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- American football coach
When the Los Angeles Rams traded quarterback Jared Goff, first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, and a 2022 third-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford in March, it did two things. It continued the team’s practice of giving up high draft picks for premier talent, and it moved the franchise’s quarterback position from good to great, at least in the abstract. Throughout his career in Detroit, the first-overall pick in the 2009 draft (Stafford) had shown the ability to do more things consistently at a much higher level than the first-overall pick in the 2016 draft (Goff) had ever displayed. The idea was that Stafford would become the perfect interpreter of head coach and offensive shot-caller Sean McVay’s system, and that this costly transaction would pay immediate dividends.
Basically, and not for the first time, the Rams of McVay and general manager Les Snead were saying, Super Bowl or Bust.
“The way he’s able to see the field, you see [Aaron] Rodgers, [Patrick] Mahomes — [who] have done an outstanding job of being able to move and manipulate coverage and change their arm slots, and Matthew has done a lot of those same things,” McVay said of Stafford around the time the trade was consummated. “I think he’s got great wide-field vision, sees the field. He’s able to speed it up if he has issues. You’re watching a guy that if you watch the film, the game makes sense to him, and I really respect the lens that he sees it through.”
How has it gone so far? Right now, the 12-4 Rams are the NFC’s second seed, and they can win their first NFC West title since 2018 this weekend (which was also the last time the Rams went to the Super Bowl). They’ve won five straight games, and they look for all the world to be one of those teams you just don’t want to face right now.
Beneath the water, however, there be icebergs. The run game has taken a nice upward turn with Sony Michel and Cam Akers, and the defense has been top-five all season. But the Rams have fallen from second to 16tn in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency metrics in the second half of the season, and from third to 20th in the passing game. Not how you want to enter the tournament.
Stafford has been the primary issue of late.
In the first half of the 2021 season — Weeks 1-9 — Stafford was the NFL’s most efficient quarterback. He completed 219 of 321 passes (68.2%) for 2,771 yards (8.6 YPA) for 23 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a league-best passer rating of 111.0. But from Week 10 through the Ravens game last Sunday, Stafford’s numbers have fallen off several cliffs — he’s completed 164 of 248 passes (66.1%) for 1,877 yards (7.6 YPA), 15 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating of 93.8, which ranks ninth.
Stafford’s last three games are of specific concern, though the Rams won each of those contests against the Seahawks, Vikings, and Ravens. From Weeks 15-17, he completed 68 of 101 passes (68.3%) for 750 yards (7.4 YPA), five touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 80.9. Those six interceptions tie him with Mike Glennon of the Giants for the league lead, and anytime you’re in a statistical barrel with Mike Glennon, that ain’t good.
OMG AND THEN HIS NEXT PASS ATTEMPT IS THE TRIPLE COVERED INTERCEPTION
WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM MATTHEW
— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) January 5, 2022
We’ll get into the detail of what happened there in a minute. The Rams won the game, 20-19, but the concerns over Stafford’s recent performance have not evaporated at all.
“I think there are some things that we need to get better at,” McVay said of Stafford’s overall performance after the Ravens game. “And he would be the first person to tell you that. I thought he was at his best when his best was required. We talk about competitive greatness all the time, and there are a few things about that. Are we giving him clarity to what we’re really looking for in certain instances? But, he’s just a mentally-tough guy. And that’s just what you want from your quarterback. Those will be things we’ll learn from. [I] don’t know if you’ve talked to him yet, but when you talk to him, he’ll be the first one to take ownership. I love this guy so much. I feel I can certainly help him in putting him in some better spots, but when we had to have it, and the defense made a stop, he made big throw after big throw in clutch situations. That’s what the great players do.”
McVay’s question about giving Stafford the clarity to do what the Rams want to do in the passing game is a legitimate one. No matter how fabulous a quarterback is, and no matter how amazing a system is, it takes time for two great tastes to taste great together. We saw this with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians in Brady’s first year in Tampa, and we’re seeing it now with Stafford’s time in L.A.
Defenses are jumping all over Stafford's first reads.
(Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports_
Stafford’s situational metrics this season are fascinating. Per Sports Info Solutions, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions on three-step drops. Everything else is kind of a disaster. He’s thrown one touchdown and three picks on 0/1-step drops, eight touchdowns and four interceptions on five-step drops, and three touchdowns to three interceptions on seven-step drops.
