The Commanders meet the Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday. These are teams are moving in opposite directions. The Rams pushed all their chips into the center of the table to win the Super Bowl in the 2021-22 season and have been rebuilding ever since. Most of the biggest names from the Super Bowl team have retired, been traded, or been released. Yet, after winning only five games last year, they now are in playoff contention again and will be at .500 if they win on Sunday.
I asked Evan Craig of Turf Show Times five questions to assess the state of the Rams and how he sees the game.
1) Washington will almost certainly have a new GM, a new coach, and a largely new roster before next season. The Rams are an interesting model for rebuilding on the fly after tearing down the team following the Super Bowl win 2 years ago. How have the Rams managed to go from 5-12 last year to playoff contention this year, without a first round pick either year? What have Les Snead and Sean McVay done that their Washington counterparts should emulate?
It wasn’t a pretty sight, but the Rams under Les Snead and Sean McVay have found a way to make it work. I felt the 5-12 campaign last season was exactly what LA needed to be perfectly honest with you. This team and organization needed to be humbled and it forced them to do a little soul searching. Going from a Super Bowl championship to rebuilding on the fly as you put it would humble any team and I’m glad the team didn’t just roll over and die after a miserable season.
Injuries absolutely wrecked their quest for a repeat, part of which could be attributed to their depth issues. Despite not having a first-rounder those two years, Snead and McVay found several late-round gems like Puka Nacua, Kobie Turner and Byron Young for instance who have stepped up and became immediate contributors this season. The team also parted ways with players like Jalen Ramsey, Allen Robinson, Bobby Wagner and Van Jefferson to provide these youngsters with enough playing time. I expected this team to be in playoff contention past Thanksgiving but to have a chance only two weeks away from Christmas is wild. Again, it’s a testament to having a coaching staff in place that is willing to develop these young players on the fly and putting them in spots where they’ll have the most success.
There are several ways to build a team as roster building is obviously not one size fits all. What Washington could emulate is filling up a young roster with veterans sprinkled in throughout different positions. There were rumors in the offseason about LA parting ways with Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald and I’m very thankful they didn’t. Having the presence of the “Big 3” on the roster has been crucial in mentoring the youth. Donald has taken Turner under his wing while Kupp has done the same with Nacua. Never underestimate the power of veteran leadership. Bring in the right guys and the rest of the team will follow their lead.
2) On defense, the Rams have one superstar and ten players who are largely unknown outside of LA. The statistics say that they are a middling to bottom third of the league defense, and a bit better against the run than the pass. Who are the best players not named Aaron Donald at each level of the defense? Where are the biggest holes?
The defense has performed so much better than anyone really expected. That is why defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is going to get several head coaching interviews in the offseason. His work with such a young defense has been something to admire (for the most part).
Alongside Aaron Donald, I love rookie Kobie Turner who has really been coming on the last few weeks. Turner has 5.5 sacks this season with 3.5 of them coming in the past three weeks. His development has been a thrill to watch as AD doesn’t have to carry the load every Sunday. Linebacking wise, Ernest Jones clearly learned a little something from Bobby Wagner during his one-year vacation in Southern Cali. Jones has set a career-high with 118 total tackles and has amassed at least eight tackles in 10 of his 12 starts. In the secondary, the best player has been safety Jordan Fuller who has been pretty solid overall in his fourth year. Fuller has allowed just 63.3% of passes to be completed his way. He normally doesn’t make many mistakes despite the Ravens game being his worst performance of 2023.
The biggest hole on the defense is at safety. As I briefly mentioned above, Fuller had his worst game of the year in Baltimore when he allowed three receptions for 75 yards and two touchdowns in coverage. Fuller is normally reliable but the Ravens made life hell for him. Fellow safety Russ Yeast has been atrocious in coverage all season long. In the Ravens game, Yeast allowed catches on both of his targets for 66 yards and a touchdown. On the year, the second-year player has allowed 20-of-28 completions for 290 yards and two scores in coverage, good for a 128.6 passer rating. If Sam Howell has any success at all this weekend, attacking the safety spot will be the way to go.
