MCVAY VS MCVAY 2.0? NOT YET, IF EVER
By Simon Carroll
The apprentice versus the apprentice? Sundays game showed a gulf in class but also two teams that, by their indivdual standards, still have a long way to go. Simon Carroll was at Wembley Stadium on Sunday and takes stock of the state of both franchises at the season’s midpoint.
Call British NFL fans uneducated, but they know a one-sided football game when they see one. The Los Angeles Rams ‘hosted’ the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, and despite the generous figure of 83,720 this was without doubt the worst-attended game in the International Series – in terms of empty seats – since the lockout-affected game between the Buccaneers and Bears back in 2011. Why?
Because, on paper, it seemed like a non-contest. Last year’s NFC Super Bowl representatives versus a team that won 2 out of their last 11 games, finishing 6-10 and firing their long-time head coach Marvin Lewis. One team stacked with veteran talent, a legend at defensive co-ordinator and a head coach who has taken the league by storm in his two years in LA. Versus a team with questions at almost every position and a rookie coach who is yet to taste victory in his first seven games in charge.
Make that eight. The Rams beat the Bengals comfortably in the end, the score 24-10 and over way before Auden Tate had a consolation touchdown wiped off the board after review. Yet the ultimate scoreline doesn’t quite tell the full tale of a game that exposed the blatant deficiencies on both the Bengals’ offense and defense. Nor does it mask the slight dysfunction in the Rams’ running game and their front seven. Let’s look at these two teams, their seasons so far and what they need to do to find their relative success.
THE LOS ANGELES RAMS: OFFENSIVE GURU
Two years ago, Sean McVay was hired as head coach of the Rams after relieving Jeff Fisher of his duties midway through the previous season. With some shrewd coaching hires, key free agent acquisitions and a new offense, McVay turned this franchise round in the blink of an eye. The defense was loaded with elite talent via some heavy roster shuffling from GM Les Snead. But it was the offense that took everyone by surprise; Jared Goff went from potential bust to possible MVP candidate in one offseason. The up-tempo, quick strike passing game dovetailed beautifully with Todd Gurley’s run game and opponents couldn’t find the answer.
Since then, some of the personnel has changed but the basis of their offense has not. Mostly all of Sean McVay’s plays come from the same formation. It’s Goff with Gurley in the backfield. It’s any three of Cooks, Woods, Kupp and Reynolds. And it’s Higbee or Everett at Tight End. Out of that ‘11’ personnel, McVay works magic. Good luck trying to predict what comes next – McVay has about 25 seconds on the comms with Goff to call a play, look at what the defense is showing, and tweak accordingly.
The hard part for defenses is that on any particular call, there are four, maybe five wrinkles that The Rams can utilise. Often you’ll see Woods in motion as the ball is snapped. Does that make it a jet sweep? Or does Goff pull away and hand it to Gurley? Does he hit Kupp over the middle, Cooks deep, or maybe Gurley or Woods in the flat? Or does McVay, as we saw Sunday, add a wrinkle to a wrinkle and pull a double reverse flea flicker:
Here’s the Next Gen play to see the movement the Bengals have to cope with:
Teams more talented than Cincinnati will struggle to handle these kind of plays being called on a regular basis. Indeed, after the game, Goff admitted that they’d tried to install the play for the last couple of games but chaged the call at the line of scrimmage after analysing the defense.
“The reverse pass we had we’ve been trying to run that for a few weeks now. And we’ve had it for a while and just so happened we got the chance to do it and Sean couldn’t have called it fast enough. And we got the opportunity and we got the right look for it. …They came in last week. And we backed off it, just thought better of it and decided to call it again this week. Sean has a tendency to call good plays. That was one of them”.
So everything looks rosy then for the Rams? Well, yes and no. The passing game, this season, has been inconsistent. In a shootout loss to Tampa in week 4, Goff threw for 517 yards and two scores – possibly a result of the way the game transpired but an example of what this offense can do when it gets into a groove. But two weeks later against an elite front seven in San Francisco, Goff managed just 78 yards in the air.
