The Rams Are Facing a Four-Game Gauntlet. Can They Handle the Pressure?

Beginning with this Sunday, the last remaining unbeaten has a prove-it stretch of Packers-Saints-Seahawks-Chiefs. Sean McVay says his guys have the character to cope with being a Super Bowl front-runner
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Sean McVay got a call from a concerned party this week, worried that the pressure of being 7-0 and barreling toward the stretch run might wind up getting to the Rams coach a little bit, as he works through another week and toward another opponent. He is, after all just 23 games into this head-coaching thing, and expectations couldn’t be much higher than they are right now.

It was his mom, on the other end of that phone call.

“She worries about me,” McVay said over his cell as he wrapped up practice. “So she just says, ‘This is a lot of pressure.’ And I said, ‘It is, but you know, you don’t really feel it, because you got such good people around you, with your players, with your coaches.’ And then, the only thing I know how to do is to work as hard as I possibly can, do the job to the best of my ability, not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or ask questions and keep making sure I’m keeping [myself] accountable.

“If you do that, then that’s all you can really do.”

It sure has been enough thus far. Will it be over the next month?

That’s an open question, and not because of how the Rams are playing—they’re seventh in total defense and fourth in points allowed, second in total offense and third in points scored, and they’ve won four games by double-digit margins—but because of what’s in front of them.

The iron of the schedule is here for McVay’s crew. They get a visit from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this week, travel to the Superdome to face the Saints on Nov. 4, host the team that played them closest, Seattle, on Nov. 11, then play an electric Chiefs team in Mexico City on a Monday night three days ahead of Thanksgiving.

You have questions about the Rams? We’ll all have plenty of answers four weeks from today. And should they make it through 11-0, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a realistic shot at becoming the second team to make it all way through a 16-game regular season without a blemish.

Don’t bring that up to McVay, though. He won’t be hearing it, mostly because it’s against everything that got the Rams this far.

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In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to hit a couple of intriguing potential first rounders in this week’s ranked-against-ranked college games, give you some insight into the pressure points on NFL Sunday, and answer questions from the mailbag on Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Le’Veon Bell and where the Broncos are going at quarterback.

But we’re starting with the unbeaten Rams and the gauntlet they’re set to enter, which is where my conversation with McVay started late Wednesday afternoon. And in answering my first question—Do you want your guys to embrace this as a defining month?—the reigning Coach of the Year slipped a little something in that brings insight into what he and his staff are putting in front of the team.

“The biggest thing that we do, we try to approach it where we try to have a great week of preparation and try to be the best version of ourselves,” McVay said. “And with the confidence that we have in our guys, I think they feel like that would be enough. And we certainly don’t shy away from the opponent and knowing what’s at stake in going against a quality player like Aaron Rodgers.”

Right there in the first line: the best version of ourselves.

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McVay wanted to make sure, of course, he was saying it with all the respect he could muster for Rodgers and Drew Brees and Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes, as well as Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Pete Carroll and Andy Reid. But as he sees it, and as his team does too now, this really isn’t about those guys. It’s about seeing how far the Rams can take what they’ve already built.

That, as we said, is a team that’s top quarter of the league in yards and points on both sides of the ball. It’s a team with a quarterback completing 70 percent of his throws with a passer rating of 112.7. A team with a running back on pace for nearly 1,600 yards and 25 touchdowns, and a star defensive linemen with eight sacks and four different defensive backs with interceptions.

Can the Rams top what they’ve already done? That’s kind of the idea here.

“It’s heavily influenced by the John Wooden approach, where really all you can do is compete to the best of your ability in every single thing that you do,” McVay continued. “And we feel like if our practice, our preparation, our planning is done with intent, is done with a detail and a precision that is to the best of our ability, then that allows us to go play with a quieted mind and know we’ll have no regrets.”

The cool part for McVay now is seeing, as he has, the players take ownership of it, so he barely has to say anything anymore. It’s happened on offense, with the big bro of the locker room, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, pushing quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley to find their voices. It’s happened on D, with injured cornerback Aqib Talib as a guiding light and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, setting a high bar in every way without being overly vocal.

