Rams' offensive woes among six troubling trends taking hold

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The Rams' Week 9 bye didn't solve Sean McVay's offensive problems. Los Angeles' trip to Pittsburgh instead marked a new low point of the McVay/Jared Goff era: 15 drives, four turnovers and three points. The Rams love to call runs on third-and-15-plus. There were numerous throws Sunday on which Goff's intended target was unclear. There were short throws on third-and-8 and screen plays to nowhere. Backup QB Blake Bortles came in for a short-yardage run that only served to confuse his teammates. Punter Johnny Hekker threw an interception the following snap.

The Steelers' defense deserves to be mentioned among the league's best groups, but this is still 2019. Great offenses can dictate to great defenses, and the Rams -- who ranked first and second in points in McVay's first two seasons -- were once a great offense.

The 2019 Rams, who sit at 10th in scoring, haven't recorded a touchdown in 19 drives. They've advanced the ball inside their opponents' 10-yard line only once in that stretch, and how they handled that opportunity in Pittsburgh was instructive. On second-and-4 at the 8-yard line with one minute left in the third quarter, they pitched the ball outside to running back Todd Gurley -- but neither he nor the Rams' offensive line had the athleticism to beat the Steelers to the edge. Loss of 4. The outside zone, once the bedrock of the Rams' offense, isn't working. On the next play, facing third-and-8, Goff received rare, excellent protection and pushed a short throw to Cooper Kupp, who was covered by two defenders. Minkah Fitzpatrick knocked the pass away, but even a completion would have been far short of the first down. Kupp finished the day without a catch. The sequence was as tepid as Gurley's response when asked after the game if he wanted the ball more with the game on the line.

"Um, not really. I'm used to it," Gurley said, via The Athletic.

The Rams are getting used to a mediocre offense. It appeared they turned the corner in their 30-29 loss to the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football in Week 5, but in the four games since, they've produced the two lowest scores of the McVay era in "expected points" on offense, according to Pro Football Reference. (Expected points are intended to illustrate "the contributions each team's various squads made to the margin of victory," per the site.) In the first 11 magical weeks of last season, culminating in the team's 54-51 win over the Chiefs in a Monday Night Football classic, the Rams were held under 10 expected points on offense one time. It's already happened seven times this season. As the sample size gets larger, it's harder to ignore the fact that Goff has thrown 17 touchdowns with 16 interceptions and 16 fumbles in his last 16 starts, averaging 7.0 yards per attempt.

This isn't a hangover from the loss in Super Bowl LIII. If anything, the Rams' morning-after headache began when they returned from their bye last season after that Chiefs game, when Lions coach Matt Patricia (who held the Rams to their fourth-lowest offensive yardage total in Week 13) and Bears coordinator Vic Fangio (who held L.A. to a season-low 214 offensive yards in a Week 14 win for Chicago) began to short-circuit this offense, which had been one step ahead of the league. I still don't rule the Rams out of playoff contention, because coordinator Wade Phillips is coaching up the best Rams defense of the McVay era, and the Rams' special teams unit has the talent to play much better. But the thrill is gone, and the Rams' chances of winning the NFC West are following close behind.

With three prime-time games in the next four weeks, followed by trips to Dallas and San Francisco, the Rams won't be able to hide their new identity. To call this the biggest challenge of McVay's coaching tenure would be an understatement, and Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh proved he has no magic solution on hand. At a certain point in an NFL season, it's time to believe the teams that repeatedly show what they are.

Week 10 was full of surprises, but plenty of trends I trust also showed up. Below is a quick look at some other problems that, like the Rams' offense, are not going away.

The Saints' non-explosive offense: This may be the most complete team of the Sean Payton era, and Saints fans shouldn't panic because of one ugly home loss to the Falcons. Even the best Saints teams seem to have one stinker every year.

New Orleans' margin for error most weeks, however, is smaller than usual, because the Saints have to work so hard to score points. NFL Research notes that the Saints are tied for 21st in big plays. They rank 25th in completions of 20 yards or more and are tied for 15th in rushes of 10 yards or more. Drew Brees only connected on one big play in the passing game Sunday against one of the league's worst defenses.

Like the Rams' offensive problems, the seeds of this issue started to take root late last season, when Brees' deep ball was notably absent. The Saints can still win games in a variety of ways during the 40-year-old Brees' 19th NFL campaign, because of their excellent line play on both sides of the ball, their opportunistic defense and their usually efficient passing game. But they are having a hard time making the big plays that so many Saints teams were defined by.

Carolina's rush defense: This may feel like picking nits after a loss in which the Panthers fell a few inches short of a chance for overtime in Lambeau, but Ron Rivera's soft run defense appears to be a fatal flaw. The Packers' Aaron Jones (93 yards and three scores on 13 carries) and Jamaal Williams (63 yards on 13 carries) were the latest running backs to find open lanes, with even Luke Kuechly often appearing to play uphill because of a defensive line that can't hold its ground.

The Panthers are dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed and yards allowed per carry. There's a lot to like about this 5-4 team, and if it were in the AFC, Carolina could make the playoffs. But to reach the tournament in the NFC might require 11 wins, and the Panthers aren't going to get there with a defense that is good but far from great, ranking 19th in points allowed per drive. Kyle Allen may just save Ron Rivera's job and keep the Panthers above .500, but he needs a vintage Rivera defense to stay afloat, and this isn't it.

Jason Garrett's game management: Do the Cowboys coaches get in the way during close games, or are they just unlucky? The easy answer is yes.

Dallas moved to 0-3 in one-score games in Sunday night's loss to Minnesota partly because the Cowboys are often less than the sum of their parts. The Vikings did an excellent job mitigating the Cowboys' pass rush with quick throws and the running game, while Dallas didn't fully take advantage of a night in which Dak Prescott was sensational behind a dominant offensive line. Just because Prescott started the game 5-of-5 on third downs of 10 yards or more doesn't mean the Cowboys should continue to set those situations up.

After the game, Prescott was put in the uncomfortable position of defending the Cowboys' decision to call two running plays that led to his failed fourth-down throw near the goal line with the Cowboys trailing by four.

"You have to go back and look at the situation. You don't want to leave too much time on the clock for them. I'm not going to question the play-calling," Prescott said.

Reasonable minds can disagree, but I believe that approach is faulty. When a team is trailing, it should play quickly on offense to maximize the number of possessions it has. There was no guarantee the Cowboys were going to score, and they should have been more interested in leaving as much time as possible for their next possession, which wound up starting with 17 seconds left. More importantly, the play-calling didn't recognize the Cowboys' strengths. Despite Prescott's sensational night in long-yardage situations, the Cowboys punted or attempted a field goal four times in Vikings territory when facing fourth-and-6 or less, including a 23-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

The best coaches adjust to the game in front of them rather than sticking to the one they wish played out in their mind. Garrett and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore cautiously called for punts, kicks and runs throughout the night as if the Cowboys' defense and running game were playing well. They weren't. The Cowboys have one of the best passing games in the NFL, perhaps the best, yet appear hesitant to lean into their strength. That's how you lose close games and score only 24 points during Prescott's best outing in a terrific season.

Chicago QB Mitchell Trubisky: Piling on Trubisky has become a bore at this juncture, so there's no need to belabor the point. But I've seen a surprising amount of optimism following the Bears' performance against Detroit, in which they gained 226 yards against one of the league's worst defenses. Detroit's previous low in yards allowed was 370 against the Daniel Jones-led Giants. A game that ended with the Bears punting five straight times -- including four three-and-outs -- cannot be viewed as turning the corner, even if it keeps the televisions on in Halas Hall.

The chances of the Bengals' rivals for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft: The Dolphins (2-7), Falcons (2-7) and Jets (2-7) all won on Sunday and now are two games ahead of Cincinnati (0-9) in the win column. The Bengals show no signs of improvement and are starting a fourth-round rookie quarterback. While the one-win Redskins aren't much better, they are more consistently competitive. The Bengals, Dolphins and Redskins still each have a game against the Jets, and the Dolphins-Bengals matchup in Week 16 looms large, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the Bengals look like the NFL's worst team and trail in the standings. It appears increasingly likely that Bengals owner Mike Brown and coach Zac Taylor will have their pick at quarterback in April.

MVP Watch

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

4. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

5. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

This ranking isn't because of Wilson's final drive heroics during "Monday Night Football" against the 49ers. He would be ranked here even if this game had ended on his overtime interception or his overtime three-and-out instead of his fifth game-winning drive of the season. Wilson has been so consistently excellent all season that it's not a hot take to believe Seattle's biggest win came in one of his worst games overall.

That's a long way of saying the MVP race isn't that close after ten weeks. The good news for the other candidates listed here and players like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Patrick Mahomes is that the MVP race doesn't typically heat up until Thanksgiving. Seven weeks is an eternity in an NFL season and Lamar Jackson's axis-changing campaign will require serious consideration if he keeps it up.

For now, Wilson has a bye week and a healthy lead. Don't expect the No. 1 spot here to change for a while, if Wilson lets go of it at all.

UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Don't let Christian McCaffrey's outrageous season completely overshadow what Dalvin Cook is accomplishing. After piling up 183 yards from scrimmage against the Cowboys, Cook is on pace for 2,264 on the season. That would be the most since Adrian Peterson's MVP year (2012) and 13th all time. Cook is third among running backs in total missed tackles created, according to Pro Football Focus, and first among backs in forcing missed tackles as a receiver, often resembling a luxury SUV swerving through traffic.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes could get back in the MVP race if he stays healthy the rest of the way and plays like he did against the Titans on Sunday. Raiders safety duo Erik Harris and Karl Joseph were sensational in the team's win over the Chargers on Thursday Night Football, though Joseph unfortunately landed on injured reserve this weekend.

Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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