There are unsubstantiated claims that once the comms go down defenses can alter their look to confuse Goff, who doesn’t have his savvy coach in his ear for the last fifteen seconds of the play clock. True or not, what is obvious is that Goff fares much better in a clean pocket than under pressure. His completion percentage drops from 69.4% when well protected, to 23.4% when he’s not – the lowest out of any quarterback. He was sacked four times in that loss to the 49ers and never looked comfortable. Whereas against The Bengals on Sunday he had all day to throw and picked apart a suspect defense.
Some have said that the offensive line has regressed this season, Andrew Whitworth in particular not being as reliable as he once was. Football Outsiders contradicts that theory though, arguing The Rams have the fourth best pass protection in the league. It’s been suggested before but maybe this is proof – is Jared Goff a good but not great quarterback, elevated by the system and his head coach?
GURLEY & THE GROUND GAME
This game wasn’t particularly useful in learning more about the Rams run game, which has been scrutinised ever since Todd Gurley’s injury at the back end of last season. Since then, Gurley has been used much more sparingly than previously to combat his arthritic knee . This season he’s morphed into more of a goalline back with a combination of Malcolm Brown and more recently rookie Darrell Henderson stealing carries as they look to keep him as fresh as possible. Sunday highlighted that philosophy with Gurley and Henderson having almost identical workloads and production, combining for 93 yards on the ground. With Goff having so much success attacking the Bengals through the air, this was more than sufficient and once the game was put to bed so was Gurley, who didn’t see the field following his 3rd quarter touchdown.
Establishing the run, despite McVay’s innovative offense, has been a problem this season for the Rams, and a half-decent showing against an underwhelming Bengals offense will do little to quell concerns. Gurley’s yards per carry has dropped by a whole yard from last season and his receiving yards per catch are down almost half. With a rather team-unfriendly contract it’s no wonder The Rams are trying to elongate his career, but if the production is slowing down it almost becomes a pointless exercise. With Henderson knocking on the door at a much cheaper rate, Les Snead will have a big decision to make in the not so distant future.
DEFENSE ON THE RISE
When the Rams went through a three game losing streak, a lot of the focus was on the Defense and why it was struggling compared to the previous two years. The formula was the same – big name players on short-term contracts. Talent at every level. And of course Wade Phillips, the ultimate puppet master, pulling the strings and tying it all together.
Except this year, just like the offense, it hadn’t been quite right. Aaron Donald had a slow start to the year, and the Saints game aside where Drew Brees left early, they really have struggled to impose themselves on teams. Rather surprisingly the team identified Marcus Peters as the weak link, and traded him to Baltimore. A clearer picture emerged as they traded for Jalen Ramsey just hours later, instantly improving their secondary. This, in turn, seems to have unlocked their front seven. Dante Fowler has come alive, with 11 tackles, four tackles for a loss, five QB hits and four and a half sacks in his last two games. Aaron Donald has improved similarly, with three tackles for a loss and a sack of Dalton on Sunday, including this rather rude suplex of the Bengals quarterback in the second half:
Not to mention lesser known role players making their mark. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo has been a menace on blitzes. Rookie Taylor Rapp is a tackling machine and has made the strong safety spot his own. And Troy Hill, in the absence of the injured Aqib Talib, has excelled opposite Ramsey at corner. At Wembley on Sunday it was him, rather than Ramsey, making the plays to halt the Bengals as they approached the endzone.
The Rams will know better than anyone that this upturn in fortune for their defense over the last two weeks has come against the Falcons and the Bengals, two teams with a combined record of 1-15. But they, along with the offense, are trending in the right direction. Maybe they didn’t destroy The Bengals like many thought they would, but two wins in a row heading into their bye week is a start. McVay would be the first to tell you that it needs to continue if they are going to make the playoffs in an extremely competitive NFC West.
