by Vincent Verhei
Each year at this time, we like to devote our Quick Reads columns to the two teams headed to the Super Bowl, looking not at when they played their best, but when they played their worst. The Patriots and Rams are great teams, yes, but they are not perfect. What weaknesses were opponents able to exploit and make these championship clubs look beatable -- and in some cases, beaten? Since Los Angeles was the first team to officially clinch a berth in the Super Bowl, we'll start with them today, and cover the Patriots next week.
According to DVOA, these were the Rams' worst four games this season, in chronological order:
- Week 5: L.A. Rams 33, Seattle Seahawks 31. The Rams traveled to the Pacific Northwest, knocked off the traditional divisional powerhouse, and took a three-game lead in the division just five weeks into the year … and it still scores as one of their worst games this season. That should tell you something about how good L.A. has been. In a back-and-forth affair with seven lead changes, the Rams clinched the win when Jared Goff converted a fourth-and-1 on a quarterback sneak in Rams territory inside the two-minute warning. It was something of a shootout -- Goff threw for 321 yards and a score, while the Rams added 155 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. For Seattle, Russell Wilson threw for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and the Seahawks ran for 190 yards on 32 carries. The Rams also struggled with ball security -- they were fortunate to recover their two fumbles, but Goff still had two interceptions.
- Week 8: L.A. Rams 29, Green Bay Packers 27. The Ty Montgomery game. The Rams took the lead on a Greg Zuerlein field goal with two minutes and change to go, but the Packers never got a chance to answer when Montgomery fumbled the ensuing kickoff away. Goff overcame five sacks to throw for 295 yards and three touchdowns, and the Rams added 135 yards on 34 carries. For Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers threw for 286 yards (133 to Davante Adams) and a score, while Aaron Jones chipped in with 86 yards and a touchdown on only 12 carries.
- Week 14: Chicago Bears 15, L.A. Rams 6. Every quarterback looked bad against Chicago this year, but few looked worse than Goff, who only threw for 180 yards while giving up four interceptions and three sacks (one for a safety). Things weren't much better on the ground; Todd Gurley had just 28 yards on 11 carries. Still, this game was up for grabs because the Rams defense largely shut down Mitchell Trubisky, whose 30 pass attempts produced only 110 yards, with three interceptions. But the Bears were much better running the ball -- Jordan Howard had 19 carries for 101 yards, and Tarik Cohen added nine for 69.
- Week 15: Philadelphia Eagles 30, L.A. Rams 23. In his return to the Eagles' starting lineup, Nick Foles threw for 270 yards in 31 passes (Alshon Jeffery caught each of the eight passes thrown his way for 160 total yards), and Philadelphia ran for 111 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams trailed for most of the game, and Goff threw a career-high 53 passes as result. But he didn't do much with those passes, amassing just 339 yards and no touchdowns. The Rams only had 18 carries for 82 yards, though Gurley did run for two touchdowns.
The most common weakness in those four games is clear: the Rams' run defense got steamrolled, allowing a four-game total of 601 yards in 116 carries, a 5.18-yard average. Their average run defense DVOA in those four games was 6.3%, a mark that would have ranked next-to-last over the course of the season. At their worst, the Rams were literally among the worst run defenses in the league. (Of course, they finished 28th in full-season run defense DVOA, so at their best they weren't much better.)
This is a significant problem against a run-heavy Patriots team. New England ranked in the top five in runs, yards, and touchdowns on the ground, though they "only" ranked ninth in run offense DVOA. The Patriots only had three games this year in which they failed to run at least 20 times, losses to the Lions, Titans, and Steelers. The Pittsburgh game was a tight, low-scoring affair, and it's not clear why New England abandoned the run while Tom Brady threw 36 passes (though Pittsburgh's defense, which finished eighth in run defense DVOA and 17th against the pass, probably had something to do with it). Detroit and Tennessee, however, managed to handcuff the New England running attack with offense as much as defense, scoring a combined 37 first-half points while the Patriots managed only 13. That forced Brady to put the ball in the air in an attempt to play catch-up. It would be a huge boost for the Rams if they could take similar lead into halftime at the Super Bowl.
The Rams defense had another major problem in these four games: they got murdered by superstar wide receivers. The trio of Alshon Jeffery, Tyler Lockett, and Davante Adams combined for 16 catches, 391 yards, and four touchdowns in only 19 targets -- that's a catch rate of 84 percent and an average of 20.6 yards per throw. That includes a perfect performance rate on deep balls -- 8-of-8 for 302 yards, an average of 37.8 yards per throw. (The Bears didn't have a single receiver with positive DYAR against L.A., though the sub-freezing temperatures in the Windy City that night probably didn't help.) We should also point out that Aqib Talib missed the Seahawks and Packers games, but played against the Bears and Eagles.
The Patriots had a receiver who was excellent on deep passes this season, but unfortunately his name was Josh Gordon and he won't be playing in the Super Bowl. Their next most frequent target on deep balls was Rob Gronkowski, but he had a down year on those passes, with a catch rate of just 33 percent. (The league average catch rate on deep balls was 42 percent; for tight ends, it was slightly higher at 46 percent.) Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman had good deep-ball catch rates (53 and 57 percent, respectively), but on a total of just 33 targets. The Rams were actually very good against tight ends in their worst games -- despite facing players such as Jimmy Graham, Trey Burton, and Zach Ertz, they held opposing tight ends to one catch for 21 yards in seven targets. Gronkowski will probably do better than that in the Super Bowl, but the Patriots will need plays from Hogan and Edelman too.
You'll note that so far we have only discussed the Rams defense. That's because, aside from the Chicago contest, their offense was still pretty good even in the team's worst games. The one area where they struggled was with turnovers. As mentioned, Goff threw four interceptions against the Bears, but he also had two against the Seahawks and another against the Eagles. Meanwhile, the defense only collected four interceptions (three of them in one game against Chicago). That's a big reason the Rams were -4 in turnover margin in their worst games -- and that easily could have been much worse. The Rams fumbled six times in these games, while their opponents fumbled just once, but the Rams recovered five of those seven loose balls. The Patriots were +10 in turnover margin this season, which was fifth-best in the league. They only had a negative turnover margin three times, including last week against Kansas City.
As strange as this is to say about the Patriots, their passing attack might be lacking the kind of weapons needed to exploit the L.A. defense, but their versatile rushing offense and knack for winning the turnover battle could make them a bad matchup for the Rams. We'll see what advantages Los Angeles might have when we look at New England's worst games next week.