The Bears and Rams are starting to see each other in meaningful games every year, rekindling a rivalry that dates back to 1937. I reached out to Kenneth Arthur, the boss over at Turf Show Times to help me understand what I need to know as a Bears fan about this Rams team to get ready for Monday Night Football. He came through with excellent answers.
Windy City Gridiron: The Rams were recently crowned NFC East champions - congratulations! - although I’m sure other teams might end up sharing the title of beating all four teams in that division. The games outside of the NFC East were close losses to good competition in the Bills and 49ers. What have you been able to learn from those games and what are the expectations for this team in 2020?
Turf Show Times: What I’ve learned in the first six games is that the Rams offensive line is back to being one of the best in the NFL. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer doesn’t get enough credit because o-line coaches only seem to be highlighted when the unit is struggling. They had issues with health and consistency and some moving parts last season but GM Les Snead made a bold move in the offseason in that he made no moves. Not with regards to the offensive line. The only moves they made were retaining Andrew Whitworth and Austin Blythe and those have worked out fantastically thus far. I bring this up first because I think that’s one of the main reasons the Rams swept the NFC East, along with the fact that the division might contain four of the five worst teams in football. By DVOA, they are four of the worst six. So what can we glean from those contests? I think they got the best effort that the Cowboys have given this season. I think they convincingly beat the Football Team and Eagles. And the 49ers did not seem like a bad team exposing another bad team. They looked like a good team and that would make sense given where San Francisco was at the start of 2020. Maybe the most concerning effort is the 35-32 loss to the Bills. Josh Allen hasn’t looked “MVP like” since beating LA and Buffalo managed to pull out to a 28-3 lead against the Rams. It was an exciting comeback effort, but ultimately they had to answer for why they fell behind so much and why the defense collapsed at the end after LA had taken the lead.
Beating the Bears and Dolphins in the next two weeks will make the positives from the first six games heavily outweigh those negatives against the Bills and 49ers.
WCG: Sean McVay somewhat famously used 11 personnel (1 TE, 1 RB, and 3 WRs) during the Super Bowl run more because it leveraged the talent on the squad, not because that was his schematic preference. Has that changed since the end of 2018 or should the Bears expect to see the familiar 3 receiver sets for most of the game?
TST: McVay has the offense playing a lot like it is 2018 and yes, you will see a lot of 11 personnel. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are the names you know, Josh Reynolds is the player you may know but he is not the same as Brandin Cooks, the player he is replacing. Reynolds had a nice 40-yard touchdown catch near the end of regulation against the 49ers. He’s been around the team for four years and McVay’s used him in the past when Woods or Kupp have been hurt. The team drafted Van Jefferson in the second round and he’s got the ceiling of a Cooks replacement but his playing time has dwindled to almost zero as the season goes on. There was not much variety against San Francisco in terms of rotating players in and out. Rookie running back Cam Akers only got one snap as the team stuck with Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are the tight ends but neither one of them has stood out as a consistent threat over the other, even though each has had high-impact games this season. McVay’s seen some of that 2018 success return as the Rams rank first in net yards per pass attempt on offense. They use a lot of play action but then we didn’t see much of it at all against the San Francisco, probably due to LA falling behind early. How McVay plans will depend on how the Rams and Bears play.
WCG: Everyone knows about 2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and almost-Bear DT Aaron Donald. He is again wreaking havoc in backfields across the league, but outside of Donald, how has this defense looked under former Bears assistant coach Brandon Staley? How are they attacking opposing offenses and who should Bears fans be most worried about on Monday?
TST: The Rams rank first in net yards per pass attempt allowed on defense also and it’s no mystery what works: Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Whoever the third-best player on LA’s defense is, he’s actually more like the seventh-best because Donald and Ramsey alone should take up the top six spots. They are monsters at their positions and Snead is banking the idea that the Rams will have a solid defense for another five years if for no other reason than they have Donald and Ramsey. One thing Staley is doing that’s been discussed a lot recently is putting Ramsey in the Star role, which allows him to freelance more and play against a team’s best offensive receiving weapon. Despite that hype, George Kittle buried Staley’s defense time after time and the same goes for Deebo Samuel because tackling has been an issue for many of the players not named Donald and Ramsey. The next tier after Donald and Ramsey might not include a Pro Bowl player, but it does not mean they aren’t important: Michael Brockers along the defensive line, John Johnson at safety and Darious Williams at cornerback could be the next best. I’m not including rookie safety Jordan Fuller only because he’s currently on injured reserve, but he was making a lot of big plays early in the season. Where the Rams biggest weakness lies is at linebacker because free agent signee Leonard Floyd, a former player of Staley’s with the Chicago Bears, is by far the most consistent and reliable player they have at the position and yet he has not made many standout plays. LA lost Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler Jr in free agency and the replacements haven’t been quite as reliable. I don’t want to short change inside linebacker Micah Kiser because he’s had his moments too, but unsurprisingly a player will make mistakes when he’s never played a snap on defense prior to this season. The 49ers are not the most talented offense but they overpowered the Rams on the edges and away from Donald and Ramsey and came away with a big lead. The good news is that teams have to gameplan around two elite players and that’s why the Rams have had some very strong defensive performances. The major concerns are the lack of a second consistent pass rusher outside of Donald and the inconsistent tackling.
WCG: The Rams backfield appeared to be a cluttered mess in the absence of former bell-cow Todd Gurley, with Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and rookie Cam Akers all trying to take the lead. Is the backfield split starting to clear up with a traditional starter, will it be more based on matchups, or is this a hot hand approach?
TST: I don’t want to say that the Rams will for sure go with Darrell Henderson only because Henderson has been the main ball carrier over the last four games, because Sean McVay is liable to use his second round pick again at some point, but Henderson would seem to be the player who gives him the most options when he’s on the field right now. But Brown and him get roughly the same number of snaps, though Brown can’t do as much as a runner as Henderson can. That being said, for some reason Brown has 14 targets in the last four weeks. The team has only gained 31 yards on those plays. Maybe the expectation is a lot of short first downs but one out of every five targets to him results in a first down. Akers only had one snap last week and yet the week before that he had the Rams longest run of the season. I think we will see more than one snap from Akers and yeah, if he’s playing well then McVay is probably going to keep him in there.
WCG: The Bears and Rams face-off for the third time in as many seasons. Both teams were SB contenders in 2018, missed the playoffs in 2019, and are off to strong starts in 2020. Does it seem like maybe this Bears-Rams series could be reviving into something resembling a rivalry (Bears-Rams goes all the way back to 1937!)? What are you hoping to learn about the Rams as they face the strongest defense to date on Monday?
TST: I think McVay wants to be able to successfully run against the Bears and they have played one better run defense than Chicago’s: the San Francisco 49ers. In that case, the Rams didn’t do a bad job of rushing the football (Henderson had 88 yards on 14 carries), they did a terrible job of passing the football. Lots of missed passes, dropped passes, questionable play calls (not that I am an expert but surely McVay and OC Kevin O’Connell would do things differently) and then when the game is 21-6, it changes things a bit. I think everyone believes that Jared Goff is going to play better than he did last week and I would say that is accurate. It is logical that a player would do better after his worst game of his season, just like it is logical that he would do worse after his best game of the season. That being said, the game plan is and will continue to be to run the ball successfully and let the passing go from there. The Rams seemed to like running play action all season long, then abandoned the notion against the 49ers. It would be great for me to see Henderson, Akers team up like one of the NFL’s best running back duos and make life easier for Goff, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.
Thank you to Kenneth and Turf Show Times for the knowledge!