Just one season ago, the Rams seemed destined for a path much different from the one they’re on now. They closed out the season on a seven-game losing streak, all started by rookie quarterback Jared Goff. In search of their next head coach after firing Jeff Fisher. Ironically, it was after the game against the Falcons, the team they will host in the wild card round. Todd Gurley was one of only two running backs to rush at least 225 times without gaining 1,000 yards. Melvin Gordon was the other, finishing only three yards away from the mark. Not to mention they finished dead last in points per game at 14.0.
Fast forward one year. Rams are hosting a wild card playoff game at home as the three seed. Averaging 15.9 more points per game for the league lead of 29.9. Goff owns the sixth highest passer rating at 100.5. And it would appear that head coach Sean McVay has all but wrapped the head coach of the year award. Now, a date with the reigning NFC champs awaits them in the first round. For the first time in a long time, let us preview a Rams wild card playoff game.
Los Angeles Rams Offense vs. Atlanta Falcons Defense
Rams Run Game
Atlanta is allowing 104.1 rush yards per game, ninth best in the league, but nothing new to Todd Gurley. Three of the final four games Gurley played he faced top-six run defenses in terms of yards allowed per game. This included the number one run defense in the Philadelphia Eagles. In those games, he carried the ball 54 times for 288 yards and two touchdowns. The Rams were 2-1 in those games, with their lone loss coming when Gurley ran the ball just 13 times the entire game. Despite the Falcons ranking lower than all three of those teams, they have allowed only one running back to rush for more than 100 yards. That performance came all the way back in week six of the regular season.
Gurley has proven that when you give him the ball 20 or more times, good things happen. The Rams are undefeated in such games and Gurley has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in all six. On top of that, he has rushed for six of his league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. The Falcons feature one of, if not, the best coverage duos at the linebacker position. Look for a bulk of Gurley’s touches to come on the ground, despite his phenomenal success in the passing game.
Rams Pass Game
In week 14 of the 2016 season, Goff was making the fourth start of his young career. It was the first and last time he attempted 40 or more passes in a single game until week five of the 2017 season. It happened to be at home against the same Falcons team they host in the wild card round this weekend. Goff was sacked three times, stripped for a touchdown, and picked-off twice in that game. You can bet Goff, seemingly one of very few that were around for that game, did not forget about it.
This time around the Rams’ passing attack is averaging the eighth most passing yards per game at home at 261.9, while the Falcons are allowing 222.1 on the road. Goff is tied for fifth in touchdown passes with 28, tied for second fewest interceptions among quarterbacks with at least 450 attempts, and tied for eighth in yards per attempt at 8.0. They have three receivers with at least five touchdowns and 590 or more yards. Boasting one of the better pass coverages in the league, the Rams will need to be smart with the ball. Something they have done all season with their league-low seven giveaways by interception. One less than the amount the Falcons have produced all season, three of which came in week 17 against the Panthers.
As I alluded to before, the Rams will have a tough time relying on the screen game to get the passing game going with the Falcons’ athletic linebackers. Since the Rams don’t rely on forcing the ball to a single receiver, it opens up their game plan and makes their offense more versatile. Though, since week nine, wide receiver Robert Woods has scored five of the Rams’ 14 wide receiver touchdowns. That is just one off of the league-lead despite missing three games.
He will face one of the better cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant. Statistically, he is having a down year but might have made the difference in the Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 2016. In terms of pass yards allowed per game, this will be the Rams’ best pass defense faced since week 15 against the Seahawks. Goff completed 14 of his 21 attempts in that game for 120 yards, his lowest output of the season.
Los Angeles Rams Defense vs. Atlanta Falcons Offense
Falcons Run Game
With Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons boast one of the best one-two punches at the running back position. They are one of only three duos to both rush for 600 or more yards this season. As a team, they have combined for an average of 115.4 yards per game, good enough for 13th in the league. Meanwhile, the Rams have allowed the fifth most rush yards per game at 122.4. The Rams have actually played against the other two duos when they faced the Saints and Titans. In those games, they allowed 191 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries.
Though, if you take away Alvin Kamara’s 74-yard touchdown run, they only gave up an average of 3.1 yards per carry in those games. They also went 2-0 in those games. Freeman usually takes a bulk of the work in the run game and is second in fumbles this season with four. All of which have come in the last four games of the season, something the Rams should be keying in on with their 10 takeaways via the fumble. The duo has combined for two touchdowns over their last four games of the season and have one game with one gaining over 100 yards once. That is something the Rams have not allowed a running back to do since week six.
Falcons Pass Game
With wide receiver Julio Jones staring the Rams right in the face, consider the biggest threat identified. Jones has been one of the best receivers in the league year in and year out. The only season he did not gain at least 1,000 yards receiving was his injury-shortened 2013 season. His three touchdowns this year are also abnormally low for his 88 catches and 1,444 yards. Don’t let that fool you, he can and will take over a game if you let him. Stopping him is just the first task.
While focusing on him, the Falcons still boast the eighth highest passing yards per game output with their 249. Their quarterback is only a year removed from being named the NFL MVP and throwing for 38 touchdowns and just under 5,000 yards. This year has seen his touchdowns drop to 20 while his interceptions have increased by five up to 12 total. Over the last four games of the season, Ryan has only thrown four touchdowns to his four interceptions.
With Aaron Donald taking on the Falcons’ backup left guard, look for him to disrupt Ryan’s rhythm and force bad decisions. The biggest concern coming into the season, and this weekend, is the depth of the Rams’ secondary. Despite the worry, Rams are sixth in the league in interceptions with 18.
A lot of which has come due to the pass-rush forcing the quarterback’s hand early. There’s a reason fans have seen quite a few interceptions on opening drives this season. Especially the ones where it looks like the quarterback just threw it and didn’t see a defender stepping in front of the pass. The Falcons’ passing attack is the second highest rated unit the Rams have seen all season. With the Saints’ being the best at fifth best. In that game, the Rams held Brees to 246 yards and one touchdown.
Something the Rams have been amazingly good at this season is bouncing back and responding to a loss. Despite sitting most of their starters in the season finale, that’s something they have an opportunity to do in their wild card game against the Falcons. Only this time, if they don’t the season is over. For a lot of the team, it’s also an opportunity to avenge the beat down they faced last season, in front of their fans.
There’s a vibe from this team that lets off they aren’t ready to be done. There is unfinished business. This is hard to believe, as most teams would say an increase of seven wins is good enough. But that’s not how this team is built. The culture of this team has them looking to the next goal, nothing is ever finished. I’d say a perfect slogan for this team, outside of “We not me,” is “Complacency is mediocrity.” Because of that, this team not only hosts their first playoff game in 32 years, they win it. A score of 30-17 seems fitting.
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