After the Bye Week, do the 2-3 Rams Have Hope?

Through their first five games, the Rams faced the toughest early-season schedule in the NFL and came away with a 2-3 record as they cruised into the bye week.

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Fisher’s Rams are averaging only 15.4 points per game from scrimmage.

The Rams could be 3-2 were it not for the offense failing to get into the end zone for a touchdown in a 12-6 home loss to Pittsburgh. Then again, Seattle should have won at St. Louis in the season opener but didn’t. These things tend to even out over the season so don’t bother playing the “What If” game. It’s like the old Bill Parcells saying: “You are what your record says you are.”

That 2-3 seems about right and puts the Rams in the wide middle third of the league’s power structure. After Sunday’s slate of games, nine NFL teams have winning percentages of .667 or higher, and 13 are dragging along with a win percentage of .333 or worse. That leaves 10 teams hanging around at 3-2 or 2-3. The Rams reside in that vast NFL middle class.

Is there hope for a winning season … or even something more, like a playoff spot?

Sure, there’s always hope. As of Monday morning Nate Silver’s site FiveThirtyEight.com  gives the Rams an 11 percent chance of winning the NFC West and a 19% shot of making the NFC playoffs. And after running simulations the site forecasts a 7-9 record for the Rams.

The 538 model isn’t favorable, but a winning season isn’t out of the question. It’s doable. And a team with a winning season will by lurking near the gateway to the postseason.

The Rams didn’t play Sunday but it was a good day for them in the NFC West. Arizona lost at Pittsburgh, and Seattle gave away another lead, collapsing late in a home loss to Carolina. And San Francisco became the latest team to heap misery on Baltimore. The fresh standings have Arizona at 4-2, the Rams in second place at 2-3, with Seattle and San Francisco at 2-4.

If you base the future outlook on the first six weeks of the NFL season, the Rams’ schedule won’t be as menacing. Only two of their final 11 games will be played against teams (Cincinnati, Arizona) ranked among the top nine in winning percentage as of Monday morning. Another, Minnesota, has a winning record (3-2.) The other eight games on the Rams’ sked are against teams that currently own a losing record.

Things could change quickly. A “soft” opponent could be better by the time the Rams play them. Or the Rams could catch a team like Cincinnati on a bad day, or during a mini-slump. These fluctuations aren’t unusual. But if you go by what we’ve seen so far, the Rams should be able to find some wins … and they’ll need  seven  victories to finish above .500 for the first time since 2003.

Here’s the list of remaining games; see if you can comfortably pick seven STL wins:

Cleveland, Home

San Francisco, Home

At Minnesota

Chicago, Home 

At Baltimore

At Cincinnati

Arizona, Home 

Detroit, Home

Tampa Bay, Home

At Seattle

At San Francisco

That’s six at home, five on the road. After the bye the Rams will play three of their first four games at The Edward Jones Dome, and later on they’ll have three consecutive home games. Of the six road teams that will come into St. Louis, the Rams already have defeated the best of the lot (Arizona), and the other five surely qualify as realistically beatable.

Winning those conflicts wouldn’t be an upset; the Rams should be favored (or very close to it) in five of their six remaining home games. Depending on the trends at the time, the Rams have a crack at winning in Baltimore and Minnesota and could be the Las Vegas betting favorite in the season-ending game at San Francisco. (Note of caution to self: the ‘Niners are beginning to pick it up offensively and could be more dangerous than anticipated. We’ll get a closer look soon; the 49ers will be in STL a week from Sunday.)

Anyway, you can spot seven wins in there, but with two conditions: (1) only if the Rams can get their underperforming offense going; and (2) beat the teams they should be able to handle.

Both areas loom as problematic.

Let’s take a look …

First, the Offense: 

Through their first five games the Rams’ offense averaged only 15.4 points per game from scrimmage. That’s the worst in the league. And if that scoring average holds, this would go down as the poorest output by a Rams offense since Jeff Fisher became head coach in 2012. His first team here averaged 16.3 points per game on offense; that’s the low mark so far.

Moreover:

Through five games the Rams were last (32nd) in average net yards per game (297.)

They were tied for 26th in offensive touchdowns from scrimmage, with eight.

They were 29th in third-down conversions (31.3 percent.)

They’d turned the ball over eight times, tied for 20th.

The passing offense ranked 30th in net yards per game (183), 27th in completion rate (57.3%), 25th in passer rating (77.7), and 18th in average yards per attempt (6.83.)

