Rams' Super Bowl Hopes Lie in Stafford's Hands
NFL Super Bowl - Last week, we looked at the worst games that Cincinnati played this year, searching for weaknesses that might cost the Bengals a Lombardi Trophy. Today, we're going to do the same for Cincinnati's Super Bowl opponents, the Los Angeles Rams.
By DVOA, L.A.'s worst games this season were, in chronological order:
- Week 4: Arizona Cardinals 37 at Los Angeles Rams 20. After the Rams took a 10-7 lead in the first quarter, the Cardinals caught fire, going on a 30-3 run and cruising to a comfortable win. Arizona's offense trampled the Rams defense, rushing for 216 yards on 40 carries, and it was a team effort—Chase Edmonds had 12 carries for 120 yards, James Conner had 18 for 50 (and two touchdowns), and Kyler Murray had 6 for 39 (and also threw for a pair of scores). Matthew Stafford threw 13 passes to Cooper Kupp, but Kupp finished with only five catches for 64 yards. The Rams' frustrations on offense included a missed 46-yard field goal, a failure to score on fourth-and-goal, and a pair of turnovers, one on each end of the field.
- Week 5: Los Angeles Rams 26 at Seattle Seahawks 17. Yes, one of the Rams' worst games this year was a win. They only had negative DVOA three times this season, and our numbers say that they played better in losses to Green Bay in Week 12 and San Francisco in Week 18 than in this win over Seattle. That's mostly due to their pass defense, which let Russell Wilson and Geno Smith combine for 21 completions in 33 attempts for 283 yards, plus a pair of DPIs for 60 more yards. Seattle could easily have scored enough to win this game, but twice came away with zero points after crossing L.A.'s 30-yard line. The first of those drives saw Alex Collins stuffed on a fourth-and-1 play; the second saw a Tyler Lockett touchdown catch wiped out by penalty, followed by a missed Jason Myers field goal. The Rams offense was generally effective, but Stafford did throw an interception and Kupp had another quiet game by his standards, turning 10 targets into seven catches for 92 yards.
- Week 9: Tennessee Titans 28 at Los Angeles Rams 16. L.A. managed to lose this game by two scores despite outgaining Tennessee 347 to 194 in total yardage. Tennessee led 21-3 at halftime thanks in part to David Long's interception of Matthew Stafford, which set up a 2-yard touchdown drive for the Titans, followed by Kevin Byard's pick-six on Stafford's very next pass. The Rams battled back with a pair of field goals, but Adrian Peterson's touchdown with three minutes and change to go iced this one for Tennessee. In addition to those two interceptions, Stafford was also sacked five times. Kupp caught 11 of his 13 targets, but gained only 95 yards.
- Week 10: Los Angeles Rams 10 at San Francisco 49ers 31. A shellacking that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated. The Rams turned four first-half drives into two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), one touchdown, and one failed fake field goal; the 49ers turned three offensive possessions into two touchdowns and a knee to end the half. San Francisco extended their lead to 31-7 before Matt Gay kicked a garbage-time field goal for L.A. The 49ers ran 44 times for 156 yards, led by Elijah Mitchell's 91 yards on 27 carries. Jimmy Garoppolo only threw 19 passes, but he completed 15 of them for 182 yards and a pair of scores. Kupp had 11 catches for 122 yards on 13 targets, but only 34 of those yards came in the first half.
It's notable that the last of these games was played in Week 10—that was the L.A. debut for both Odell Beckham and Von Miller. The Rams had their bye in Week 11, and they have been a clearly improved football team since then. FO Editor-in Chief Aaron Schatz already covered a lot of this in his pre-preview, but let's look specifically at what happened when the Rams did struggle.
When the Rams had the Ball
A lot of Matthew Stafford's rate stats in L.A.'s bad games were similar to his full-season numbers. He still completed 64.7% of his passes (down a bit from his full-season rate of 67.2%) and was sacked on 4.57% of his dropbacks (which was actually a smidge lower than his full-season rate of 4.75%). The difference was in the highlight plays. Six of Stafford's league-high 17 interceptions came in these four games, and his average gain per throw plunged by more than a full yard, from 8.13 down to 7.08.
It's the interceptions, though, that really stand out. Stafford threw a ton of picks this year—even if you remove his worst games, the 11 he threw the rest of the season still would have ranked in the top 20—but it's the severity of the interceptions, not just the quantity, that changed games. There may be no such thing as a good interception, but Stafford's were particularly bad: he came within 2 yards of throwing three pick-sixes, and another turnover came on second-and-goal from the 8. That's practically seven points per game just on interceptions, and that's not even counting the two on second down near midfield, nor the two others that were wiped out by penalty. Stafford has an established track record of making critical mistakes in non-desperate situations—there are no third-and-forever plays or Hail Mary attempts skewing these data.
The other thing defenses did to minimize Stafford's effectiveness was to take away the deep ball, not in volume (he averaged 8.3 passes of 16-plus air yards in Los Angeles' worst four games, up from his full-season average of 6.6 per game) but in efficiency. Against Arizona, Seattle, Tennessee, and San Francisco, he completed 30.3% of his deep balls for 8.9 yards per throw and a 9.2% interception rate; in his other 14 contests, those numbers were 52.9%, 16.9, and 5.9%.
