After his usually dazzling Los Angeles Rams offense laid an egg against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Sean McVay didn't want his players to focus on one bad performance in an otherwise outstanding season.
He wanted them to focus on three bad performances.
As part of the Rams' offseason review, the coaching staff made the offense review and study three of their four losses from last season -- the loss to New England, and the early-December losses to the Bears and Eagles. The Rams' offense averaged 30.8 points in 2018 -- second only to the Chiefs -- but only 10.7 in those three losses. (Their other loss was a 45-35 loss to the Saints that, presumably, the defense had to rewatch a few times.)
"Just wanted to find different things they did that challenged us that other teams didn't do," wide receiver Robert Woods told me. "Just try and find as many little details that we could improve on to make our offense adaptable to beat anyone we play."
What did they find out? Glad you asked.
First and foremost, they couldn't run the ball on any of those teams, especially between the tackles. The Rams' 13 rushing attempts and 52 rushing yards against the Bears were both their lowest figures of the season. They had 18 rushing attempts in the Philly game and in the Super Bowl, tied for their second-lowest total of the season. Their 62 rushing yards against the Patriots were their second fewest of the season, and their 82 against the Eagles were their fifth fewest.
But where they really got bottled up was in the middle:
Rams' 2018 rushing up the middle (per ESPN Stats & Information research):
vs. Eagles: 2 carries, 11 yards
vs. Patriots: 3 carries, 12 yards
vs. Bears: 3 carries, 21 yards
Average over the other 16 games: 10 carries, 53 yards per game
Rams' 2018 rushing between the tackles:
vs. Eagles: 11 carries, 47 yards
vs. Patriots: 14 carries, 43 yards
vs. Bears: 10 carries, 52 yards
Average over the other 16 games: 21.5 carries, 106 yards per game
All of these games were late in the season, while star running back Todd Gurley was struggling through a knee injury. But the lesser-noticed issue was that backup running back Malcolm Brown had suffered a season-ending injury in the Rams' Week 13 victory in Detroit. The losses to the Bears and Eagles came in Weeks 14 and 15. The team didn't sign C.J. Anderson until right before its Week 16 game against Arizona.
"Malcolm was a bigger loss than a lot of people on the outside realized," Woods said.
In their first game of this season, the Rams went to Carolina and used plenty of Gurley and Brown. Gurley had 14 carries for 97 yards -- including a whopping eight for 64 in the fourth quarter while the Rams were preserving a lead. Brown had 11 carries for 53 yards and two touchdowns. The Rams more or less alternated drives with those backs for the first three quarters, and after the game McVay said the plan probably would change depending on the game and circumstances, but he obviously liked the way it worked out Sunday.
Oh, and the Rams on Sunday had 10 carries for 52 yards up the middle and 18 carries for 120 yards between the tackles. Their 6.7 yards per carry between the tackles was second in Week 1 only to the New York Saquon Barkleys.
The converse of the running-game struggles is that the Rams had to drop back to pass a lot more in those games than they would like to. Their 57 dropbacks against the Eagles represented their highest total in any of their 19 games last season, and their 49 dropbacks against the Bears their third highest. And they were tied at halftime in both of those games, so it's not as if they were way behind early and forced out of their game plans. They went away from the running game because it just wasn't working.
In the Super Bowl, the Rams had 41 dropbacks, which was their eighth-highest total of the season. (Their 60 offensive snaps in that game were their third fewest of the season.)
They did not, unfortunately, find much of a pattern in their opponents' pressure rates. The Bears pressured Jared Goff on 18 of 49 dropbacks -- the highest number of pressures Goff endured in any game last season -- in spite of sending four or fewer pass-rushers on 42 of the Rams' 61 offensive snaps. Only the Eagles (45) used four or fewer pass-rushers more against the Rams in 2018, and the Rams had 74 snaps in the Eagles game compared with just 61 in the Bears game. The Bears sent an extra rusher only seven times. The Eagles blitzed 11 times. The Patriots in the Super Bowl sent five or more pass-rushers 17 times, tied for the most the Rams saw in any game.
"Balance," Woods said when I asked what was the key takeaway. "Those teams took away the run and got us out of who we are."
With Gurley looking healthier (at least so far), Brown back and rookie Darrell Henderson in the fold, the Rams think they can apply the lessons of those three rough losses and be even better in 2019.
Here are a few other NFL questions on my mind as Week 2 gets underway:
Will Antonio Brown play Sunday?
This is not cut-and-dried, according to the conversations I've had over the past couple of days with NFL and NFLPA sources. The league could put Brown on the commissioner's exempt list while it investigates the rape allegations in the lawsuit Brown's former trainer, Britney Taylor, filed against him this week. But if that happened, Brown and the NFL Players Association could very well push back. (Sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Friday morning that the NFL will not place Brown on the exempt list at this point.)
The commissioner's exempt list is basically paid leave, which isn't necessarily viewed that way by a player who wants (a) to play and (b) to know how long his suspension is going to last. The NFLPA hasn't been thrilled in the past about the league putting players on the exempt list indefinitely while it investigates possible misconduct. And in most of the high-profile commissioner's exempt list cases in recent memory -- Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown and Kareem Hunt -- there has been some element of hard evidence. An arrest, a police report, a video, an admission of guilt -- something. None of those is present in this case at this time, as far as we know.