Based on the tape, the conclusion you come to pretty quickly is that the short-drop problems arise from defenses waiting impatiently to jump on the Rams’ quick routes (and Stafford’s first reads), and the longer stuff falls apart when Stafford tries to make throws both inside and outside of structure that he really shouldn’t.
Let’s start with the short stuff, and why defenses feel so comfortable sitting on Stafford’s first reads. This has been an unfortunately essential element in Stafford’s high rate of pick-sixes, and we can start with the interception Stafford threw to Titans safety Kevin Byard in Week 9. Stafford was trying to hit receiver Robert Woods on a quick out, but Byard knew exactly how to read it off the short drop, and jump the route for the touchdown.
Ravens safety Chuck Clark’s pick-six against Stafford last Sunday was very similar in defensive reaction — Stafford with the quick drop and throw, and the opposing defense knowing just how to counter.
“It was a really good play by 36 [Clark], one I wish I could have seen and just ‘dirted’ it,” Stafford said. “To be honest with you, that’s covered, but he made a great play and obviously went in to score.”
Clark’s recount of the play was far more interesting — it proved that opponents are reading Stafford’s short drops and passes, ready to bring less than ideal results to the offense.
“It was just something that I’d seen on film, individually, this week, and I kind of have that same play in practice, and I had a collision with somebody,” Clark said. “But I’d just seen it again in the game, and [I said,] ‘I’ve got to make this one.’ Like I said earlier, in all phases, you’ve got to be able to do your part. So, I guess that was my part to do something.”
Clark did something — twice in the game — and the Rams were left with the need to do something else.
Stafford's results on deep/long-developing passes are inconclusive at best.
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
This season, per Pro Football Focus, only Trevor Lawrence and Josh Allen (13 each) have more interceptions on passes with 2.5 seconds or longer in the pocket than Stafford’s 11, and here, you’re dealing with two rookie quarterbacks in Lawrence and Wilson who are in iffy offenses with less than stellar targets, and a veteran in Allen who has his own risk/reward profile — not to mention the fact that the Bills are basically running their entire offense through their quarterback.
McVay’s offense is more balanced, especially in the second half of the season, when running back Sony Michel has become a force multiplier. The results have not been more balanced for the Rams. Allen has thrown 20 touchdown passes this season on longer-developing plays; Stafford has thrown 18. There has been an uptick in efficiency on longer-developing plays for Stafford in the second half of the season as he’s thrown seven touchdown passes to just three of those picks since Week 10, but it’s still a problem.
Similarly, Stafford has been far from ideal on passes of 20 or more air yards — and that’s not good at all when one of the primary reasons the Rams gave up so much to get him was the promise of his arm talent. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t an issue for Stafford with the Lions in 2020 — then, he completed 28 of 67 deep passes for 936 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 123.8 — only Kyler Murray (128.9) had a higher passer rating on such throws among quarterbacks who threw deep with some consistency.
This season, it’s a different story with one particular line item. Stafford has completed 28 of 62 deep passes in 2021 for 1,172 yards and seven touchdowns — very similar to 2020 there. The difference, and it’s all the difference, is in the five deep interceptions. That’s where you get the drop in deep passer rating to 95.8.
Remember the interception against the Ravens Mr. Galina referred to earlier? Here it is, and it’s not good. Stafford was targeting Beckham deep, and he was so fixated on that, he missed Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson coming open on the crossers, and he seemed oblivious to Baltimore’s secondary aligning three defenders deep in Beckham’s area.
I first wrote about Stafford’s deep ball issues in October, and there hasn’t been a lot of positive change in that department.
Stafford isn't always seeing what he needs to see.
(Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)
Go back to this McVay quote after the Ravens game, because it’s important.
“Are we giving him clarity to what we’re really looking for in certain instances?”
I don’t know who’s responsible for the route and timing miscommunications, but they’re obviously there, and they happen too often.
On this early incompletion to Sony Michel, Stafford had Cooper Kupp to his front side, and possibly Van Jefferson over the middle if he’d thrown to those targets earlier in the down. Instead, the result was a needlessly busted play.
And on this deep crosser to Jefferson, Stafford missed on the timing of the throw, making things tougher for his target than it should have been. Stafford isn’t generally a “see it and throw it” guy — he can throw with anticipation — but this attribute has been curiously absent from his 2021 season far too often.
