Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but there was a time when a lot of people wrote about the Bears as following in the tracks of the Rams. A team with a similar path with a young QB being paired with a young, first time Head Coach and a veteran defensive coordinator. The story was that the Bears were going to follow that path and win the NFC like the Rams did in 2018. Obviously, the story has taken a different turn for the Bears in 2019, but it has also been a bit of a disappointment for the Rams as well.
These two teams were expected to be good enough at the beginning of the year that they attracted the Sunday Night Football match up. Only the Chicago and LA markets may have saved them the embarrassment of getting flexed out of this spot, but with tough divisional games ahead for both the Bears and the Rams, this game sets up as a must win for both squads. The Rams are favored by about a touchdown in this one so confidence in the Bears is significantly lower than the Rams.
To get an insider perspective, I reached back out to the Editor of the Turf Show Times to ask a few questions. He was kind enough to provide some good, insightful answers.
WCG: Despite the 5-4 start, there’s at least some fear that the Rams offense may hold them back from a playoff run. Is Jared Goff broken? Has the scheme been sniffed out (possibly hurt by the Bears defense in ‘18)? Is it something else we can’t see?
TST: Yeah, so there’s a lot going on. I’d start with the offensive line before Goff when looking at the offense this year. The line (a) hasn’t played well and (b) has undergone (and is still undergoing...) personnel changes. A LOT of personnel changes. Not blaming the instability for the poor performances, but it obviously hasn’t solved the problem up front in either the running game or the passing game. For the former, they haven’t been able to establish the run in many games, but things are being exacerbated by the weird dramacocoon that Todd Gurley is currently in (more on that in a sec). Without the offensive line or ground game to support it, the passing game and Goff himself are just in a funk. It’s a bit of an avalanche effect as it builds up within games but also week-to-week. And it’s on the verge of pushing the Rams out of playoff contention before we even get to December.
WCG: Load Management seems to be the name of the game for Todd Gurley this year as he’s averaging only 13 carries per game so far this season. What happened to Gurley last year in the playoffs and has that carried over to this season? Will his usage get ramped back up down the stretch?
TST: Sigh. What a saga.
Here’s the short version. Gurley aggravated his knee last year and it led to the coaching staff being sensitive to the reality that it could happen again if they continue to use him as much as they have in recent years. While that in and of itself isn’t the worst thing, it can manifest in really self-defeating ways as it did in the fourth quarter last week where Gurley, despite churning out consistent runs for 73 yards on 12 carries, didn’t touch the ball in the fourth quarter and wasn’t on the field in the quarter on the Rams’ first two drives.
So part of the problem is that he’s unavailable. Part of the problem is that the Rams are handicapping themselves by not using him the way they have in the past. And part of the problem, though the history here and those first two issues might exacerbate fan perception here, is that he might not be the Todd Gurley we came to know that was a MVP candidate.
I’d bet on his usage not getting ramped up, but I honestly don’t know. Rams Head Coach Sean McVay and Gurley himself were dishonest about the issue from Week 15 on last year and haven’t been forthcoming about it, so it’s hard to know what the real plan is. The outcome is clear though, and there’s no arguing about its effect.
WCG: On defense, it appears that Aaron Donald is still wrecking offenses with regularity despite his sack numbers being down from his lofty standards. The Rams are currently tied with the Bears defense for 4th in DVOA. What’s been the key to the defense’s continued success? Is it simply Donald who stirs the drink is there someone else Bears fans should be worried about heading into Sunday night?
TST: AD’s fantastic. Forget sacks (they’re a horrible statistic in the first place, but I digress...). He’s a disruptor before the game even starts. Offenses have to start with a gameplan on double- and triple-teaming him. It doesn’t always work, but you have to start with it. And like you guys showed against us/him last year, it can work! The good thing is, his existence and consistent quality opens opportunities for other guys in the front seven. The combination of Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews on the edge has been better than the Samson Ebukam/Matt Longacre duo the Rams started with last year. But the real improvement has been in the secondary which has carried through the makeover of the cornerback depth chart. We started the season with CB Aqib Talib and CB Marcus Peter on the outside with CB Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot who’s fantastic in that role. Behind them are S Eric Weddle and S John Johnson, though JJ is sadly now on IR. Rookie S Taylor Rapp has been the best rookie on the team, though no surprise there as he was our first pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. And S Marqui Christian has been one of the Rams’ best backups for years. But Talib got injured and the Rams had to fast-forward on the plans there as they were unwilling to commit to an extension for Peters. So they traded both and then sent two first-round picks and a fourth for CB Jalen Ramsey. Expensive, but if he plays at a Pro Bowl caliber for years, it could meet the price. Troy Hill has been bumped up into the CB2 role, but he’s had stretches of starts in the last two seasons with injuries opening the door for him. He’s been solid from 2017 on.
So it’s a fantastic secondary + AD + improved run defense. It’s carrying the team right now.
WCG: The NFC West has the Rams looking up at two teams right now, the Seahawks and the 49ers. What has to happen for the Rams to catch one or both of those teams or are you eyeing that 6th seed to get back into the show? What’s the confidence level of Rams fans that McVay can get stack wins down the stretch to make it happen?
TST: Yeah, it really comes down to the offense. They have to kick it up. It was adequate early on in the season. Heck, you go back to Week 5, the Rams nearly beat the Seattle Seahawks on the road were it not a for a kick from K Greg Zuerlein that missed by inches on a night where Goff threw for 395 yards. So it hasn’t been as bad all year as it was against the Steelers. But between last week’s crucial loss and the no show from the O against the Niners, it certainly feels like it’s holding us back in the division.
If the offense gets going and can get to Week 14 without losing two of the next three, they’d have a chance at beating the Seahawks to get to 8-5 or 9-4. That’s good enough to get into the mix if the Seahawks or Niners drop at least one over the next few weeks. The Week 16 game against the Niners is going to be a must-win situation if the Rams get through Week 14 in good form.
WCG: We hear a lot about the Chargers not being able to fill their small soccer stadium with fans and that it quickly turns into an away game against teams with big fan bases that travel well. How has the transition back to LA gone for the Rams and is there any worry about filling the new stadium with rabid Rams fans once that opens up?
TST: Yeah, it’s been good, but a lot of that is due to the team turning things around after 2016. Obviously, the Rams’ history in LA gave them a population of fans that already existed to build on that the Chargers simply don’t have. The real issue is trying to paper over the absence of the NFL in LA for a quarter century. The city found a way to adjust. You had young people growing up without a local team that followed other successful teams with entertaining personas like the Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys or Pittsburgh Steelers. You also had a lot of people essentially tune out in terms of rabid fandom. When you’ve got the Lakers and Dodgers in town let alone all the other sports, it’s hard to build a huge base of support for a sport that doesn’t have a team in town. So it’s going to take time. You’ve got two teams playing in temporary stadia that are still really settling in.
If anything, this period is the prologue to the NFL being back in LA moreso than the first chapter.
Thanks again to the Turf Show Times for the info!