William-Hayes-CHI-2013

A Turning Point: Quantifying the Rams’ Rapid Improvement

As the Rams prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers in the first of their divisional rematches, it's a good time to look at how different this team is now. Not just in personnel, but in attitude and in play. One need look only at the scoreboard over the last two weeks for the easiest quantification of that change: two wins over winning teams by a combined score of 80-29. 

Those two wins were as unexpected in the statistical community as they were in the Rams fanbase (or any other). Football Outsiders, keepers of the game's most advanced statistical analysis — they break down every play of every game and measure its "value" — had the Rams squared and measured by the end of week 7. 26th-best team in the league, they said. And with the loss of Bradford, there was little apparent hope of improvement. 

Clemens' first two starts in relief of Bradford did little to change that rating, but as you can see, the next two games created a radical shift in their rating. Unlike their dramatic comeback win over Arizona in week 1, the FO statistics project something sustainable in the way the Rams are playing now. 

Of course, more has changed since week 4 than just the quarterback position. The personnel changes, and the upgrade or downgrades they represent, are striking: 

Position Week 4 Week 13 PFF Rating
QB Sam Bradford Kellen Clemens Neutral
RB1 Daryl Richardson Zac Stacy Major Upgrade
RG Harvey Dahl Rodger Saffold Major Upgrade
WR2 Austin Pettis Rotation: Quick, Pettis, Bailey Neutral
SCB Cortland Finnegan (None – replaced by safety Darian Stewart) Upgrade
SLB Will Witherspoon Jo-Lonn Dunbar Downgrade

I used PFF's season scores to quantify whether these changes qualify as upgrades or downgrades, though I disagree on two major areas — Dunbar has been a major upgrade over Witherspoon, and I think any thinking person has to consider Clemens (even as well as he's playing) a downgrade from Bradford.

(It's important, when critiquing PFF ratings, to acknowledge what they are. They are not statistics. They are numerical scores, akin to a scouting score of a draft prospect, that attempt to measure how "impressive" a player was. And sometimes, as in the case of Robert Quinn last week, they can be pretty damn impressed.) 

However, the changed gameplan significantly mitigates that downgrade by asking Clemens to do less than Bradford was doing. 

About that gameplan: 

The Rams had one of the most unbalanced offenses in the league after the first four games, passing 72.6% of the time. That trend hit a brick wall against the 49ers, as the Rams' 19 fruitless carries generated only 18 yards. For his part, Frank Gore gained 18 yards on his first carry of the game. 

That, of course, was before Zac Stacy took over. And just as importantly, before this offensive line successfully found its identity. 

Both parts of this equation came together in the 10-day period between Week 4's game against the 49ers and Week 5's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, as Stacy got healthy and offensive line coach Paul Boudreau whipped his unit into shape. (Naturally, having a cheesy-cake opponent helped too.)

infogram-rb-blocking-wk1-12

As you can see from the chart, shifting primary running responsibilities Stacy instantly added 2-3 yards per carry of strong after-contact running. Daryl Richardson, with his bum foot, was never going to be able to provide that. However, the chart also illustrates the steady increase in blocking productivity by the Rams' reconfigured line. 

That productivity is particularly strong on the left side behind Jake Long. Long was miscast as Sam Bradford's savior in pass protection, but he has been dominant in the run game. Long currently ranks as PFF's top-rated offensive tackle as a run-blocker. And Rodger Saffold, plus-rated as a run-blocking guard over the past two games, has primarily been pulling to Long's left. This, along with the efforts of Cory Harkey or Lance Kendricks as blocking back, have helped establish an off-tackle run identity where none existed before. 

That identity, first and foremost, will be put to the test against the 49ers this weekend. It will be the Rams' first chance to prove that they are not only a different team, but a much-improved team, since Week 4. 

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