In terms of familiarity, there shouldn't too many surprises when the Seahawks and Rams face off on Thursday Night Football at Lumen Field. The two NFC West foes will be playing one another for the fourth time in less than a calendar year, including the wild card round last January.
But as they prepare for the latest chapter in their budding rivalry, the stakes have certainly been raised for a number of reasons. After the two teams battled all season long for the division crown - Seattle captured the title with a Week 16 win at home over Los Angeles - and exchanged plenty of trash talk along the way, both underwent significant changes this offseason aiming to make a deeper run in the postseason in 2021.
First, the Seahawks wasted little time hiring their new offensive coordinator away from their arch nemesis, bringing in former Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron as the new play caller to replace Brian Schottenheimer. Within days, reports surfaced that the Rams had reached an agreement to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford from the Lions for quarterback Jared Goff, a 2021 third-round pick, and two future first-round selections, kicking off what has become an arms race in the division.
With Stafford's arrival becoming official in March and him teaming up with coach Sean McVay, Los Angeles made its latest "win now" move after sending multiple first round picks to Jacksonville for All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey two years earlier. After bowing out in the Divisional Round, the trade immediately pushed the team into Super Bowl favorite territory and sent a message to the rest of the league in Week 3 by dominating the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a commanding 34-24 win to improve to 3-0.
However, the Rams fell back to Earth a bit last week, as the upstart Cardinals handed them their first loss of the season in a lopsided 37-20 defeat, dropping down to second place in the division.
Nonetheless, with Stafford at the controls and a talented receiving corps led by Cooper Kupp dominating, they currently rank sixth in points per game and third in yards per play offensively, presenting one of the most dangerous offensive units the Seahawks will have to deal with all season long. While the defense hasn't been near as good as a year ago, they'll also have to deal with superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald as well as Ramsey headlining a talented secondary.
"They are off a terrific start," coach Pete Carroll said of Stafford and the Rams offense. "And it really looks like a great move to get him. I think he’s uplifted their program from what it seems, and they are excited about it.”
As the two franchises prepare to square off once again in prime time and the apprentice in Waldron faces the master in McVay for the first time, here's a look at the 2021 Rams, including series history, schematic information, additions/departures, and thoughts from Carroll and Waldron on the Seahawks upcoming opponent.
46th regular season meeting. The Seahawks hold a 25-20 advantage in regular season games, but have lost both postseason meetings, including last year's wild card matchup at Lumen Field.
From 2005 to 2009, Seattle won 10 consecutive games in the rivalry, winning three of those games by more than 20 points. But since McVay arrived in 2017, the series has been pretty one-sided in the opposite direction, with the Rams beating the Seahawks in seven of the past 10 meetings. Even dating back to the Jeff Fisher era when the Rams were still in St. Louis, they have won 10 of the past 15 matchups since 2014.
Departures: The Rams biggest departures came on the coaching staff, as defensive coordinator Brandon Staley bolted after one season to take over as the Chargers new head coach and Waldron left to become the Seahawks new offensive coordinator. Personnel-wise, the team lost numerous key contributors on defense in free agency, as safety John Johnson joined the Browns, linebacker Samson Ebukam went to the 49ers, and cornerback Troy Hill also signed with Cleveland. Defections took place on offense too, with tight end Gerald Everett traveling north to join Waldron in Seattle and receiver Josh Reynolds fleeing for Tennessee.
Additions: Seeking an upgrade at quarterback, the Rams lone big splash of the offseason came shortly after bowing out of the playoffs when they acquired Stafford from the Lions via trade. They were quiet in free agency for the most part, but did add firepower on the outside by signing speedy veteran Desean Jackson to complement Kupp and Woods. In the draft, without a first round pick, the team snagged another speedy pass catcher in Tutu Atwell with their first selection and fourth-round cornerback Robert Rochell has taken on an expanded role as the season has progressed.
Despite the short gap between games, the Rams are actually pretty healthy entering Thursday's contest. Only four players were listed on Tuesday's report, as running back Darrell Henderson is still nursing a rib injury and tight end Tyler Higbee as well as safety Taylor Rapp are dealing with ankle sprains.
