DENVER — You won’t often see a more lopsided 23–20 win in the NFL than what you saw here Sunday afternoon. In beating the Broncos, the Rams held the ball for more than 35 minutes and gained almost seven yards per carry, and Todd Gurley set a career mark with 208 yards on 28 carries the first 200-yard outing of an outstanding young career. And they did it in the cold, with a banged-up group of receivers, with a fairly simple running game targeting the heart of the Denver defense.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen stats, all but five of Gurley’s yards on the ground came off the tackles, the areas manned by Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Shane Ray. If ever the Broncos had a chance against the undefeated Rams, it would have been via a handful of big plays by that group, and yet they were helpless against the league’s No. 1 offense in terms of yards per game.
The Rams, missing Cooper Kupp for big chunks of the game (knee), and missing some bite in the passing game due to the frigid temperatures, showed how dominant they can be on the ground when they want to be, and when the defense is expecting it. This was the victory within a victory for the Rams, and one that makes them NFC favorites going forward.
“I think it’s a message that even if you can stop the other stuff you’ve got to be able to stop the run,” says Rams veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth. “We do a lot of different things and this week it happened to be the run. So as a defense going into a week of preparation you have to ask yourself, what do you want to spend your time on? The pass game, play action, spreading guys out, or do you want to try and figure out how to stop Gurley. Last week Seattle decided they wanted to stop Gurley. This week Denver gave us the opposite. To be able to beat teams both ways is a huge part of the game. It’s bigger than you think.”
The scary thing about this offense is that it’s still learning the complexities of head coach Sean McVay’s scheme. The quarterback is six games into Year Three, in his second season with this head coach. Wide receiver Robert Woods likens last season to pre-algebra, and now we’re watching Algebra. One can only fathom what Algebra 2 will look like.
“I think we were just grasping our offense last year, trying to understand what McVay wants,” Woods said. “I’d say the biggest difference this year is everyone’s grasping it and thinking like him. That allows our meeting to be more detailed, it allows us to improve on the little things. Last year was introduction to Sean McVay’s complex offense, and now we’re adding the little details. A lot more fly sweeps. Our disguises are next level. Put on the film and you think you’ve seen the same play 12 times, but there are little differences to each.”
It’s the job of every defensive coordinator left on the schedule to decipher those nuances, and games like this don’t help. With the Rams comfortably in the lead until the Broncos brought it within a score late, and with Gurley pounding the edges of the defensive line from simple formations and personnel sets, there’s not much to learn about the complexities of this offense from Sunday. There’s hardly anything new on tape.
“We’re not showing everything and they still have to prepare for a lot of different things,” Woods says. “We’re trying to put their best players on edge and make them think.”
These are the kinds of performances the Rams are getting used to—coming into someone else’s house, playing a .500-ish team with its back against the wall and coming away with a win and their offensive secrets unrevealed.
“It ends up being harder to scout an offense like that because you're going to get things you haven’t seen,” Rams linebacker Mark Barron says. “Our offense can beat teams a lot of different ways. Our running numbers looked like somebody's passing yards today. I’m sure everybody’s plan is to take away Gurley, and you can’t. The receivers are all on pace for 1,000 yards. Goff is playing with precision. They’re unstoppable right now. It’s nothing you can do.”
Unstoppable is a big word, but it may not be that far from the truth. There’s a big chunk of this offense we haven’t yet seen and that should be worrisome to anyone in L.A.’s path.