Rams/49ers is More Interesting Than You Think - Here's Why

David Malinsky

Thursday, September 21, 2017 2:04 PM UTC

Thursday, Sep. 21, 2017 2:04 PM UTC

There is a lot more to see in Rams/49ers than you may think…And you probably don’t know how important Jarrad Davis is yet…I don’t think Rutgers is ready to play well on the road (are the markets weighing the Nebraska side of that game too heavily)…

Point Blank – September 21, 2017

I doubt that many of you are terribly excited by Rams/49ers being the NFL showcase for Thursday night, but the truth is that you should be; there are some fascinating handicapping subplots going on with these teams, not just for this game, but for the remainder of this season, and into the future. It is also time to discuss an NFL injury that means more than the markets may perceive, and to delve into the vulnerabilities of one particular team on the NCAA board. Let’s go to work.

Yes, it is time to play close attention to that Rams offense

You probably aren’t prepared to begin liking the LAR offense, after that group was dead last on the Football Outsiders adjusted charts in 2016, a dubious honor that they indeed earned through various levels of ineptitude. Jared Goff’s passer rating of 63.6 was historically bad, which rendered the legit talents of Todd Gurley to just 3.2 yards per rush, opposing defense unafraid of the passing game and choosing to load the box.

Those numbers may have little relevance now. I shouldn’t have to go through the caveat of “OK, take this with a grain of salt because it’s early…”, but for first-time readers there it is. It is indeed early, but there may be something damn interesting going on. I will start with the numbers, and then get to the whys and wherefores behind them.

As for Goff and the passing game –

Jared Goff          2016   2017
Passer Rating     63.6  103.2
Comp%               54.6  66.7
Yards Per Pass     5.3    9.8

And then Gurley –

Todd Gurley  2016 2017
Rush YPG   55.3  64.0
Rush YPA   3.2    3.7
Pass YPG    20.4  52.0
Pass YPC    7.6    13.0

So why am I not just putting an * out there and saying “it’s early”? It is two-fold. First let’s go back to the preview of the Rams from the pre-season NFL tour, which focused on the major upgrades of the offensive coaching staff. But I was a bit remiss in stating that the coaches may have been much better than the talent that was on hand. Now for the real intrigue; let’s look at that offensive huddle –

Position-Player-Draft Round
WR  Tavon Austin  (1)
WR  Sammy Watkins  (1)
WR  Robert Woods  (2)
LT  Andrew Whitworth  (2)
LG  Roger Saffold  (2)
C  John Sullivan  (6)
RG  Jamon Brown  (3)
RT  Rob Havenstein  (2)
TE  Tyler Higbee  (4)
RB  Todd Gurley  (1)
QB  Jared Goff  (1)

Guess what? If we chart the 32 NFL offenses by the round in which the various starters were taken, the lower the score naturally the better, this group rates #1 across the league by a wide margin. There is a caution, of course, in that scouting is not an exact science - the Patriots won the Super Bowl with one first-round draft pick starting on offense. But if the pedigrees of the Ram players are indeed what their draft position makes them out to be, this is a team with one hell of an upside compared to their 2016 performance level.

In terms of talent the keys are Watkins, Woods and promising rookie Cooper Kupp. While Goff was indeed bad in 2016, there was also the fact that the offense lacked anyone out wide that could stretch the field. Now there are several that can do it, which not only opens running lanes for Gurley, but could also enable Austin to shine in his role on underneath routes. Combine this talent with a coaching staff that shows a lot of experience (ironically head man Sean McVay having the least amount), and you may want to be prepared to discard the weighting of those 2016 numbers quickly.

How much upside is there? If the folks doing the drafting were correct, there may be plenty to see here. Goff had a lousy 2016, but was under-coached and lacked weapons. Watkins/Woods have previously been under-coached, and did not have a QB that could consistently get the ball to them down field. Now we can see how far they have developed, because there should be opportunities to make plays this evening…

The other side(s) of the ball, and how tired will the San Francisco defense be, plus can the Rams defend the run

Back in the NFL Tuesday review (link at the end of this column), there was a brief note about a potential good/bad for the 49ers defense. The good was that they were on the field for 79 official snaps at Seattle (82 if you count penalties, which you should if it was a penalty involving a completed play), and only allowed a single touchdown. The bad is that it was an awfully heavy load, more than three possessions above a typical game, and now they have to turn around on a short work week.

Exacerbating matters is that it is a defense that does not have all hands on deck anyway, with rookie Reuben Foster projected to start at MLB but not ready for action yet, and now Eric Reid will not be available at safety. While their numbers so far have been good, you have to dig a little more deeply – Seattle and Carolina have both struggled twice this season, which may have the 49ers defensive numbers looking better than the talent on hand.

One part of this matchup brings us an under-rated offense into a defense that is vulnerable. But guess what? So does the other side. The San Francisco offense has struggled mightily, in particular Brian Hoyer only averaging 4.7 yards per pass, placing the 49ers dead last. That had to be expected given the personnel transitions and the new playbook, and in truth there isn’t a major upside anyway. But those were also opening games against upper-end Seattle and Carolina defenses.

To the San Fran credit, the running game found opportunities against the Seahawks, Carlos Hyde running for 124 yards, which is the most any opposing back will gain on that field this season. That opens some intrigue here because while again it is early, there are some questions about the Wade Phillips schemes against the run. Let’s take a peek at some charting that brings plenty of food for thought, usin both the Football Outsiders rush defensive ratings, and yards per rush allowed - 

Team  2016 FO YPR   2017 FO YPR
Denver      #21   4.4    #3     2.9
LAR            #6     3.9    #20   4.8

The Rams were simply awfully tactically against the Redskins on Sunday, allowing major running lanes throughout. Yes, there was a 61-yard burst by Chris Thompson that can carry a lot of weight in the stats, but take that run away and what do you have – still 168 yards at 4.4 per attempt.

