The Los Angeles Rams — winners of last year’s Super Bowl with one of the best offenses in the league, those Los Angeles Rams — rank 31st in yards per play over the first four weeks of the 2022 NFL season.
There have already been two games this season — Week 1 and Week 4 — when the Rams averaged under 4.0 yards per play. Those two games were against two of the top defenses in the league but the Rams aren’t supposed to be that susceptible to opposing defensive quality. The Rams had no games under 4.0 yards per play last season and just two under 5.0.
It’s been a struggle by both the metrics and the eye test. The Rams just look off. Even when the Rams had some rough patches in the middle of the 2021 season, it came from some poor turnovers and games that got out of hand. The offensive structure, for the most part, was still sound and everything recovered down the stretch and into the playoffs.
That just hasn’t been the case this season. The Rams have gotten a little worse in multiple areas and that’s significantly altered how the offense can function.
A lot of this starts along the offensive line. After being a relatively healthy team across the offense, the Rams have already experienced a rash of injuries across the line on top of Andrew Whitworth’s retirement. Name a Rams offensive lineman and he’s probably been on the injury report. The Rams had the same five offensive linemen on the field for 67.8% of offensive snaps last season. So far this year, that has been 41.5% of the snaps, per TruMedia. (All stats in this article provided by TruMedia unless noted otherwise.)
Center Brian Allen has missed time and Coleman Shelton, who started at guard and moved to center in Allen’s absence will now be out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. David Edwards missed Week 4 with a concussion. No Rams offensive lineman has played 100% of the offensive snaps this season. The closest have been tackles Joe Noteboom (99.6%) and Rob Havenstein (98.4%) but both of them have been dinged up — Noteboom was questionable for Week 2. 2021 undrafted free agent Alaric Jackson is starting at guard and 2018 undrafted free agent Jeremiah Kolone, who has been on and off the Rams’ practice squad, will be the center for the time being.
All of that shifting leads to a significant drop in quality. Last season, the Rams had one of the league’s best offensive lines, especially as a pass-blocking unit. The 2021 Rams ranked first in ESPN’s pass block win rate. This year, they rank 19th.
Those little cracks in the protection make an impact during the play, but it’s also been a significant factor in the formations and plays called. The biggest shift has been in the Rams’ empty game.
In the first season with Matthew Stafford, the Rams had one of the most unique empty packages in the league. The Rams ran it at the highest rate (29.7% of Stafford’s dropbacks) and unlike so many other teams from empty, the Rams spread defenses horizontally to take vertical shots. No offense was better at pushing the ball down the field out of empty looks than the Rams.
Having a quarterback who could thrive in that situation with an offensive line that could hold up to give time with a five-man protection gave the Rams the ideal combination to add that downfield element to the empty looks. But without that trust this season, the Rams have lowered the rate of empty snaps altogether.
This season, just 18.3% of Stafford’s dropbacks have been in empty. That still ranks eighth among quarterbacks in 2022 but it’s a huge drop in usage compared to last season. Stafford’s average depth of target has dropped nearly a yard on those dropbacks while his yards per attempt have dropped by more than two yards and he’s been pressured more often.
Matthew Stafford From Empty, 2021-2022
data per TruMedia
That leads into the other issue the Rams have on offense, which is a general lack of juice in the passing game. It’s not just the empty game that’s lacking in downfield success — it’s the entire offense.
80.7% of Stafford’s pass attempts this season have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s the highest rate in the league with the next highest quarterback at 76.4%. Last season, Stafford’s 67.3% rate was 28th among quarterbacks.
This is where the skill players have been an issue. Despite using 11 personnel on a league-high 96% of plays, few offenses have been less set up to stretch the field vertically than the Rams.
Cooper Kupp has been great, again, to start the season but without a field stretcher next to him, Kupp has had to play multiple roles on the offense. Kupp has killed from the slot but he’s only been there 51% of the time this season. Through the first four weeks last year, Kupp was in the slot 66% of the time.
Kupp has had to take some of those deep shots himself and if you look at where he’s been targeted compared to the opening four weeks last season, there is a clear increase deep down the sideline.
Cooper Kupp Target Heat Map From Weeks 1-4, 2021-2022
There are other elements that have technically been better for Kupp this season. He’s been targeted more often and his first downs per target have gone from 39.1% in the first four weeks last season to 48.1% this season. But the way in which some of those targets have occurred has limited the upside of the receiver’s game, even if the chains have moved.