From there, things trickle down. One example McVay raised was how veteran wideout Robert Woods took it upon himself in Seattle in Week 5 to instill confidence in young receivers Josh Reynolds and KhaDarel Hodge after Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks went down. Another is where certain things, like consistent performance along the offensive line, have come along faster than expected.

And sure enough, that interplay also came up when I asked McVay what he’s most proud of when he looks at the 7-0 start.

“The one thing that you’re proud of is that … you just kind of watch and I’ve had a handful of people say it, you can just tell it’s a connected team,” he said. “The guys enjoy playing together, they play for each other. They’re mentally tough. When bad things happen throughout a game, they support one another. And I feel like our coaching staff represents that too.”

That, of course, is why you go for it on fourth down in Seattle to win the game. It’s why you’re able to avoid a potential pothole in Week 7 in San Francisco against a team without its starting quarterback. And it’s why McVay still feels like the best version of the Rams hasn’t hit the field yet.

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“The goal is to continuously improve,” McVay said. “I think if there’s one thing that’s consistent that I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been coaching, it’s that the really good teams get better as the season progresses. And we’ve got, for sure, nine opportunities to get better in a game-type setting. And for us, now, it’s doing a great job with our game this week. “

Safe to say, McVay’s mom doesn’t have much to worry about. Sure, there’s pressure to maintaining a perfect record. There’s stress associated with preparing to take on Rodgers.

But all in all, her son feels pretty good about where he’s at.

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Episodes 1 and 2 available now: An exclusive narrative podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates. 

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Five NFL names in the Sunday spotlight in Week 8:

Browns QB Baker Mayfield: Lost in the postgame noise last week was that Mayfield might have played his most complete game as a pro. And that has to be encouraging for Cleveland going into Pittsburgh this week. So what bears watching here? If he can build on that performance, and how handles things in the wake of head coach Hue Jackson saying he’ll be more involved in the offense.

Broncos LB Von Miller: For one reason or another, Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz has been Miller’s kryptonite. It’s pretty clear, too, that if Denver’s going win beat the Chiefs, they’ll need to affect Patrick Mahomes, and Miller’s the one who’ll need to do it. The stakes for Denver? How they play in Kansas City certainly could affect GM John Elway’s handling of the trade deadline two days later.

Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey: Coach Doug Marrone knew his locker room was something of a powder keg going into the season—and Ramsey’s over-the-top bravado is one reason why. So when Marrone suspended him in August, it really wasn’t just about one incident. It was about setting expectations for the locker room. And now we all get to see how that group, and Ramsey, handle adversity—coming off a third straight loss—against Philly in London.

Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes: He was seen limping at the Vikings facility on Wednesday and missed practice with what’s being listed as a foot injury. If Rhodes can’t go, Minnesota will have to do more to handle Saints star Michael Thomas. If he can go and isn’t 100 percent, it’ll be interesting to see how Mike Zimmer and company deploy him.

Redskins RB Adrian Peterson: The 33-year-old legend is on pace for 269 carries. That would be the seventh highest total of his 12-year career. He has 41 carries over the last two weeks, and the Giants’ 20th-ranked run defense just lost its best run-stopper, DT Damon Harrison, traded to the Lions. So it seems we’ll see a bunch of Peterson this week. And I, for one, am enjoying watching him this year—the guy somehow very much resembles himself in his prime, which is exceedingly rare for a running back his age.

And two college players to keep an NFL eye on this Saturday:

Iowa TE Noah Fant (at Penn State, ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET): Fant was at the center of some controversy this month, with his brother tweeting about his playing time/usage in Hawkeyes OC Brian Ferentz’s offense. And it’s true that for a guy who’s probably going in the first round, Fant’s numbers are ordinary: 26 catches for 312 yards and six touchdowns in seven games. But I’m not sure there’s much to criticize there. For one, Fant’s been the focus of every defense he’s faced in 2018. For another, his athletic ability is not in question. He can run, he can jump through the roof, he’s got good ball skills, and he totally fits what the NFL is looking for in a new-age tight end. And if you look at the Hawkeyes’ schedule, this week’s opponent, Penn State, has a better chance of matching up with Fant athletically than anyone else on the ledger, so it’s one that scouts will be watching. “He’s a good player—real athletic, an F-style [move] tight end,” said an AFC exec. “More receiver than blocker, he runs good routes, has good hands, has the ability to stretch [the field]. And he’s not a dud in the run game. He’ll clamp on and sustain, he’s just not real powerful.” Again, a lot to like here, and a lot for you to watch on Saturday.

