With a game as big as the Super Bowl, there are so many aspects to dive into to break down the game. As someone who plays around with numbers, there is a lot of playing around in an attempt to find something interesting. While doing that, an offensive split from the Los Angeles Rams appeared. Now splits happen and in most cases these types of things are just noise. And while this may fall into that category, it’s worth further examination.
Let’s get to what started this in the first place. Here is the offensive EPA for the Rams by quarter, according to TruMedia:
Los Angeles Rams by quarter, 2021
Looking at that might suggest that the Rams are slow starters on offense. The problem is, the exact opposite is true — the Rams have been one of the best offenses to start games this season. On opening possessions through the regular season and playoffs, the Rams rank eighth in both EPA per play and EPA per drive. They rank second in yards per play on opening possessions and 50% of those drives have ended in a score, which ranks fifth.
The Rams, clearly, don’t have a problem starting games well. The problem, though, is when the offense comes back onto the field. On the Rams’ second possession, they have averaged -1.23 EPA per drive and -0.23 EPA per play, both of which rank 23rd.
So, that’s bad and would suggest why the overall EPA marks are bad for the first quarter even when the opening drive is typically quite good. The wild thing here is that it’s a fairly consistent problem. 13 of the Rams’ 21 second possessions have resulted in negative EPA, each with -1 EPA per drive or worse.
When the Rams get a third possession in the first quarter, they’re back up to averaging 0.52 EPA per drive and 0.11 EPA per play, which ranks sixth.
Now the question is if there is anything structurally wrong with the Rams’ second drive that they’re not doing on the first. They’ve struggled to run the ball early in games overall, but the run-pass ratio isn’t much different, especially on first down. On the opening drive, the Rams are 57.4% pass on first down. On the second drive, that dips just slightly to 55.3%.
How about what happens when the Rams do throw the ball? Let’s look at what’s going on with Matthew Stafford.
Matthew Stafford on first and second offensive drives, 2021
Structurally, there is a lot that is the same. Shotgun and empty rates are consistent and play-action rates go up on the second drive. The biggest difference is the average depth of target, which drops a bit.
Matthew Stafford target depth on first and second offensive drives, 2021
|Drive||At/Behind||Short (1-10)||Intermediate (11-19)||Deep (20+)|
What stands out here is how often Stafford has thrown short (1-10 air yards). On the surface, that change would likely lead to more completions because fewer passes are being thrown down the field, but that’s also not the case since Stafford’s completion percentage drops nearly 10% on the second drive.
Digging deeper, it comes down to what has impacted so much of the Rams’ success or failure throwing the ball throughout this season — interceptions.
Stafford has thrown four (4!) interceptions on the Rams’ second possession of a game. Throwing interceptions would be one thing but the ones in question have been rather devastating.
Let’s start with the least harmful: Week 4 against the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams had a second-and-3 on their own 44-yard line. From under center, the Rams used play-action and Stafford threw a deep crosser to DeSean Jackson. The ball held up just long enough for Arizona corner Byron Murphy to undercut the route and come away with a pick.
Now we’ll get to the bad ones — Week 10 vs Baltimore. The Rams faced a third-and-11 on their own 24-yard line. In an attempt to just get the ball out, they ran a screen to tight end Tyler Higbee. In what was supposed to be a safe play, the ball went through the arms of Higbee and into the hands of Jimmie Ward, who ran it back for a touchdown.
In Week 17, the Rams had a third-and-2 from their own 16-yard line. For another attempt to get the ball out quickly, Stafford again targeted Higbee but that route was jumped by Chuck Clark, who ran that interception in for a touchdown.
After the game, it was revealed that was a miscommunication and an incorrect route run from Odell Beckham as the No. 2, who while he was still learning the offense, ran the same route as Higbee, which allowed Clark to be in position to jump the route.
Last week against the 49ers again, the Rams drove all the way down the field on their second drive and got all the way down to a third-and-goal before Stafford attempted a tight window pass to Cooper Kupp at the goal line that was tipped by K’Waun Williams and into the arms of Jimmie Ward, which took points away from Los Angeles.
So on those four interceptions, there were two returned for a touchdown and one that eliminated at least a field goal. One of them was really Stafford’s fault — the most recent in the NFC Championship Game. As has been the case with Stafford, the picks have been fluky or trying some windows he doesn’t need to test.
Also like Stafford, the Rams’ offense has been great even considering some of the hiccups. This offense overall ranks sixth in EPA per drive. That can bring us back to what led us here in the first place. Despite some bad EPA in the first quarter, the Rams don’t exactly start slow. As long as the offense can stay away from some weird picks, things should be fine. Outside of those massive EPA swings with points changing both ways, it’s hard to find much outside typical variance, especially given how well the Rams bounce back on a third first quarter drive.
Though for the Rams, a three-and-out on the second drive, even in the Super Bowl, might not be the worse option — just to be safe.