Inside The Scheme
In 2020, McVay's offense was in the middle of the pack running 11 personnel groupings with one running back, one tight end, and three receivers at a 65 percent clip. They had the fourth-highest usage of 12 personnel with a second tight end on the field. But with Stafford's arrival and a bevy of quality receivers at his disposal, as Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks pointed out on Tuesday, the Rams lead the NFL through four games deploying 11 personnel on 82 percent of their snaps and this has led to a reduction in 12 personnel by 13 percent.
Interestingly, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, after running play action on a league-high 32 percent of their pass plays a year ago and finishing first in the NFL each of the past four years in that category, the Rams have dropped to 16th with a 25 percent play action rate in 2021. Part of that is because the Rams have been running more plays out shotgun with Stafford at quarterback and also have seen an uptick in plays out of empty sets without a running back in the backfield.
With Raheem Morris replacing Staley as the Rams new defensive coordinator, many expected significant schematic changes, but that hasn't been the case. Rather than using traditional Cover 3 and Cover 1 looks with four-man fronts as he did in earlier stops as a coordinator, including most recently with the Falcons, they have continued to utilize quarters coverage and mix things up on the back end. They have also continued to move Ramsey around, playing him in the slot on 145 of his 307 defensive snaps per Pro Football Focus.
While Waldron admitted Morris' pressure packages are bit different in some ways than what Staley ran, the Rams haven't seen an uptick in blitz rate. In 2020, they sent five or more rushers 25.4 percent of the time and so far this year, they have blitzed on 26.1 percent of their defensive snaps. In terms of generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the team ranks 10th in sack rate at 6.86 percent after finishing second in that category in 2020.
By The Numbers
3: Sacks allowed by the Rams offensive line, the fewest in the entire NFL.
54: Third down conversion percentage, second behind only the Chiefs.
117.5: Passer rating by Stafford, fifth-best among quarterbacks with 100-plus drop backs.
193: Yards after the catch by Kupp, third-most in the NFL.
76: Run block win rate by Rams' offensive line, third-best among NFL teams.
11: Run stops deemed failures for opposing offense by Sebastian Joseph-Day, fourth-most among all qualified defenders per Pro Football Focus.
28: Pass rush win rate for Donald, second behind only Javon Hargrave of the Eagles at the defensive tackle position.
4: Passing touchdowns allowed through four games, tied for third-fewest in the league.
123.5: Rushing yards allowed per game, 21st in the NFL.
50: Third down conversion percentage for opponents, third-worst in the NFL.
Carroll and Waldron's Thoughts
--Carroll on how the Rams have accentuated Stafford's strengths within the confines of McVay's scheme: “The system is basically the same, with different emphasis in terms of how much they are doing some stuff. It’s basically the same plays and all. He’s a big, tall, hard throwing quarterback, that’s what both of those guys are. They are very similar when you look at the game. I think you can tell that the coaches are really trusting Matthew and giving him a lot of latitude to throw the ball a lot and spread the field. It’s obvious that they are really excited about what he contributes. He’s seeing a terrific scheme, excellent receivers, and pass protection where he’s been sacked three times in four games which is a quarterback’s dream."
--Waldron on accounting for Ramsey and how the Rams are deploying him differently in Raheem Morris' defense: “He can really play all seven spots in the back of that. Might line up a three technique, you never know. He does a great job. I have a ton of respect for him. He’s a great player. He can impact the game in so many different ways playing inside, playing outside. You’ve got to know where he’s at. How to respect him. Know what he’s getting into in those different alignments and doing our best job we can at handling him.”
--Waldron on dealing with the Rams' pass rush: “Eric Henderson does such a good job with getting that rush play going. With Leonard Floyd and with [Aaron] Donald and with all the guys. They have a lot of different guys that can get into that rush plan. They like to work their games and create havoc up front. Just understanding what they’re doing. Knowing what we can expect, having a plan, and being ready to counter them.”