Wisconsin Is the NFL Draft’s ‘O-Line U.’ Again

Florida DE Jachai Polite (vs. Georgia, CBS, 3:30 p.m.): The Cocktail Party is full of players that’ll go high in the 2020 and ’21 drafts, and given the youth of the Gators and Bulldogs, lighter on prospects that are draft eligible now. But Polite is one to watch, with a showcase game on tap this week, and matchups against Georgia’s young tackles. “He’s your athletic finesse pass-rusher—not super strong or stout, not the most physical,” said one AFC college scouting director. “You’re gonna hear, ‘Can he play the run? Is he strong enough?’ But he’s a really, really good athlete who can get to the quarterback. He’s not a top-half-of-the-first-round guy. I think his ceiling is mid-to-late first round, maybe he goes top of the second. He’s not elite, but he is a really good rusher.” Polite has seven sacks in the Gators’ last five games and four forced fumbles on the year, so there’s production to go with the potential. It will be interesting to see what Georgia does to game plan for Polite, and if the Bulldogs have success running at him.

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Answering your Twitter questions in more than 280 characters:

From Mico (@YouKnowMico): Is the trade before the deadline the new trend to combat the growing demand of huge contracts in the NFL?

I understand what you’re saying—get a guy who’s fallen out of favor on his rookie contract—but I don’t think that spike in free-agent prices really affects the trade market too much, because usually the top guys getting dealt are either already on big deals or on the precipice of one. If you ask me, these three factors are bigger in the recent rise in trades:

1. Younger GMs are more open, in general, to different ideas. Guys like Eagles GM Howie Roseman and Rams GM Les Snead are less tied to old NFL convention, and more aggressive in acquiring veteran players.

Will Jaguars Make Any More Moves to Help the Shaky Offense? Three NFL Trade Deadline Scenarios

2. The greater turnover in those GM seats has lead to fewer ties leaguewide between decision-makers and the players on their rosters. Great example? Giants GM Dave Gettleman trading the corner, Eli Apple, that ex-GM Jerry Reese took with the 10th overall pick two years ago. It’s much easier to trade someone else’s mistake than your own.

3. The salary cap is rising by roughly $10 million per year, and that’s given teams flexibility. Two pretty significant roadblocks to trades in the past were teams’ inability to take on dead money or new contracts on the fly. That’s less of an issue now.

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From Lloyd Creech (@LloydCreech1): Is Derek Carr safe in Oakland under Jon Gruden?

What I can tell you is there are a lot of people that believe Carr, seen by many as a spread quarterback, is a tough fit for Gruden’s complex West Coast offense, which has led to rampant trade speculation. What’s real? I don’t think Gruden has made many decisions at all on 2019 or 2020, and so we just have to wait and see where things go between now and New Year’s, assuming Carr’s not traded before Tuesday.

As Gruden Tears It Down, the Plight of Raiders Left Behind

Further clouding the situation is that Carr’s been very up and down through six games. And, of course, Gruden’s history is to go through quarterbacks like most people cycle through undershirts.

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From Chris Gilmore (@CMGilmorePastor): With Chad Kelly gone in Denver and no clear-cut option No. 2 at QB, will the Broncos wait to draft a QB or trade for a big name? Eli Manning in Denver?

The idea that Kelly was the future in Denver was wishful thinking to begin with, and that was proven out by the Broncos quickly discarding him after he lived down to the character flags that plagued him before the 2017 draft. And what we’ve learned about Case Keenum the last two months is what we knew: He can be a good quarterback, but a lot has to be right around him.

Chad Kelly the Latest in the Line of Failed Broncos Quarterback Projects

All of that leaves the Broncos where they’ve been since they figured out Paxton Lynch wasn’t going to be the answer. They’re searching. I can’t blame them too much for passing on a quarterback with the fifth pick last April, because they really felt only one of 2018 QBs (Sam Darnold) was worthy of the selection, and reaching for a quarterback you’re not wild on in that range (see: Ponder, Christian) is usually a terrible idea.