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Foles has endured pass rush pressure on 44.8% of his dropbacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams’  Nick Foles is a close second to Seattle’s Russell Wilson in enduring the most pass-rush pressure (on 44.8 percent of his dropbacks) among regular NFL quarterbacks through the first five weeks. But the nimble Wilson can at least run away from trouble at times; Foles isn’t a scrambler.

The Rams’ offensive line ranked 30th in overall pass-blocking efficiency. Foles has been sacked nine times, which isn’t terrible. But it’s also misleading. Excluding the sack count no NFL quarterback had been hit more times (19) than Foles according to PFF — and the site also shows Foles throwing away more passes intentionally (16) to avoid sacks than any NFL  quarterback. On top of that, Foles has had more passes dropped (14) than all but four quarterbacks.

The St. Louis offensive line is young and inexperienced and frequently overmatched. Defensive coordinators have undoubtedly noticed that Rams’ opponents are generating plenty of pass rush without blitzing. As is the case with most quarterbacks, Foles isn’t nearly as effective under fire.

The Rams have lost their most experienced lineman, guard Rodger Saffold, to season-ending shoulder surgery. The STL media has been depicted Saffold’s departure as a major blow, but if you trust the grades posted at Pro Football Focus (as I do), keep in mind that Saffold was the team’s lowest-rated lineman through five games. Problem is, I don’t know if his replacement, Garrett Reynolds, will be any better at protecting Foles. Probably not.

According to PFF, Foles has a 91 passer rating with four TDs and two interceptions on attempts when there is no pass-rush pressure. But when the defenses get after him, Foles has a 59.2 passer rating. Foles had been ably tough in dealing with the protection breakdowns, at least until the 24-10 loss to Green Bay on Oct. 11. For the first time this season, a rattled Foles showed signs of succumbing to the beating he’s been absorbing, haphazardly flinging  four interceptions at Green Bay.

At Lambeau Field, we saw distressing signs of the “Bad” Foles that lost the confidence of Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, who traded him to the Rams last offseason. In 2014, Foles had a 51.1 passer rating for the Eagles when confronted by a pass-rush threat. Foles is trending similarly again this season, and it’s difficult to imagine how Foles can reverse the pattern unless the Rams keep him cleaner in the pocket. Hopefully for Foles, Fisher and the Rams’ offensive coaches spent a good part of the bye-week down time to tweak their protection packages — because something has to change. Playing some lesser defenses should help, but more than anything this green like has to grow up fast.

Second, the Todd Gurley Factor: 

The primary hope on offense comes in the dazzling rookie running back who may be the Rams’ most impactful player on offense since RB Marshall Faulk wound down in his “Greatest Show” career here. In Weeks Four and Five, Gurley led all league running backs with 305 yards rushing, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He romped for gains of 10+ yards at an impressive rate of 18.4% of his carries. According to Pro Football Focus, among league RBs that have been on the field for at least 25% of their team’s offensive snaps this season Gurley has the No. 1 “breakaway” percentage.

It’s pleasant to think of Gurley continuing to rush for 150 yards per game; that would set Foles up for some juicy play-action pass arrows downfield. With the Rams dropping so many passes and having so many protection breakdowns, stopping Gurley at any cost will become an increasing point of emphasis for Rams’ opponents. The Rams may be able to exploit that, but they’ll need cleaner pass protection, more firmness from Foles in the pocket, and more dependable hands from their metallic-handed receivers.

Needless to say, the more yards that Gurley can churn out on the ground, the more the Rams should benefit.

Why? This: during his head-coaching career with Houston/Tennessee and the Rams, Fisher’s teams have a record of 57-18-1 when he has a RB rush for 100+ yards in a game.

One potential concern: putting too much of the load on Gurley, who is back from knee surgery, and wearing him down.

Third, Finding a Way to Prevail Over Beatable Opponents: 

As we discussed, the Rams’ schedule isn’t as daunting the rest of the way. But can they make the most of it? That’s debatable; Fisher’s record tells us that. In his 53 games as Rams coach, the team is 6-6 when going into a contest as the Vegas betting-line favorite. And that includes a 5-5 record as the betting favorite at home.

As we’ve noted on multiple occasions, Fisher’s St. Louis teams have usually been at their best in the underdog role — but how many times will they truly fit the underdog role in remaining games?

For the Rams to have a shot at a winning record and (dare we say it) a playoff spot, Fisher must find a way to get his team to outplay equal or inferior opponents. Too many times we’ve seen the Fisher-led Rams play down to the level of conquerable foes.

Yes, there is hope … guarded, cautious, skeptical and a bit far-fetched … hope.

I can’t wait to see how this all turns out.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie