Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay might be one of the offensive minds in the NFL. However, McVay tends to draw comparisons to a former Rams head coach – Mike Martz. The logic behind the comparisons? Both coaches were very mad scientists from an offensive design standpoint. With that said, both coaches tend to stray away from the run game maybe sooner than they should.
The Rams offense ranks sixth in the NFL. However, they rank just 24th in rush yards per game. The Buccaneers and Steelers are the only teams ranked lower that still have a winning record. In terms of pure yards, winning teams typically run the ball when they’re ahead and therefore have higher rushing numbers. That’s not the case with the Rams in 2021 despite being 7-3.
From a DVOA standpoint, the Rams offense ranks second and their run offense ranks ninth. The rushing offense ranks inside the top-10, but is performing nearly 5% worse than last year’s No. 4 ranking.
Watching the Rams offense, it’s clear that they lack an identity. That identity could return with some form of a run game. As Jourdan Rodrigue detailed in The Athletic, the question isn’t necessarily if the Rams want to run the ball, but can they?
The Rams are averaging 4.03 yards per carry behind Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel (No. 23 in the NFL) and they are also averaging only 2.29 yards after first-contact, according to TruMedia, which is No. 29 in the NFL. They’re doing this despite only facing eight or more box defenders on 25.1 percent of snaps, which is the second-lowest in the league, and their successful rush-play rate is just 39 percent.
In fact, 21 percent of their rush plays have amassed zero or negative yards, which is 25th-worst in the league. So, they’re seeing “loaded” boxes against the run far less frequently than almost any other team in the NFL, and still rank among the worst in rush production. Part of this may be because Henderson has been dealing with a variety of injuries since training camp, and it’s hard to build a rush plan around a player who isn’t staying on the field consistently even series-over-series, at times.
Are the Running Backs The Issue?
Coming into the season, a big deal was made about Matthew Stafford’s 100-yard rushers. In Detroit, the Lions have had 11 100-yard rushing games with Stafford at quarterback. This season through ten games, the Los Angeles Rams have had zero. This season, the Rams are one of 11 teams without a 100-yard rusher. The other teams? Of those teams, only the Ravens, Bills, and Buccaneers have winning records.
There is not doubt that losing Cam Akers at the beginning of the season had an effect on the offense. Akers finished the season on a high note, rushing for 221 yards in the playoffs. His 171 yard game against a bad Patriots run defense also stood out.
Still, Henderson has performed well in Akers’ place. Henderson has played 60% of the Rams’ offensive snaps in every game this season and has 60% of the team’s rushing attempts. This is very similar to Akers’ usage at the end of last season when he played at least 60% of the team’s offensive snaps from Week 12 on. The difference is that Akers was a workhorse while Henderson hasn’t necessarily been that.
Still, Henderson has performed well in his opportunities. Despite not having a 100-yard game, Henderson ranks 10th among running back in rushing yards with 593 yards. This puts him just 31 yards shy of last season’s total. Henderson also ranks seventh in the NFL in yards per attempt among running backs with at least 100 carries.
From a yardage standpoint, Henderson has performed admirably in Akers’ absence. It’s not as if a majority of these yards came in one game either. Henderson has been very consistent.
Henderson also measures well in DVOA metrics. In DYAR, Henderson ranks fifth in the NFL. DYAR gives the value of the performance on plays where this running back carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level. Henderson also ranks ninth in effective yards and third in success rate. In terms of EPA, Henderson also ranks inside the top-10 at No. 8 with an expected points added of -.02.
With top-10 running back numbers, this does beg the question, why aren’t the Los Angeles Rams running the ball more? We’ll get to this later, but it is a question worth asking.
As Rodrigue mentions, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Henderson. The Rams running back ranks 20th in rush yards over expected with -0.26. The Rams running backs have been struggling after first contact and have been responsible for too many negative plays.
Part of the equation is Sony Michel who the Los Angeles Rams traded for at the beginning of the season. The Rams traded a fourth round pick for Michel and for the most part, he’s been a disappointment. It starts with the fumble against Arizona that changed the game, but goes a lot deeper than that.
Michel has an EPA of -0.18 which ranks 40th out of 42 eligible running backs. Michel is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and his -0.39 rush yards over expected per attempt ranks 38th out of 48 running backs. Despite trading for Michel, it seems as if the Rams are missing an effective 1-2 punch at running back.
Is it the Offensive Line an Issue?
There’s the saying in analytics that running backs don’t matter. This is why Mike Davis can fill in for Christian McCaffrey last season and earn a contract with the Falcons. It’s why the Jaguars can sign James Robinson as an undrafted free agent or the Saints can find Alvin Kamara in the third round.
Najee Harris is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL, but he’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry behind the Steelers offensive line.
The point is, the success of running backs is very dependent on the situation around them. The offensive line needs to block, they need to be in the right scheme, and hopefully there’s a quarterback that can force defenses to play off the line of scrimmage to make room in the run game.
When it comes to running the football, the offensive line plays a huge role.
The issue is, it’s very difficult to measure offensive line play.
Football Outsiders however has a metric called Adjusted Line Yards. The Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on a series of percentages. In this stat, the Los Angeles Rams offensive line ranks fourth in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Rams rank 24th in open field yards. As Football Outsiders describes it, a team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in Open Field Yards is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work.
To put it simply, the Rams running game is heavily dependent on its offensive line. The Rams running backs aren’t creating on their own and when nothing is available, very little is happening in the run game.
Todd Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year with the offensive line creating 4.70. The Rams offensive line is creating 4.81 adjusted line yards through 10 games this season, but the difference is how the running backs perform in the open field.
Additionally, the Rams rank very well according to Pro Football Focus on the offensive line when it comes to run-blocking. Tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein both rank inside the top-25 while guards Austin Corbett and David Edwards each rank inside the top-30. At center, Brian Allen is the fifth best center when it comes to run-blocking. As a team, the Rams rank 11th in the NFL in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s pretty clear that the offensive line isn’t necessarily the issue in the run game. Despite ranking fourth in adjusted yards, Rams running backs are getting stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on 16% of carries which ranks 12th. The Los Angeles Rams have running backs who are unable to create on their own. Henderson has an elusive rating via PFF of 35.8. This ranks 48th out of 50 running backs. Henderson’s 2.54 yards after contact per attempt also ranks 42nd.
This is where Cam Akers is severely missed.
Is it the Play-Calling?
When it comes to running and throwing the football, the Los Angeles Rams are very 60-40. They throw the ball 60.2% of the time and run the ball 39.8%. In the NFL, the Chicago Bears rank first in the NFL, running the ball at a clip of 51.3% while the Buccaneers are 32nd at 33.6%.
When the Rams have faith in their quarterback like the Buccaneers, Chiefs, and Chargers do, throwing the ball sometimes makes more sense. All three of those teams rank in the bottom-10 in run-percentage.
With that said, running the football doesn’t necessarily equate to winning football games. Rams fans can complain about not running the football, but you can’t be happy with 50-50 for the sake of being 50-50. It’s much more complex than that. When McVay talks about game flow, that absolutely is a thing.
Game flow and rhythm have been a huge problem in the last two games. When the Rams have tried to run the ball after trailing, a negative play has pushed the offense behind the sticks. If it weren’t obvious, it’s almost impossible to run the ball behind the sticks and put the offense in a good situation. This is especially the case when, as discussed earlier, the Rams don’t have running backs who create on their own.
Trailing 3-0 against the Titans, Darrell Henderson took and handoff for five yards to set up 2nd-and-5. Instead, a holding penalty turned that into a 1st-and-15. A run on 1st-and-15 likely forces a second and long and sets up 2nd-and-11 or 2nd-and-12. That doesn’t do a lot for an offense. McVay called three passes and the offense punted three plays later.
The offense in this situation had a manageable second down where they could open the playbook. That’s not the case on 1st-and-15. 1st-and-15 limits the offense and what McVay can call.
Trailing 7-0 against the San Francisco 49ers, McVay called a handoff to Henderson who ran for six yards. A holding penalty turned a 2nd-and-4 into 1st-and-19. Two plays later, Stafford threw and interception. Again, what’s the alternative on 1st-and-19? Do you run to set up 2nd-and-15? A completed pass set up 2nd-and-11. Should a run be called on 2nd-and-11 to set up 3rd-and-8? Again, it’s very hard to run the ball when the offense is behind the sticks due to penalties.
There are times when trailing that the Los Angeles Rams could do a better job of running the football. However, when teams are down 14-0 or 14-3, they throw the ball to catch up. Contrarily, teams run the ball when leading to drain the clock. This doesn’t mean that the Rams and McVay should pass 100% of the time when trailing, but the ratio is going to be different. Trailing 14-0, it’s not going to be 50-50, nor should it be.
Again, this doesn’t mean that McVay can’t be better. He absolutely needs to be better. On 2nd-and-8 two plays after Henderson had a 10-yard run against the 49ers, there’s no reason to call deep shot that led to an interception. Henderson should have gotten another carry on that opening drive.
Game flow and situation needs to be taken into account. Later in the game trailing 21-7, Henderson had a four yard carry that set up 2nd-and-6 from the 15 yard line. A false start turned it into 2nd-and-11. Another negative play made it 3rd-and-13. The Rams finished the drive with no points after a failed fake field goal. But it goes back to the negative play that put the Rams behind the sticks.
When looking at the overall numbers, the Rams are actually pretty balanced. On 1st-and-long (8-10 yards), the Rams throw the ball 52% of the time and run 48%. That’s almost 50-50. Moving to the next scenario of 2nd-and-medium (4-7 yards), the Rams are 55-45 in favor of the pass. On 2nd-and-long (8-10 yards), the Rams are 79-21. This season, the Rams have the more 2nd-and-long plays than any other situation on second down.
Third down is much what you’d expect. On 3rd-and-short (1-3 yards), McVay is actually very balanced. The Rams throw the ball 51% of the time in this situation and run 49%. That number obviously jumps on 3rd-and-medium and 3rd-and-long due to the situation. In those situations, the Rams are 80%+ pass.
Comparing this to a team like the Packers that run the ball four percent more, generally speaking it’s pretty close with some minor differences. Keep in mind, these are two teams that generally run the same offense, but a different play-caller.
The Los Angeles Rams are 52-48 on 1st-and-long while the Packers are 46-54. In the next situation on 2nd-and-medium, both teams are nearly identical with a 55-45 ratio. However, the Packers do run the ball more in 2nd-and-long situations. On 2nd-and-long, the Rams are almost 80-20 and mentioned above. However, the Packers are closer to 70-30. It’s in these situations that McVay could potentially run the ball more. With that said, there’s a big difference in having Aaron Jones and Darrell Henderson.
Again, on third-and-short, both teams are nearly identical with the Packers running the ball a whopping 1% more. McVay actually calls more runs on 3rd-and-medium and 3rd-and-long as the Packers are above 90% pass in those situations whereas McVay was between 84-88%.
Play-calling on second and long could be better, but overall, it’s pretty close to a team that runs a very similar offense.
There is a lot of different factors when it comes to the run game. It’s not as simple as the Los Angeles Rams need to run the ball more. A lot of context is involved based on the situation. Overall, Henderson has good numbers. From a yards and analytics standpoint, he’s a top-10 running back.
However, with how thin the Rams are at the position and Henderson’s durability concerns, it doesn’t make sense for McVay to risk injury at that spot. This is especially true with how valuable Henderson is in pass protection.
The Los Angeles Rams gave up a fourth round pick for Sony Michel and it might be a move that the Rams end up regretting despite it only being a fourth round pick. Michel hasn’t added a lot to the run game. The Rams have two running backs who are severely dependent on the blocking in from of them. This limits the effectiveness of the run game when running backs are only taking what’s there and not able to get more.
The offensive line for the most part is doing its job. They need to limit penalties that put the Rams behind the sticks. However, they’re creating yards in the run game which is all you can ask for.
From a play-calling standpoint, McVay is balanced in areas and similar to other offenses that run the same things that the Rams do. McVay could run more in some situations, but the Rams are far from the most unbalanced team in the NFL.
The loss of Cam Akers is very noticeable. It’ll be interesting what the run game looks like next season when it’s Akers leading the charge and Henderson playing more of the third down role. That’s how the offense was designed. Akers carried the ball 20 or more times on four occasions last season. Henderson has one such game this year.
With Akers, the run game could certainly see more consistency.
Until then, the Los Angeles Rams are 7-3 and will need to adjust on the fly. That starts on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.