Some of this can be attributed to Aaron Donald not being in shape, and also still learning his way in the Phillips playbook, but the Washington lanes were so wide open on Sunday that there may not be a quick fix here.

What is my major takeaway? I am against the markets in assessment here, believing that total drop from 41 to 39.5 isn’t correct. But it isn’t enough to get me to the windows. I have a firm Over go at 38, which is not going to show, but even if I don’t have a ticket to root home this evening, there is a lot to see in a matchup that may look tepid to others.

Jarrad Davis may already mean more to the Lions than most folks realize

Yesterday there was a focus here on the Marshall Yanda injury meaning more to the Ravens than would likely be appreciated across the marketplace; as promised here comes the look at Davis, who remains under the concussion protocol. The Detroit defense has shown a major improvement through two games, and understanding his impact needs to be a part of your thought processes.

The Lions defense was terrible in 2016. The Football Outsiders adjusted charts rated them dead last overall. The LBs were particularly awful, not coming up with a sack, fumble recovery or interception all season. That is not easy to do, or in this case to not do.

Enter Davis, a rookie from Florida, who not only brings physical skills, but also a good grasp of the intricacies of how defense works. He was on the field for all 75 plays in the opening win over Arizona, calling the defensive signals, and the following from DC Teryl Austin made the files - "I thought he was outstanding for a young guy. Really flew around. Physical. Really, he makes a difference in our defense in terms of our temperament and how we go, and that’s something that your middle linebacker should do because he’s really, at the end of the day, he’s the quarterback of your defense. He stands in front of our guys. He calls the defenses. No hesitation.”

Davis also played the first 37 snaps vs. the Giants, including a sack of Eli Manning, which means that he has already done two things that no Lion LB did all of 2016 – come up with a fumble recovery and a sack. But now the problem. If Davis does not clear the concussion protocol he would be replaced at MLB by moving Tahir Whitehead or Paul Worrilow over, and elevating rookie Jalen Reeves-Maybin into the slot of whichever of those takes makes the transition.

Follow this closely because it matters. Davis was the catalyst for this defense, now there may be some scrambling and position shifting that could create chemistry issues against an offense that is well-suited to exploit this position, in particular the ability to use RBs in pass patterns.

In the Sights, Saturday NCAA

I can understand the markets being against Nebraska again. There was a substantial amount of money to Northern Illinois last week, and the Huskies went into Lincoln and pulled the outright upset. But before downgrading the Cornhuskers too much take that one with a grain of salt.

Two weeks ago in the weekly NCAA review I noted how difficult the grading of Oregon/Nebraska could be, the Ducks exploding to a 42-14 halftime lead, and then not scoring again. One of the focus points for me was the way Bob Diaco talked about the heart of the Cornhuskers defense, and how they kept competing despite how poorly the game had started. Hence I did attribute some of the second half shutout to good defense, and not just the Ducks backing off.

What happened vs. Northern Illinois? That defense carried over. Nebraska only allowed one scoring drive, and just 14 first downs and 276 yards, but the offense gave away a couple of pick-six touchdowns to set up the defeat. Now that defense gets to step down in class against a struggling Rutgers offense, and that opens the door for #350 Nebraska (Saturday 3:30 Eastern) at the -11 that is now appearing. That is the target price; I would not lay anything more.

There are three keys here – 1. From a value standpoint the Nebraska defense being under-rated; 2. From a focus standpoint the Cornhuskers taking Rutgers far more seriously and with much greater urgency than at another time; and 3. The Scarlet Knights being particularly vulnerable for their first road game.

There are 40 players on the Rutgers roster than have never played a road game for the program. 13 true freshmen have already seen game action, and Chris Ash was up front about it when asked why he wasn’t red-shirting most of his recruiting class, a common practice in the Big 10 – “That’s never been an option. We don’t have the depth. The linebackers have been in a two-deep since really they walked on campus. Some of the offensive linemen have been in a two-deep since they have walked on campus. That’s just where we’re at.”

Let’s go to OC Jerry Kill, another guy that has been around a while, including HC jobs at Northern Illinois and Minnesota - "We have a very, very young team, certainly on the offensive side of the ball. I think the least said about it, the better. And not talk about it. The only thing I've talked about on the offensive side of the ball - not winning or losing - is getting better. It's more about us than about who we play."

The Rutgers offense could not get to 200 yards either running or passing vs. Washington, which may be excusable, but they could not get to 200 in either category in a 16-13 home loss to Eastern Michigan, which can’t be excused. They will be hard pressed to make things happen against an under-rated defense in the first road challenge, and the markets have dropped this one to the point at which a Nebraska win by 13 or 14 cashes a ticket, which is a value window I will take advantage of.

For your listening pleasure

The latest edition of “House of Yards” is ready to go, as Matt Landes and I break down the key factors that will lead you to edges across the biggest games on the NFL board, along with the weekly “Tommy Trojan” moment as we delve into USC/California, plus Best Bets. The Beer of the Week comes from his journey to Vermont last weekend, and his tasting notes will be made a part of tomorrow’s Point Blank. Give it a listen, and as always feedback is encouraged, so that we can tailor the concept towards what you would most like to hear –

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What a Bettor Better Know – NCAA Week #3

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