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LOS ANGELES – At the end of a humbling 20-7 loss to San Francisco that seemed to signal a shift in the NFC West’s balance of power, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff stared out at a sea of reporters and raised an important question.
“It’s a gut check,” he admitted. “Are you who you say you are?”
For the past three weeks, the Rams have looked nothing like the Super Bowl contenders they were expected to be. The longest losing streak of Sean McVay’s previously sterling tenure as head coach has left the reigning NFC champs in distant third place in their division and in jeopardy of becoming the latest team to miss the playoffs the year after falling in the Super Bowl.
It didn’t seem like too big a deal when the Rams dumped a home game against Tampa Bay two weeks ago after their defense no-showed. It was more concerning when Greg Zuerlein’s missed field goal doomed them to a narrow loss at division rival Seattle last week. Now the Rams are reeling after suffering a convincing home loss in a game pitting the NFC West’s preseason favorite against an undefeated upstart seeking to dethrone them.
San Francisco further validated its 5-0 start with a stifling defensive effort, limiting the Rams to 0-for-13 on third and fourth down and holding Goff to a career-low 78 yards through the air. The final score might have been even more one-sided had the 49ers not thrown an end-zone interception and failed to convert another first-and-goal chance into a touchdown.
“Was it a humbling day for us? Absolutely, but it’s something that we’re going to learn from,” McVay said. “We’re not going to let it demoralize us. That’s a good football team, they did a nice job, we didn’t do enough collectively.”
The knee-jerk reaction to the Rams’ recent woes is to blame Goff or to say that McVay has been figured out. In truth, the biggest problem is a revamped offensive line that so far has not been nearly good enough.
Whereas the Rams have enjoyed continuity on the offensive line in recent years, this past offseason they cut loose a pair of interior linemen with a combined 236 starts. The Rams also did not go outside the organization to replace center John Sullivan and guard Rodger Saffold, opting to gamble that young guys already on the roster could emerge as capable replacements.
The result has been a line that hasn’t consistently opened holes in the run game and hasn’t kept Goff upright long enough to connect downfield. Goff entered Sunday’s game having attempted the lowest percentage of 20-plus-yard passes among NFL starting quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Aware that their line was unlikely to hold up against a relentless 49ers pass rush that has made life miserable for quarterbacks this season, the Rams altered their game plan to mask their flaws. They emphasized running the ball, even with Todd Gurley sidelined with a thigh contusion. When they passed, it was typically something underneath, a screen or a dump-off to a tight end or running back.
It worked, at first. All seven of the Rams’ plays were runs on a promising 56-yard opening drive that ended with a Robert Woods end-around for an 8-yard touchdown.
Eventually the 49ers adjusted and the Rams had no response, especially after left guard Joe Noteboom exited with a first-half leg injury. Once the 49ers stuffed both Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson at the goal line during the second quarter, the Rams did not penetrate the red zone the rest of the game.
Too often the Rams found themselves in third-and-long, and McVay seldom showed much faith in his offensive line. Goff threw second-quarter screen passes to Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp that went nowhere on third-and-13 and third-and-21. On third-and-18 early in the third quarter, Goff handed off to Henderson for a loss of two yards.
At one point early in the fourth quarter, Goff had 27 passing yards. At that time, his vaunted trio of elite wide receivers had more combined rushing yards than they had through the air.
When a two-score deficit forced the Rams to get more aggressive, it became obvious why the game plan had been so timid for three quarters. Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead each recorded second-half sacks as Goff struggled in the face of constant pressure and McVay failed to introduce a scheme that could help him.
“We’ve got some injury stuff and we’re not playing well enough,” veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We’re in the hole trying to figure things out how to overcome those things. It’s something this team hasn’t done the past couple years. We’ve stayed really healthy. So it’s a new experience.”
While the Rams’ margin for error to stay in the NFC West race is diminishing rapidly, all hope is not lost for one of the NFL’s most talented teams.
One silver lining is that Sunday’s one-sided loss did not come against a mediocre opponent. The 49ers are the NFC’s lone unbeaten team for a reason and their front seven is going to make a lot of offensive lines look overmatched.
Another silver lining is the Rams’ upcoming schedule softens. They have a chance to get right against struggling Atlanta and winless Cincinnati before facing Pittsburgh.
A third silver lining for the Rams is that nobody in their locker room appears to be pointing fingers. Goff, Kupp and Woods each declined to place blame on any one unit and insisted they are confident a reversal of fortune is coming.
Are the Rams who we’ve said they are? Goff says they aren’t yet but they will be.
“We’ve got the players that we need and we’ve got the coaches that we need,” Goff said. “We just need to be better and haven’t been. Again, it’s myself included and everyone else on the offense. We will get it fixed and be better.”
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