The Rams spent much of the first five weeks of the NFL season crossing the country and beating up on teams from the NFC East.
Now the real test begins.
The Rams play their first NFC West game on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
“Every game counts the same, but these ones always count a little bit more,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff said, “and you're always looking forward to them a little bit more.”
Through nearly a third of the season, the NFC West — with a nod to the AFC North — is arguably the league’s strongest division.
The Seattle Seahawks are the only team in the NFL with a 5-0 record. The Rams are 4-1, the Arizona Cardinals 3-2 and the injury-riddled 49ers are 2-3.
The Rams are coming off a 30-10 victory over Washington, a victory that featured another diversified performance by the offense and an eight-sack onslaught by the defense.
The 49ers lost their opener against the vastly improved Cardinals, and then defeated the woeful New York Jets and New York Giants before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dolphins.
“We know they’re a good team, obviously,” Rams receiver Robert Woods said, “A Super Bowl-caliber type team.”
In February, the 49ers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in Miami. They appear to be experiencing a similar post-Super Bowl malaise that afflicted the Rams in 2019.
But 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said the notion of a Super Bowl hangover “has no correlation with anything” having to do with this season. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Tevin Coleman, defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford and cornerback Richard Sherman are among the key players who have been sidelined for games because of injuries.
“We're trying to figure out our team now,” Shanahan said, “and battle through a number of injuries.”
McVay was an offensive assistant and then tight ends coach for Washington from 2010-13 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. McVay reiterated this week that much of the scheme that has made the Rams’ offense successful is a byproduct of his time working with Shanahan.
“I'd be lying if I said a lot of this stuff that we're doing has not been heavily influenced from what I learned when I worked for Kyle,” McVay said.
This season, McVay has incorporated the running-back-by-committee system that fueled the 49ers’ offense in 2019, when Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida provided a solid rushing attack that enabled Garoppolo to flourish.
Rams rookie Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown are doing similarly well for an offense that ranks seventh in rushing, averaging 139.6 yards per game.
“They have three guys who all are running hard, hitting the right holes and not messing around,” Shanahan said. “It really doesn't matter which one's in there, because they're all very good runners and they know what they're doing from a schematic standpoint and the O-line is doing a good job of keeping everybody in the line of scrimmage."
Woods said the running backs are wearing down defenses.
“They’re all punishing you at the end of the run,” Woods said, “and I think that takes a toll on the defense, having to hit a guy who’s coming on fresh, who’s running fast and running hard.”
The advantage of keeping backs fresh was evident during Sunday’s victory at Washington, Goff said. He noted Akers’ 46-yard run with less than six minutes left.
“That's when you kind of see it as a real impact,” Goff said.
A Bay Area trip annually serves as a homecoming for Goff, a Marin County native. But because of COVID-19 protocols, the usual crowd of family and friends will not be able to be on hand.
Goff still looks forward to helping the Rams get off to another fast start. In all four Rams’ victories, Goff led touchdown drives in the first possession.
“We run some of our best stuff in that first drive,” Goff said. “You know, we obviously have some stuff that we want to get up throughout the game and set things up certain ways.
“But a lot of times in that first drive is some of our best runs, our best play actions, our best keepers, our best screens. It's a mix and match of some of the stuff that we really have loved throughout the week. It's always good to start fast and something that we put an emphasis on.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.