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Five Questions with Turf Show Times: There’s no stopping Aaron Donald

Chicago Bears v St Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears face their biggest game this season on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams, and it’s shaping up as a statement game for both teams. The NFC North leading Bears want a signature win that will put the entire NFL on notice that they are a real Super Bowl contender, while the NFC West leading Rams want to show that their good offense can beat a good defense in less than ideal conditions.

Jeff Berckes, our usual Five Questions With correspondent, is on another assignment, so after he sent his questions over to Joseph McAtee of Turf Show Times, the SB Nation site that covers the Rams, he asked me to put it this all together for him.

So here are Jeff’s great questions (as usual), and Joe’s answers about the Rams.

Windy City Gridiron - The Rams come into this one with the best record in the NFL at 11-1, staring down the #1 seed and the road to the Super Bowl running through the congested streets of Los Angeles. Many of us at WCG have been looking at the Rams as the model to follow and in many ways, the Bears are mirroring the 2017 Rams pretty well. What was the moment where it turned from “hey, we’re pretty good” to “we can win the whole thing”? What was the “final piece” to make that happen?

Turf Show Times - Well, I think we’re still in the process of turning from — OH GOD THIS ENTIRE TEAM AND SPORT IS A FUTILE EXERCISE IN SADNESS — to whatever the peaks of the Sean McVay era will be. Even to the extent that this is a team that “can win the whole thing” (and I’m hopeful that we would all be in unanimity thinking that’s the case), the Rams still haven’t won a playoff game under McVay with QB Jared Goff at the helm.

That being said, the first “moment” for me where it was clear that this was going to be an era in which the window would be open for the postseason and the kinds of successes Rams fans are hoping are yet to come was last year in the Week 4 and Week 6 wins on the road against the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars. Those were the kinds of games the Rams were just unable to win under Jeff Fisher despite having the roster talent to compete in, but under McVay the Rams combined RB Todd Gurley’s athleticism with special teams, and some heady play from Goff, to get two huge road wins that pushed them out to a 4-2 record after Week 6. Being up to those kinds of challenges was the kind of failure that defined the previous era. Passing them was a clear improvement especially on the road.

I will say though that those two games were a “moment” that separated a losing team from a winning team. The difference now is that the bar has been set much higher. Rams fans, understandably, are looking for more than just a postseason berth. Looking for a moment that really solidifies the team as a contender for the Super Bowl kind of hasn’t happened yet. I really think it’s one of those things that for a lot of teams doesn’t necessarily have portending signs until it happens. The Rams, as the league’s sole one-loss team, are understandably the current favorites for the Super Bowl. But until they get to the playoffs, and win a game, and look like a team that can handle the pressures of January football, I don’t know that there’s a moment that really lends any certainty to that taking place.


Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

WCG - Todd Gurley leads the league in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and TDs. He’s on his way to his second straight 2,000+ yards from scrimmage campaign and another first team all-pro honor. In this era where it’s en vogue to scoff at running back investment, just how important is he in this offense and to the success of this Rams team? In the Rams pantheon of running backs, where does Gurley rank now among Steven Jackson (>10,000 yards), Eric Dickerson, and Marshall Faulk, and what does he need to do to be considered the best of the bunch?

TST - He’s incredibly important, but I think you have to put it in context of the limitations of his position which you alluded to.

It’s not too long ago that Gurley ran for less than 60 yards per game over an entire season stifled by his offensive line, an inept passing game and a limp offensive system that was both unable and unwilling to push the ball downfield with any sincere aggression. Fast forward to 2017 with changes to all three, and Gurley took off. So while his talent level and his ability in space is perhaps the greatest on-field skill set the Rams have, I’d argue the things that allow that talent level and spatial ability to translate on the field are more important. That being said, he’s an incredible talent, and on the right day is the engine that powers the entire offense.

As for where he ranks in the Rams’ running back hall, that’s tough. It’s the best position for the franchise in the last 40 years and that includes moving away from Jerome Bettis and the heartbreaking tragic tale of Lawrence Phillips. The thing about Jackson, Dickerson and Faulk is that we consider them through the prism of their entire careers, while Gurley is just in his fourth season. Take Jackson as the most recent of the bunch. He had eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. How can we judge Gurley appropriately against that when he’s just now having his third such season with more talent around him than Jackson ever had? Or to compare him to Faulk who was the two-way lightning bug in the Greatest Show on Turf that put up extended playoff runs, while Gurley has played in just one playoff game? I honestly can’t get beyond giving Gurley a TBD stamp here since the next four or five seasons will really determine where Gurley stacks up against our historic backs, but I think we’re all eager to see if he can keep his performance level up and really establish himself alongside them as the kind of running back we associate with this franchise.

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

WCG - Let’s talk about Jared Goff and his development into one of the top young QBs in the league. Goff’s rookie season was on full display in Amazon’s All or Nothing series and it wasn’t pretty. Since then, Goff has made one of the better prank videos of all time and has been stellar on the field - tossing 55 TDs against 14 INTs and a QB rating north of 100. How do you attribute this improvement between Sean McVay’s scheme, Jared Goff’s growth, and the improved weaponry surrounding him?

