The Los Angeles Rams hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday — and anyone who didn’t know any better might have thought the Rams were the ones trying to win their second straight Super Bowl. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady put up what used to be considered a typical Matthew Stafford stat line: a whopping 55 pass attempts for 432 yards — but only one touchdown, and in a losing effort. Stafford, for the Rams, was Bradyesque: a 71 percent completion rate on 38 attempts, for 343 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and a 134.0 passer rating. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles defense held Tampa Bay to just 35 yards rushing on 13 attempts, and the Bucs managed just two total touchdowns until a garbage-time score with 1:10 left. It was a no-doubter of a win against the reigning champs.
But the NFL isn’t old-school college football, where beating the team ranked No. 1 in the opinion polls made you the new No. 1. The Bucs still have the highest Elo rating in the FiveThirtyEight prediction model, and bettors still believe in Tampa Bay (and the 1-2 Kansas City Chiefs) a little more than they do in L.A. And to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC — the only seed that gets a bye into the second round of the playoffs — the Rams still have to fight their way through the NFL’s toughest division.
Are the Rams good enough to stay on top all the way to January?
Let’s start with Stafford, whom the Rams made an all-in push to acquire. Though he’s only 22nd in the league in pass attempts this season, averaging just 31 throws per game, he’s ranked fifth in passing yards and tied for second in touchdowns.1 He’s No. 2 in passer rating, QBR, touchdown rate and average yards per attempt, and he’s No. 1 in net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, and Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR). He’s on pace to set career highs in every one of those stats2 — except pass attempts, where his projected 533 attempts over 17 games would be fewer than in all but one of his nine 16-game seasons.
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Stafford’s metamorphosis as a quarterback has been fascinating. After injuries shortened his first and second seasons, he spent four years trying to carry the Detroit Lions with sheer volume. He averaged a whopping 675 throws per year from 2011 through 2013, twice leading the league in attempts. But he averaged a passer rating of just 86.9 in that span, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, with an unimpressive-since-the-1980s 1.7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In 2014, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi tried to get Stafford to play small(er) ball, bringing Drew Brees’s playbook north with him from New Orleans. Stafford’s interception rate went down during Lombardi’s first year, and the quarterback made his only Pro Bowl appearance to date. But his touchdown rate and yards per attempt also went down, and Lombardi was fired in 2015 amidst reports that Stafford had never been on board with his conservative game plan.
Promoted QB coach Jim Bob Cooter let Stafford grip it and rip it again, and for a while it worked: In 2017, Stafford set then-highs in passer rating, QBR and adjusted net yards per attempt. But defenses figured Cooter and head coach Jim Caldwell out, and after the 2018 season, both of them had been sent packing. Stafford had to evolve again, adjusting to Darrell Bevell’s QB-movement-heavy approach. Somehow asking a 31-year-old Stafford to beat teams with his athleticism worked; in 2019 he again set or matched career best in touchdown rate, interception rate, passer rating, QBR and plenty of other rate stats.
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Now, under Rams head coach (and oft-described offensive mastermind) Sean McVay, Stafford appears to have achieved his final form: aggressive, effective, efficient and putting up yards and points in bunches despite throwing far less often than he used to.
But the Rams aren’t compensating by running the ball. They’re 15th in the league in rushing attempts, gaining a second-worst 3.3 average yards per carry. They’re ranked 26th in number of offensive plays and 28th in offensive drives. Yet they’re the best in the league at turning possessions into points, with a 58.6 percent per-drive scoring rate.
What McVay is doing becomes more apparent in the time-of-possession stats. They’re ranked 25th in offensive plays run but 17th in average drive time, using all those ineffective runs to slow down drives and keep their defense off the field. In fact, the Rams’ defense is tied for the second-fewest number of drives faced all year. That’s for the best, because they’re allowing a league-high 7.5 plays per drive and the second-highest average opponent drive time.
Surely, some of the success opponents have had stringing long drives together against them over the first three weeks comes from Brady and the Buccaneers happening to be one of their opponents. But the Rams held Brady to two total touchdowns on 446 yards of offense, and they were similarly stingy against the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. Despite letting their opponents run all those plays and rack up all that time of possession, the Rams’ defense is 12th-best in per-drive scoring rate allowed.
By slowing down their offensive drives, and bending but not breaking on defense, the Rams have both the league’s most explosive, effective passing game and a ball-control, possession-denial strategy. Unlike old Rams teams that could score as fast as they wanted but wore out their defense in the process, the 2021 Rams seem built to maximize not only Stafford’s arm, but also their chances to win in February.
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