3) The biggest question mark for the Rams on offense is their line, a topic near to Washington hearts. (Just look at the name of the fan site.). How good is the OL at this point, and what is the trajectory of this group? Washington’s best defenders are their DTs; will the Center and Guards be able to stop them?
Compared to how crappy the OL was in ‘22, anything would’ve been an improvement. The line has given up only 24 sacks and is staying relatively healthy which is always a plus.
I would say the trajectory of this group is looking very promising. Rookie guard Steve Avila has started every game and has proven himself to be a mauler. Sometimes he struggles in run blocking but overall, he’s going to be a great addition to the line for years to come. I’ll say the same about Kevin Dotson who was an underrated addition by Snead. Dotson is playing at an All-Pro level and he needs to be extended in the offseason. Can’t let those types of players leave. As I’ve said, there’s a very high upside with this group and hopefully the building blocks they’ve established will carry into ‘24.
Stafford has been sacked just three times since the bye and has rarely been hit in that span. While the line has had their momentary lapses, this is a tough group to crack. In games against teams with top-tier pass rushes like the 49ers and Cowboys, only one sack was allowed in each matchup. Given the trades of Montez Sweat and Chase Young, Washington’s DL doesn’t strike as much fear as it used to. Assuming Stafford continues to get the ball out quickly, Dotson, Avila and center Brian Allen should be able to fend them off reasonably well.
4) At this point in the season, every team is struggling with injuries and depth is critical to team success. How deep are the Rams these days? Which Rams are injured and are unlikely to be able to play, or play at full strength, this weekend?
Compared to last season, the depth has drastically improved at several positions, especially along the O-line. The wide receiver corps heading into the season didn’t look all that great but the team felt confident enough to trade veteran Van Jefferson to the Falcons at the trade deadline. QB2 improved with the signing of Carson Wentz as the Rams had to prevent another Brett Rypien disasterclass from happening. The team is at its thinnest in the secondary, at cornerback for sure, and a little at running back even after the return of Williams.
TE Tyler Higbee suffered a neck injury against the Browns, but is hoping to return this week. That’ll be an injury to monitor as the week goes on. Linebackers Byron Young and Michael Hoecht were questionable in Baltimore and still played. Puka Nacua was also banged up heading into last week and was able to suit up. For the most part, the injury bug has been quite forgiving to the Rams this year, probably because it felt so bad for ruining last season. The main injury on the Rams side to keep an eye on is Higbee.
5) The early betting line has the Rams favored by 6.5 points. Do you think that they will win by a TD or more? What would it take for the Commanders to pull an upset?
Before the season, I had expected this would be a tougher matchup. I felt Washington would be a lot better than their record indicates, yet LA should be able to beat them by a touchdown easily in this one. The Commanders have such a bad defense and I don’t expect that will change coming out of the bye. The Rams have been red-hot on offense lately, scoring over 30 points in their last three games. LA generally moved the ball with ease against the Ravens who have one of the most physical and toughest defenses in the league, so Washington on paper shouldn’t be too much of a test for them. Knock on wood.
Not that I believe the Rams should be taking Washington lightly. This is a league where anyone could win on any given week. That said, for the Commanders to pull an upset, they’ll have to capitalize on any mistakes made by the offense. Matthew Stafford has played extremely well since returning from injury, yet he’s always been prone to making a boneheaded interception or two throughout his career. Forcing the offense to become one-dimensional could really help Washington’s chances as well. Running back Kyren Williams is closing in on a 1K season and has given Stafford a solid run game at his disposal for the first time in his Rams career. Limiting the effectiveness of Williams and the ground game will help give the Commanders a fighting chance on Sunday.
Thanks again to Evan Craig for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Rams. You can check out his answers to our questions over at Turf Show Times.