22.9% of Kupp’s routes this season have been hitches, his most run route. Through the first four weeks of the season last year, Kupp ran a hitch 12.4% of the time. It was 18% over the full season. Kupp is fourth in hitch routes run among all receivers through four weeks but he’s not alone — Tyler Higbee ranks ninth and Allen Robinson is 12th.
The increase in routes that have Kupp stopping, plus the added sideline shots, have limited those middle of the field throws that allow Kupp to run after his catch. This year both his aDOT and yards after the catch per reception have dropped. Kupp’s longest reception is only 28 yards.
One of the biggest issues, both in Kupp’s usage and for the passing offense overall has been the lack of an intermediate game. While defenses around the league have increased the use of two-high to stop offenses from creating explosive plays on the deep ball, defenses against the Rams have made an effort to protect the intermediate level, between 11-19 air yards.
The Rams have seen an increase in the rate of Cover-3 run against them this season. Stafford faced it on 27% of his dropbacks in 2021 but that has gone up to over 40% in 2022. That’s been pretty consistent with all four opponents right around 40% each week — a high of 40.8% against the Bills in Week 1 and a low of 39.7% against the 49ers in Week 4.
Instead of sitting with two safeties deep, defenses are using that second safety to sit in the middle of the field and take away the crossers and digs that the Rams killed in 2021.
Last season, 19.5% of Stafford’s pass attempts went between 11-19 air yards, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league. He was also fourth in EPA per attempt in that area (0.72). So far this season, just 8.7% of Stafford’s passes have been to the intermediate level, the lowest rate among quarterbacks. No one else is below 12%.
This could be an area where Robinson is used more. He has five targets and a team-leading 56 yards on intermediate passes this season. 29 of those yards came on one crosser against the Falcons in Week 2. Yet, Robinson’s been stuck with mostly running hitches and go’s, trying to create something on the outside. He’s run a few crossers on early downs, but that’s when he’s been targeted the least. Overall, Robinson just hasn’t fit into the offense — targeted on just 12.1% of his routes, which ranks 59th of 62 wide receivers with at least 100 routes run.
The loss of Van Jefferson is also in play here. Jefferson has some juice that could be used to stretch the field but he was also heavily targeted in the intermediate area last season.
So much of the Rams’ intermediate success came off play-action in 2021. Nearly a quarter of Stafford’s play-action attempts (24.8%) traveled between 11-19 air yards. This season, it’s 6.3%.
The entire play-action game has also been overhauled as the Rams have tried to manufacture some offense with it, but to no avail.
Around 75% of Stafford’s play-action attempts came under center last season but that’s shot up to 94% this year. This could be more about trying to help a run game that struggled from shotgun last season. This year, the Rams rank eighth in EPA per rush under center (0.07) and 31st (-0.31) from shotgun.
To marry to successful run plays and the play-action game, the passing offense is now more under center but that hasn’t completely clicked just yet.
46.3% of Stafford’s play-action passes have come at or behind the line of scrimmage this season. While the Rams have had some success gaining yards on screens to the point Stafford has averaged 9.03 yards per attempt off play-action with a 4.91-yard aDOT, the overall success hasn’t been there. Stafford is averaging 0.06 EPA per dropback off play-action, compared to 0.36 in 2021.
Just four of Stafford’s 32 play-action pass attempted have traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. On those throws, he’s 3-for-4 for 59 yards. 927 of Stafford’s passing yards last season came on play-action throws of over 10 air yards.
There might not be a quick fix for this offense. Health will certainly help, but it’s unclear exactly how quickly those key players will return, especially on the offensive line. Jefferson still has not returned to practice. Re-signing Beckham could help, but he’ll also be coming off a torn ACL so it wouldn’t be fair to expect the Beckham the Rams had at his peak last season.
The schedule also isn’t going to get much easier, especially with these opposing defenses. The Rams face the Cowboys (10th in defensive EPA per play) in Week 5 and the Panthers (seventh) in Week 6. The stretch after the Week 7 bye includes the 49ers (first), Buccaneers (fifth), Saints (ninth), and Chiefs (17th).
It’s hard to imagine the Rams can stay this bad on offense for an extended period of time. All full strength, this team might still have the talent to push through but they’re not at full strength at the moment and every little bit taken away chops off a significant amount of what the offense can do. The Rams can get better but there’s a lot that needs to be improved without a quick fix on the horizon.