Welcome back to the NFL regular season, y’all. To get you up to speed for the game, we took the daring and highly usual risk of talking to our opposing SB Nation bloggers over at Turf Show times. The following interview was conducted with the managing editor over there, Joe McAtee. That makes this the best place to learn about how Sean McVay, Jared Goff, and Aaron Donald are either going to embarrass or be embarrassed by the Panthers this Sunday. It’s also where you will learn why Christian McCaffrey is the not-so-secret secret to the Panthers success. Read on, lest the suspense lasts longer than the competitive nature of this game.
Well, I don’t really. The Rams could easily end up with less than 13 wins and fall short of a Super Bowl appearance, but I don’t really buy into the idea of a Super Bowl “hangover.” This is still a very good team with a stacked roster (PFF ranked it the second-best roster in the NFL) and maybe the most promising young head coach. So it’s not like the Rams look like a 7-win team right now.
That being said, the Rams’ 2018 season does raise the bar both for the team and the challenge the Rams will face week-to-week. In terms of expectations, Rams fans have recalibrated pretty quickly from the Jeff Fisher year which capped a 13-year run without a winning season to the Sean McVay era. So a winning record and a playoff berth likely won’t satisfy a majority of fans if it comes with a quick playoff exit. For the challenge it invites, look no further than Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in Episode 2 of Hard Knocks this year. Teams know when they’re playing these Rams that they have to summon their best selves. That certainly wasn’t the case for previous Rams teams. So now that the Rams have established themselves as one of the better teams in the league, they’ve put themselves squarely in view of that target on their back.
Super Bowl hangover? Nah. Raised bar? Absolutely.
What are the expectations (or fears) for Todd Gurley this year and how healthy will he actually be for this Week 1 match-up?
Well, it’s hard to tell.
The Rams were (I’m being nice here) misleading in how they talked about Gurley’s knee from the end of the season into the playoffs and to the Super Bowl. So I’m not sure their comments since have much merit. I’m particularly pointing to McVay noting that the Rams won’t have Gurley on a “pitch count” this weekend.
That being said, I really don’t know what to expect in terms of outputs. In terms of health, I don’t see why Gurley wouldn’t be as healthy for the season opener as he was a year ago. The problem, of course, is what happened afterward. Gurley revealed after Week 15 last year that he actually aggravated the knee in Week 1 against the Raiders. It responded well over the next 48 hours though, and he was able to practice that week and show out in Week 2 with 19 carries against the Arizona Cardinals. When he aggravated it again in Week 15, it just didn’t respond as well.
So the real issue is, moving forward, how is anyone supposed to know how it will respond? I think the Rams were wise enough to invest in an insurance policy by drafting running back Darrell Henderson Jr. in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but I think they’re just going to have to take things week-to-week and find ways to expose Gurley less to ensure he’s in better shape at the end of the season than he was last year.
The robot piloting Sean McVay is obviously the strength of the Rams offense. What is its weakness?
Well the obvious issue to point to would be the interior offensive line. The Rams have two new starters with offensive lineman Joseph Noteboom taking over at left guard for Rodger Saffold III who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency and center Brian Allen replacing John Sullivan who was waived and hasn’t found a suitor as of yet. Both Noteboom and Allen were taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, but both were essentially redshirted last year so we really don’t know what to expect. And at right guard, Austin Blythe took advantage of a suspension to Jamon Brown at the beginning of the year and never looked back. The Rams ultimately released Brown who is now in the Atlanta Falcons’ somewhat messy line depth chart. So between the three Rams linemen, we’re looking at 18 career starts and a lot of unknowns.
Other than that... I mean, there’s not a ton to be worried about. The Rams’ offense has scored more points than any team in the last two seasons and was second last year only to the Kansas City Chiefs. The wide receiver group is fantastic with Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and a healthy Cooper Kupp forming one of the league’s best trios if not the best outright. Gurley was nearly the MVP two seasons ago and now the Rams have added talent there. And QB Jared Goff has the best trajectory of any young QB in the league having made a jump in his second year with McVay’s arrival (though after that 2016 season, there was nowhere to go but up...) and then making a more important individual leap last year. If he maintains that trajectory into 2019, he’s going to silence quite a few doubters.
Between the roster and McVay running things, the Rams should be just fine on offense.
Besides the name guys like Aaron Donald, Clay Matthews, and Eric Weddle, who are the guys that Panthers fans should look out for on Sunday?
The Rams have a bunch to sort out on defense this year under Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. Last year, they had one of the league’s worst run defenses, but that obviously didn’t stop them from starting out 8-0 and taking things all the way to the Super Bowl. So the spine up the middle is pretty concerning. The Rams changed things with the departures of Ndamukong Suh, inside linebacker Mark Barron, and safety Lamarcus Joyner. The hope is that the emergence of defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day or rookie nose tackle Greg Gaines can help stiffen things up front. For the linebackers, Cory Littleton made the transition from special teams standout to inside linebacker after the Rams traded Alec Ogletree to the Giants last offseason. The concern is that the edge rushing depth chart may not offer consistent pressure. EDGE Samson Ebukam was a starter last year, but he’s likely relegated to rotational duties with EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. and Matthews taking the majority of the work. The secondary is fantastic though. corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and the safety duo of Weddle and John Johnson III should be one of the best in the game, and the Rams even bolstered the group with draft picks in safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback David Long Jr. The former looked fantastic in the preseason.
It has the makings of a good defense on paper, but it did last year and the results were pretty poor until the postseason. It’s the more interesting side of the ball for sure.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I think the offense will be fine even with the O-line turnover. The skill positions are fantastic and McVay will have plenty up his sleeve to work through this year. I do worry if the defense will have issues especially with a fantastic athlete in RB Christian McCaffrey. Whether you guys get him going in the ground or using him in the passing attack, he’s the kind of player that could easily flummox this defense. So I’ll go with a pretty high scoring game in the Rams winning 34-24, but it’s going to be a very interesting game to open 2019.
There you have it folks. The Rams are a team of unquestionable talent across the board. They are set to face a roster with a few more holes but also higher top end talent. For more inside insight into the Los Angeles Rams, check out more of Joe’s coverage over at Turf Show Times and on twitter.