So what’s next? Well, we got an idea a couple weeks ago, when the ABC cameras caught Elway and personnel chief Matt Russell live-scouting Oregon QB Justin Herbert in Eugene. I’d expect a few more of those kinds of sightings over the next six months.

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From attila #BeatBoston (@attilaLSG): If the Jaguars don’t make a move at QB before the deadline, will Doug Marrone lose the locker room? Most of the players have turned on Bortles already.

No, I don’t think Marrone loses the locker room over the Bortles situation. The players know what it is, and I think there are bigger fish to fry here—managing all the egos on the roster, to be specific.

Back in August, Doug Marrone suspended Jalen Ramsey for a week for lashing out at the media on Twitter. And to those in the organization, that was not about this single incident. It was about sending a warning shot to a locker room brimming with bravado and machismo that had been chippy on the field and chipy off of it throughout the summer.

Blake Bortles Is a Bad Option, But He’s Still Jacksonville’s Best Option

Gus Bradley was the coach for much of a massive overhaul in Jacksonville, and the roster was very much built on the Seattle model, with big personalities invited so long as they had the talent to match. That approach worked when the Jaguars were the plucky underdogs last year. How will guys like Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler stick together as the slumping favorite? Stay tuned.

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From J-Dogg (@jazz363611): Eagles making any moves for an RB or WR?

At running back, barring the price dropping on Shady McCoy, I doubt it. Receiver, maybe. Defensive back, more likely. The Eagles see their biggest problems right now as defensive back and offensive tackle. At the latter, they are what they are, with big money tied to Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, and a need for Peters to get well and Johnson to get going. As for the former spot, Rodney McLeod is hurt and Philly could stand another to have another body at corner.

The Eagles have shown a willingness to be aggressive in the past, so nothing should really surprise anyone.

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From Jas Malhotra(@jasmalhotra): What is your best guess about resolution of the situation between Steelers and Le’Veon Bell?

My guess—and this is a guess—is Bell shows up after the trade deadline, plays and plays well the rest of the year, and lands somewhere else in 2019. So much of this whole thing has been about communication. Bell’s lack of it with his linemen after he blew off a promise to report on Labor Day caused three of them to speak out. The situation has been frosty since, because there’d been little to no communication with the team since then.

That ice has been broken. Bell’s camp and the Steelers camp are talking. So we’ll see what happens. What we do know is that if Bell doesn’t show up to get his six games accrued (allowing him to become a free agent in 2019), it would defeat the purpose of his holdout. So he’ll be back by Week 11 at the latest. I think it’ll happen before then.

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From Neal (@singletary117): How far do you think the Carolina Panthers could go?

I love where the Panthers are offensively—Cam Newton, as we wrote Monday, is coming to “own” the offense. And his newfound propensity to take easy throws and what the defense is giving him has Newton on pace to have his most efficient year, with the most diverse group of weapons he’s ever been surrounded with. And Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel should continue to ascend.

The bigger question actually may be on defense, where Carolina has been banged up and inconsistent. In that way, Sunday was a microcosm for their season to this point—the defense had trouble making plays and getting off the field for three quarters, but summoned what it took to win in the final 15 minutes. There’s still talent on D in Charlotte. Whether this can be a vintage Panther group remains to be seen.

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From Andrew Fisher (@ColtsFisher): Any chance the Colts finish the final 9 games 7-2 or better? Seems like they are finally getting healthy and their schedule is very easy.

To me, 7-2 is a stretch. But I think GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich are on their way. The team is improving fast, and learning to win, and the rookie class has a chance to be an absolute game-changer. LB Darius Leonard may be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, OG Quenton Nelson and RT Braden Smith are starting for a drastically better offensive line, DE Kemoko Turay has shown some rush ability, and RBs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins bring different strengths.

Then there’s DL Tyquan Lewis and WR Deon Cain, who haven’t played yet due to injury but have the staff optimistic about their potential. You add this to last year’s rookie class (Malik Hooker’s still not quite himself yet, coming back from last year’s torn ACL), and a healthy Andrew Luck, and there’s a bright future in Indy.

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