In yet another underwhelming game during the 2021 season’s “Super Wild Card Weekend,” the Los Angeles Rams easily took care of the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night. The game brought quarterback Matthew Stafford his first playoff victory, but the driving force of Los Angeles’ offense was clearly their run game. As the Rams travel to Tampa Bay to face a stronger run defense in the divisional round, Stafford will likely have to get over his late-season inconsistency and win with his arm. Stafford started the 2021 season off hot. Through eight games, he had a completion percentage of nearly 70% with 22 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. It was everything both Stafford and the Rams were hoping for when Los Angeles traded for the quarterback in the offseason. Their new signal-caller was airing the ball out in ways Jared Goff never could, and he was racking up wins along the way. Then Week 9 rolled around, and Stafford began to show some worrying signs of inconsistency. He had his first multi-interception game against the Titans that week, then another one against the 49ers one week after that. Stafford followed those two performances up with a three-touchdown, 302-yard game, but he also had a season-low completion rate of 55.3% plus an interception and a lost fumble. The 13-year veteran righted the ship after that for the most part and the Rams went on to win five of their last six games. But the turnover problem continued to rear its ugly head; Stafford threw seven picks and added another lost fumble in his last three regular-season games. It sometimes felt like Los Angeles was winning in spite of their quarterback and not because of him. That inconsistency—along with Cam Akers’ incredible recovery from an Achilles tear—is likely why head coach Sean McVay switched up the game plan for the Rams’ third matchup with the Cardinals this season. Stafford thrived in that run-heavy offense on Monday night. He threw a season-low 17 pass attempts, completing 13 of them for 202 yards and two touchdowns. He also added a third score on the ground. Of his four incompletions, three were dropped passes. It wasn’t the deep-bomb performance we’ve known Stafford to be capable of. Many of his pass attempts were in play-action or quick-rhythm throws, and a majority of his pass attempts went 10 or fewer yards. But it was a successful plan for Los Angeles and their quarterback. According to Next Gen Stats, Stafford was blitzed on 50% of his dropbacks yet went 7-of-9 for 148 yards and a touchdown in those situations. The Rams won, and for the first time since his previous game against the Cardinals in mid-December, their quarterback didn’t throw a pick. The Rams likely won’t have the luxury to be a run-heavy offense again against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has a much stronger run defense than what the Cardinals had. As a result, the Buccaneers will likely be able to force Los Angeles to try and win with Stafford’s inconsistent arm. That could prove problematic if the Rams’ quarterback struggles without play-action and plays more like he did in the regular season’s last 10 weeks than the first eight. The Philadelphia Eagles struggled immensely last week when they couldn’t get their strong run game going, then faced an early 14-0 deficit that only got worse as Jalen Hurts struggled in the passing game. The good news is that the Rams have a better quarterback than the Eagles, and his big focus going into this matchup with the Buccaneers has to be taking what the defense gives him. Stafford’s mistakes have often come when he’s trying too hard to either throw a deep bomb downfield or make a play happen out of nothing while scrambling. He did well against the Cardinals with lots of shorter passes, only throwing the deep ball when a receiver was really open after beating coverage. Tampa Bay will likely try to shut down Los Angeles’ run game early to make their offense one-dimensional and take away the option of running play-action. That might mean we see more short, quick throws from Stafford along with some zone-beating concepts. It’s unlikely McVay will unleash his quarterback with deep throws often because that’s when he gets in trouble. That’s especially the case since opponents have often used a cover two safety shell against the gunslinger. If the Buccaneers shut down the Rams’ rushing attack, the onus will be on Stafford to carry his team to victory with his arm. He succeeded when the two teams faced off in the regular season, and after all, that’s why Los Angeles wanted him in the first place.
- May 27, 2022
- May 26, 2022