one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL. Johnson's hips stand out on this play. He smoothly transitions from facing the receiver to bailing out, keeping his eyes on both the receiver and the quarterback for as long as he can. As Brown crosses the first-down line, Palmer uses a pump fake that doesn't affect Johnson's actions.

Once Brown advances far enough, Johnson lets him run without turning to sprint with him. He trusts his length and athleticism and knows that his footwork to that point in the play had set him up to run with Brown downfield. His eyes are always on the ball once Palmer has thrown it, making the interception look easy.

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Johnson got both hands to two more of Palmer's passes for potential interceptions. He did so by staying aware of what the offense was doing and staying disciplined with his positioning. Even if he's not Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman, it's that ability to consistently find the football while playing your assignment that makes Johnson a hugely valuable player. Playing cornerback in the NFL right now is exceptionally difficult, and Gregg Williams doesn't make it easy on his defensive backs. Johnson deserves a lot of credit for helping the Rams rank 11th in pass defense DVOA.

It's hard to envision the Rams continuing to be as successful as they have been. Eventually such obvious limitations and inconsistencies should catch up to them. Then again, it was hard to envision them ever getting to this point, and the wider NFL landscape spent much of last season questioning teams such as the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers for similar reasons.

This team doesn't look as talented as last year's Vikings or Panthers. They could argue, though, that they're much more likely to get better than they are to get worse.


1 comment, Last at 06 Oct 2016, 5:36pm

1 Re: Film Room: The 3-1 Rams

The big play to the TE against the Seahawks looks like an obvious blown assignment to me. There's no way they expect a linebacker to cover an entire 1/3 of the field.

So either, the corner had deep responsibility for his 3rd and was supposed to pass off the receiver to the safety, this was a combo man-zone defense and a linebacker was supposed to cover the TE man-to-man, or the safety was supposed to rotate over (or someone was supposed to cover the flat so the linebacker could get deep, but that'd be an odd coverage design).