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The Rams held onto a wild 41-39 win over their similarly remade division rival San Francisco 49ers in what was the highest-scoring Thursday Night Football game to date. It seemed impossible to ever fathom this during the Jeff Fisher era, but the Rams have scored 40 points in two of their first three 2017 contests.
It all starts on offense for the Rams, specifically at the epicenter of their scoring attack. While Jared Goff floundered last year to a porous rookie season finish, he shined Thursday. If it wasn't clear already, we can cast blame on the previous Rams coaching staff for planting the seed of Goff's young career in soil simply not fertile for quarterback growth and development.
The relationship between Goff and Sean McVay, and the nurturing the new head coach provides, is apparent in the quarterback's fresh style of play. Last season, Goff led all quarterbacks with 25.4 percent of his passes going into tight windows (less than one yard of separation). So far in 2017, just 14.8 percent of his throws have gone into a tight window. Such an approach isn't unusual for a McVay quarterback. Kirk Cousins, who McVay coached in Washington, threw just 14.3 percent of his passes into tight windows in 2016, the second-lowest among starting quarterbacks.
The "McVay Effect" is a popular notion among those noting the Rams' turnaround on offense. If there was a quantifiable way to measure it, this is it. McVay's ability to spread the field and design layup throws for his quarterbacks keeps the offense moving in an efficient fashion. What's even better for the young coach is that his quarterback is showing an ability to deliver in even the high-leverage situations.
Against the 49ers, 17.9 percent of Goff's throws went into tight windows and he posted a passer rating of 143.8, easily the best mark of his career to date. Behind an improved offensive line, we're seeing Goff avoid the mistakes he made in the past when the pass rush bears down. Goff registered the best passer rating of his career with a 118.8. The confidence he now plays with has unlocked a more downfield approach in the passing game. Goff averaged 8.0 air yards per completion Thursday, way up from the 5.5 average he posted as a rookie.
No question the development and growth of their franchise quarterback is the most welcomed sign the Rams could ask for. Yet, they must also be pleased with the improvements made by another former first-round pick.
Todd Gurley was expected to take his place near the top of the NFL's pantheon of running backs as this decade's Adrian Peterson after he scored 10 touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie in 2015. We all know the story didn't go that way in 2016. Gurley slumped to a sub 900-yard season on the ground as other young running backs like David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott zoomed past.
Much like his quarterback, it appears Gurley's replanting in fertile soil provided the needed fix to put his career back on track. Neither the Colts or Redskins saw much need to dedicate extra resources to slow down the Rams back. In Weeks 1-2, Gurley saw eight-plus defenders in the box on just 14.3 percent of his carries. Tonight, he saw a stacked box on 50 percent. Even though some of them were in the red zone, Gurley ripped off 3.29 yards per carry against eight-plus defenders in the back, compared to 2.60 during Weeks 1 and 2.
Not many free-agent additions are so immediately impactful that it's noticeable. Yet, that's exactly what the Rams have in left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Between the former Bengals star locking down the blindside among more shuffling up front, an offensive line that made Gurley's job an impossible task in 2016 is now an asset. Gurley averaged a mere -0.1 yards before a defender was within one yard of him on his 2016 runs. Against the 49ers, he averaged 1.3 yards.
As the entire offense announced their presence to the NFL Network audience, one Ram made his own individual catwalk across the stage. Sammy Watkins was quiet in his first two games with Los Angeles, totaling just 88 yards. Watkins broke loose tonight with 106 yards and two touchdowns on six catches.
In his first two games as a Ram, Watkins just didn't get downfield. The skill he honed so well in Buffalo was nowhere to be found, as he averaged just 5.7 air yards per target. Watkins did what he did best Thursday and got vertical, averaging 12.4 air yards per target and hauled in a 40-plus deep reception.
Watkins' ability to be an easy separator despite being treated like a true No. 1 receiver was once again notable. The 49ers gave him an average cushion of just 4.8 yards at the line of scrimmage. Despite that tight coverage, Watkins shook free to average 2.6 yards of separation on his targets.
With Goff looking like a functional NFL quarterback, Gurley reestablishing career momentum and Watkins frightening defenders in the deep game, as McVay pulls the strings, it's time to take the Los Angeles Rams' offense seriously. Every metric in the Next Gen Stats arsenal shows this is a completely different entity than 2016's iteration. One of the NFL's most exciting new coaches in McVay is planting just the right seeds, and the Rams' own version of the triplets are sprouting.