The Rams REALLY miss Robert Woods.
(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)
Unquestionably the worst part of the Rams’ 28-16 loss to the Titans in Week 9 was the loss of Woods for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL. Woods was the team’s best blocking receiver, and an easy-open target for Stafford when he needed it. Woods added a great deal of efficiency and explosiveness to the Rams’ passing game, and that’s become even more evident in his absence.
Per Sports Info Solutions, with Woods on the field this season, the Rams had an offensive EPA of 0.12. Without Woods? -0.03. The passing EPA with Woods was 0.22 Without him, it’s been 0.01 Stafford’s yards per attempt has gone from 8.5 to 7.6 without Woods. His touchdown rate has dropped from 7.5% to 5.6%, and his interception rate has jumped from 2.0% to 3.7%.
Per Football Outsiders, the Rams’ offensive passing DVOA has plummeted from third to 20th since Week 10 without Woods, and the team’s overall offensive DVOA has gone from second to 16th. A passing attack that was the NFL’s third-best in efficiency, adjusted for opponent behind the Buccaneers and Cardinals, is below league-average without Woods, and an overall offense that trailed only the Bucs is now right in the middle of the pack.
The Rams were able to pick up Odell Beckham Jr. to replace Woods after the injury, but that addition has been a relative subtraction.
Why was Woods so important to Stafford and to this offense overall? There are all kinds of reasons, but the primary might be Woods’ ability to get open in the timing of the down, and to Stafford’s advantage. This 22-yard reception against the Titans was an optimal example. Woods was the outside front-side receiver in an empty 3×2 set, and he burned coverage on a deep comeback to give Stafford the optimal opening as the quarterback was stepping up in the pocket.
Kupp can also do these things, which is one reason he’s on his way to set NFL single-season marks in receptions and receiving yards, but Woods added an element of explosiveness and formation diversity (he was the team’s most dangerous receiver in the jet sweep game), and Beckham has not been an equivalent threat in any category.
The timing of routes in the down is a crucial part of this equation, because there are still far too many instances in which Stafford isn’t timing his drops and throws with the routes McVay has designed.
How can Sean McVay fix this?
(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
McVay was asked after the Ravens game what he can do to help Stafford play more consistently.
“Here’s what I would say: the quarterback position gets so much attention, but what we don’t end up talking about is all the great plays he made in the drive that ended up winning the game for us. That says to me how much of a leader he is. Now, do we want to avoid some of those negative plays? Sure. But like I’ve said over and over again, it’s not only the quarterback. I didn’t like the play call versus the split safety zone they were playing. And then on the second interception, we did a quick snap and, in that situation, sometimes you take away the quarterback’s ability to see the field as well as he does in a more settled situation. So, there’s give and take. But I’m thinking about all the great plays that he made in dire situations that helped us win the game.”
Creating more “settled situations” would be good. Stafford is playing both too quickly and too slowly in the passing game as it’s currently constructed, but when he has schemed-open receivers, he has also shown the ability to use his arm to overcome certain diagnostic issues. Settling Stafford into the timing of the down might not happen this season, so it’s then up to McVay to create as many obvious targets for Stafford as he possibly can.
Stafford’s two touchdown passes against the Ravens provided encouraging options. The first touchdown came to Kupp with 55 seconds in the first half, and it came off a McVay staple.
— James Light (@JamesALight) January 7, 2022
On this concept, the idea is to give Stafford a clear look at the frontside slot receiver by having the frontside outside receiver run up to the boundary and clear coverage to that side. In this case, it worked perfectly.
Stafford’s second touchdown pass went to Beckham with 57 seconds left in the second half, and it was the game-winner. With Kupp motioning from right to left, and Stafford rolling left to right on a boot, tight end Tyler Higbee took coverage up top in the end zone, with Beckham left underneath. Again, you’re creating shorter openings with deeper tests for the defense.
There’s still time for the Rams to capitalize on what works, and for McVay to give Stafford the best opportunities to do what he can handle in a new offense (for him). McVay is right in that he has a better quarterback than he’s ever had before, but without a system that works for Stafford, none of that will matter — and as the air gets thinner in the postseason, the things that aren’t working will bring the Rams to bust, as opposed to Super Bowl.