TST - It’s all working together. I don’t think you can really separate one from the other.

Would Goff have developed without McVay around to simplify the scheme for him last year? Hard to think so. Or even with McVay, if he were still throwing to Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin and Brian Quick instead of Sammy Watkins/Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (to say nothing of the offensive line’s similar improvement), is there any way he would have been able to put up the kind of numbers sufficient to winning in today’s NFL? Doubtful. And yet even with those changes, he certainly deserves credit for matching the improvements among the coaching staff and on the offensive depth chart with an improvement in his individual play both last season and again this year when he has, at times, been markedly even better.

I don’t think you can separate one from the other. There was a week of discomfort earlier this season when the idea of Goff being a “system quarterback” ruffled some feathers among Rams media and even among the team. I don’t think there’s anything discomforting about it. Goff’s playing well. The system’s amenable to his talents. And the Rams have impressive weapons for him to work with. As a Rams fan, I’m just happy we have all three instead of having to pick and choose.

WCG - Speaking of the improved weaponry, the Rams have put together a very impressive group of wide receivers despite not investing high draft picks. While Cooper Kupp is on the IR, is there a receiver the Bears defense needs to focus on stopping or is it more about getting pressure on Goff?

TST - Definitely the latter. The Rams spread the ball out with aplomb. Last year, Kupp led the way with 95 targets with Gurley and Woods not far behind, as Watkins had the lowest target total of the group with 70. The Rams’ tight ends, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, combined for 77. This year, the passing offense has been more prolific. Woods and Cooks are already over 90 targets with Gurley over 60. Kupp’s injuries capped him at 55, but second-year WR Josh Reynolds has already exceeded his 2017 target total, while the tight ends are on pace to match their work rate from a year ago.

McVay often stresses the idea of “using all our eligibles.” And he does that with sincerity. This isn’t a team with an Antonio Brown or Julio Jones or Odell Beckham, Jr., that gets force fed the ball. The Rams use all of their weapons regularly all over the field.

The best defensive efforts we’ve seen have come when opposing defenses are able to pressure Goff. It’s a tough task, because the Rams’ offensive line has been very good this year. But if you can’t get to Goff on the day, it’s just too easy for him to settle in and operate with the talent level of his targets.

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

WCG - I’m running out of time and I haven’t even got to the best player on the Rams - Aaron Donald. This is a bit of a sore subject around here as Bears fans are still upset about missing out on Donald by one pick. I know I was throwing stuff at the TV and I’m no longer welcome back at that particular establishment... Anyway, Donald has been a one man wrecking crew this year, leading the league in sacks with 16.5 from the DT position. Given the Rams remaining schedule, it’s not impossible to think he could threaten the single season record of 22.5. How do the Bears slow this guy down?

TST - You don’t.

WCG - Bonus: When you look at the landscape of the NFC for the next 2-3 years, who are the teams that you think will challenge the Rams in the playoffs and - ~*bold prediction time*~ - will the Rams win their second Super Bowl Championship this February?

TST - Ooh man, that’s a good one. I’ve talked about the New NFL™ coming a lot since we’re obviously going to be a part of it. While Peyton is waiting for Tom Brady and Drew Brees to join him in retirement (and seriously, how the hell are they still doing it...), you can see the New NFL™ forming. Goff and Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson and all these new skill position stars and defenders developing. Fun times.

Across the NFC, the Saints are interesting. How much of their success is due to Brees? They’ve clearly got a ton of talent around him, but the defensive improvements the last two years is what has really propelled the team forward. So even if Father Time catches Brees soon, it’s hard to see them fading too quickly. Obviously, you guys are on the ascendancy. If yall have a strong offseason, it’s hard not to see you guys in the mix with a Nagy-Trubisky-Mack trio rivaling ours in McVay-Goff-Donald. I think the Minnesota Vikings are right there which will make for some great games between you two battling for the North the next few years (which, yanno, underscores the decline of the Green Bay Packers...woof). And man, it would have been comfortable to put the Carolina Panthers in there were it not for this four-game losing skid and a four-interception game from QB Cam Newton making things look very, very different for them.

The tough thing is that the NFL can change very quickly, right? Look how quickly our two teams turned things around. Or how the Packers and Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars and Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles fell off this year. It’s hard enough to predict things year-to-year let alone a multi-year window. I guess what I’d lean into is multi-year confidence. And I don’t know that there’s a fan base in the NFC that would have a higher confidence level in the upcoming three-year window than our two teams’ fan bases. So yeah. We’re good.

As for the Super Bowl, I hate “will” predictions. NFL hard. Gambling hard. Predicting hard.

I’ll leave it at this. Through 12 games, there’s nothing I’ve seen this year from the Rams that suggests they can’t win the Super Bowl this year. And that’s a hell of a lot better than years past.

Thanks to Jeff and Joe for this mammoth edition of Five Questions With...