Of course, stopping Stafford often means stopping Cooper Kupp, Kupp's impact (or lack thereof) was clearly a factor in L.A.'s worst outings—he averaged 8.5 catches per game, equal to his full-season rate, but his per-game yardage dropped from 114.5 to 93.3, and his touchdown catches plummeted from 16 to zero. There's no secret sauce to Kupp's decline, as his numbers were down across the board. Between his full-season stats and these four games, his catch rate fell from 76% to 69%. His average yards after catch dropped from 5.8 to 4.7. His numbers were down uniformly regardless of pass distance. It wasn't as specific as taking away his deep balls or limiting his YAC; defenses just did whatever they could to stop Kupp from doing anything, all the time, all over the field.
As for the running game … well, this makes no sense, but the better Los Angeles runs the ball, the more they lose. In three playoff victories, they have been historically awful on the ground. Meanwhile, the Rams finished the regular season ranked 12th in rush offense DVOA at -4.0%, but they were actually better than that in three of their four worst games, and the fourth wasn't much worse than usual at -5.6%. In the Week 10 loss to the 49ers, they only ran the ball 10 times, but they averaged 5.2 yards per carry and had a DVOA of 32.1%, their best of the year. Even those 10 carries were an anomaly, because they averaged 24.3 runs in the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Titans losses—that's more than their 23.3-carry seasonal average. We write these pieces to find what lessons can be learned from a good team's losses, and the lesson for Cincinnati appears to be this: don't worry about the ground game. Every time the Rams hand off to Cam Akers, that's a chance they're taking away for Kupp (and Odell Beckham, and Tyler Higbee if he's healthy) to make plays, and that's a good thing for the Bengals.
When the Other Team had the Ball
As mentioned earlier, all of the Rams' worst games came before the bye week, and they have been a better team since then. And really, that's mostly due to their defense—while their passing offense has held steady and the running game has collapsed, the defense has improved from good to dominant. (The special teams have also improved with Brandon Powell returning punts and kickoffs.) The Rams have also been consistent, with a negative DVOA (meaning good defense) in nine of their 10 games since the bye, including the playoffs. They only had a negative DVOA in four of their 10 games before the bye. One of those, surprisingly, was the loss to Tennessee, but the defense played well enough that the Rams should have won that game comfortably. Unfortunately for them, Stafford kept throwing interceptions.
The Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco losses, however, can more fairly be pinned on the defense, and the pass defense in particular—by DVOA, they were L.A's worst games against the pass all season. The Rams actually got more sacks than usual (six in those three games, 25 in their other 15 contests in the regular season), but they allowed opponents to complete 71.4% of their passes for 8.7 yards per throw with a half-dozen touchdowns and only two interceptions. Surprisingly, considering the presence of Jalen Ramsey on L.A.'s roster, it was the superstar wideouts who gave them the most trouble. DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, DeAndre Hopkins, and A.J. Green each burned them for 60-plus yards; they combined for 19 catches in 23 targets for 329 yards and four touchdowns. Maxx Williams (5-5-66-1) and George Kittle (7-5-50-1) also had big days, showing that tight ends could give Los Angeles fits as well.
L.A.'s run defense, however, fared much better—they gave up 3.95 yards per carry, almost identical to their full-season rate of 3.96. Yes, the Cardinals trampled them, but the Seahawks averaged only 3.68, the Titans 2.65, and the 49ers 3.55. Remember, these were Los Angeles' worst games all season—you don't need to run on them to beat them.
How the Bengals Match Up
The offenses that have fared best against L.A. have overcome a high number of sacks to get big plays out of their superstar receivers. That's more or less what the Bengals have been doing all year, and that has continued in the playoffs. Joe Burrow took a league-high 51 sacks in the regular season, and is threatening to break the record for sacks taken in a single postseason. But that didn't stop Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins from both making the top six in DYAR in the regular season, and they have added 488 yards in the postseason. Further, tight end C.J. Uzomah caught 13 passes for 135 yards against the Raiders and Titans before leaving the AFC Championship Game with a sprained MCL; he has vowed to play in the Super Bowl. Los Angeles still has the edge here, especially with their improvement late in the year, but the gap may be smaller than DVOA would suggest.
The bad news for Cincinnati's defense is that they don't get a lot of interceptions; only 13 in the regular season, below the league average of 13.8. And they struggled against deep passes with a DVOA of 37.4%, 25th. The good news is that they were very good against No. 1 receivers, with a DVOA of -11.7% and holding them to 55.6 yards per game, sixth in the league in both categories.
We should point out that the Bengals have a half dozen interceptions of Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, and Patrick Mahomes in three playoff games, so they have improved lately in that regard. Those three quarterbacks completed nine of 19 deep balls (47.4%) for a 14.6-yard average with one touchdown, but also a pair of picks. Cincinnati's postseason results against No. 1 wideouts have been quite a mixed bag. Las Vegas' Hunter Renfrow caught eight of 11 targets, but gained only 58 yards. Tennessee's A.J. Brown, on the other hand, only caught five of nine passes, but still gained 142 yards and a score. Add in Tyreek Hill's 10-7-78-1 statline in the AFC Championship Game and you get a 66.7% catch rate, 13.9 yards per catch, and two touchdowns.
Last week, we wrote that L.A.'s best chance to win was to pressure the opposing quarterback into making mistakes. That's even more true for Cincinnati. Though the Bengals have the edge in a few specific matchups, the Rams have generally been the better team on both sides of the ball. It's hard to see how Cincinnati wins the Super Bowl if Stafford doesn't throw the game away. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time Stafford has thrown a game away this year.