With Taylor not scheduled to meet with NFL investigators until next week, it's possible the league won't have anything on which to base an investigation other than Taylor's lawsuit until after the Patriots-Dolphins game has been played. Which means it's entirely possible Brown plays Sunday.
The Patriots could make him one of their seven inactive players for the game, should they decide it's best to keep him off the field until more is known about the case. But Brown's football-related conduct during his time in Oakland proved that he's not a person who reacts well to being told he can't do something. At this point, if the league and/or the team want Brown to miss Sunday's game, they're probably going to need Brown to agree that it's the best thing to do at this point.
Sources to whom I've spoken the past two days say they don't know yet whether he'll be on the field in Miami, and it's not clear what has to happen before that decision gets made one way or the other.
What was the rush for the Chiefs to sign Tyreek Hill?
The Chiefs didn't exactly trumpet this one, did they? They announced his new deal last Friday, with Brown dominating the news cycle, and didn't make Hill available to address it. No celebratory news conference or anything close to it. And given all of the off-field controversy that followed Hill into the league and flared up again this past year, you can understand why they might not want to make a big deal of rewarding him with a big new contract. Many people around the league were surprised they did it at all.
But a look at the deal itself reveals that the likely reason the Chiefs extended Hill now was that he made them an offer they couldn't refuse. The deal was initially reported as a three-year, $54 million extension. And while it did add three years to his existing contract and includes $54 million in new money, it's important to realize that he was scheduled to make $2 million this year, so the Chiefs are really paying him $56 million over the next four years -- an average of $14 million a year -- not $18 million a year. That's something of a bargain price for a receiver as great as Hill, who was injured Sunday and will sit out a few games.
Look at the structure of the contract, and it's even better for the Chiefs. Hill's deal includes $35.3605 million in injury guarantees, but only $18.34 million of that is fully guaranteed at signing. He gets a $5.8 million signing bonus and a fully guaranteed $720,000 salary (plus a $9,500 workout bonus) this year. He gets a fully guaranteed $820,000 salary and $11 million roster bonus in 2020. The 2020 portion of the deal also includes a total of $4.2 million in per-game roster bonuses ($262,500 per game) that are guaranteed against injury, as well as a $180,000 workout bonus.
So if Hill shows up for all of his required workouts and isn't a healthy scratch for any game in 2020, he'll earn $22,729,500 over the next two years. After that, the team is basically year-to-year with him. He has $12,718,500 in injury guarantees in 2021, and 2022 is a team option. So the deal has to be about only $11.4 million a year for two years or $11.8 million a year for three before they have to decide on major money for 2022. Lots of flexibility for the Chiefs on this one, even before you get to the more-or-less standard language that would allow them to void his guarantees if he gets into any more off-field trouble.
What's new about the Cowboys' offense?
Even though new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore apprenticed under Scott Linehan, the Cowboys believed Moore's offense would look different in many ways. "Otherwise," one Cowboys official told me this summer, "we wouldn't have made the change."
If you watched Dallas beat the Giants on Sunday you saw some wrinkles -- some run-pass option (RPO) stuff, a lot more play-action passing and pre-snap motion than they featured under Linehan. But talking to people around that team, the thing they're happiest about is the way Moore and coach Jason Garrett have worked to "marry" their pre-snap run and pass looks this season.
"We got into a little bit of wanting to grow organically with Dak [Prescott] and Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott], and the result was, when we ran, it looked like we were going to run, and when we threw, it looked like we were going to throw," one Cowboys official told me this week. "Now, it's disguised a little better and we're able to do a lot more out of a lot of different formations."
Which surprise Week 1 fantasy performer is most likely to keep it up?
It's Lions rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson. I had a conversation with a member of the Detroit's coaching staff before Week 1 and asked whether Hockenson was in line to be a contributor in the passing game right away.
"Oh, yeah," the answer came. "The quarterback [Matthew Stafford] loves throwing to him. They just have a great rapport and he trusts him. So he's an explosive playmaker and a great athlete and he's already a big part of what we want to do."
If Hockenson's still on your waiver wire, go get him. He could buck the usual trend of rookie tight ends who struggle to produce in fantasy.
Who's a sleeper pick to watch for Defensive Rookie of the Year?
I didn't see every game last week, but I covered Rams-Panthers and couldn't take my eyes off Panthers pass-rusher Brian Burns. He got the start in his NFL debut due to the absence of an injured Bruce Irvin, and his speed and explosiveness were evident.
He didn't get a sack -- he got his first on Thursday Night Football last night -- but he had a couple of hits on Jared Goff and a big tackle of Robert Woods in the backfield while playing 41 defensive snaps. He also got close enough to blocking a Johnny Hekker punt that the Rams' veteran shanked the thing and it ended up as a 7-yard punt.
It was impossible not to notice Burns, and while he's obviously raw, you can see why the Panthers used the No. 16 overall pick on him.
"Speed," Panthers GM Marty Hurney told me. "Speed, athleticism, and the thing that really impressed us most was his change of direction -- his ability to really change direction on a dime as a guy coming into the league. That's a tough thing to teach."