THE CINCINNATI BENGALS - TBD
It’s fair to say it’s been a baptism of fire for Zac Taylor. Heralded as the new Sean McVay, for whom Taylor was quarterbacks coach last year, their first seasons as head coach could hardly have gone more different. Where McVay was supported via free agency and trades, Taylor has gone to The Bengals – a team notorious for frugality, in-house development and a lack of action in the offseason. Any hopes for a Rams-style turnaround were quickly put to bed as The Bengals are yet to register a win in 2019. Why this is the case is a culmination of many things, of which we will discuss most of them here. But ultimately it’s another lost season in Cincinnati.
Assuming that Taylor was going to roll out a similar dynamic, high-tempo offense as Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur was just lazy assumption. It also fails to recognise that all three of those other head coaches have a stronger quarterback situation and general managers that aren’t afraid to back their guys with talent acquisition. What we have seen so far this season is a much more traditional offense from the Bengals. Whether Taylor feels he doesn’t have the pieces to operate an offense like he was part of last year, or whether he wants to go in a different direction, is debatable. But the result is there for all to see. The Bengals, until yesterday at least, have struggled to move the ball downfield. Why?
POOR TALENT ACQUISITION
The Benglas don’t have a true General Manager. Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin is essentially the defacto GM when it comes to roster construction, but it’s owner Mike Brown who pulls the trigger and pays the cheques. This lack of defined structure is often to blame for The Bengals shortcomings the last 29 years – the period since they last won a playoff game. Brown is accused of penny pinching, the team rarely if ever steps into the trade market, and often show too much loyalty to middling players with generous contracts. Joe Goodberry of The Athletic pulls no punches on this front – here are four examples of recent roster mismanagement:
Not only that, but their drafting is spotty at best. In 2015 it was determined that the offensive line was the root of all the Bengals problems. They took two tackles with their first two picks – Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Neither player is still on the team, yet these draft busts caused more damage than just wasted picks. Their drafting essentially meant the team wouldn’t be extending Andrew Whitworth, who despite his age has been one of the best tackles in the game last year. Ironically he was on the opposite team on Sunday, shutting down Cincinnati’s meagre pass rush.
Fast forward to 2017 and this o-line is worse than ever. The Bengals shock the world and trade for Cordy Glenn, who struggles to hold down the left tackle spot. In 2018 they draft center Billy Price, panicking after the Lions took their preferred target Frank Ragnow the pick before them. Price played left guard on Sunday after injuries and ineffectiveness have hampered his young career. This year, they drafted two more linemen in Jonah Williams and MIchael Jordan. They also criminally overpaid Bobby Hart, a backup tackle for the Giants, in free agency. In five years they’ve plundered key draft stock into one position, and it’s nowhere near fixed.
And this is just one position group. We haven’t even mentioned John Ross. And according to Goodberry, there may be one more bust to come:
Are we being too harsh on The Bengals? After all, injury has blighted their campaign as much as any team in the NFL this year. John Ross, Darius Phillips, Kerry Wynn and rookie trio Jonah Williams, Dugas O’Shea and Rodney Anderson are all on IR. Star receiver AJ Green is yet to suit up this year and is questionable for week 10, along with Cordy Glenn, Carl Lawson, John Miller, Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick. Carols Dunlap and the forever hurt Tyler Eifert have spent time on the sidelines this year – in fact Eifert got dinged on Sunday. That will cripple any team, let alone one that is of the talent level of Cincinnati.
THE RUN GAME
The expectation when Zac Taylor came in was that we would see a much varied use of the running backs in this offense, much like Gurley was utilised by McVay in the last 2 years. Sadly, that has not been the case. Joe Mixon, not helped by the offensive line, has struggled to establish the ground game, failing to break 100 yards in any contest this season. Last week against the Jaguars he had just two yards off ten caries. TWO.
Shockingly, he’s barely being used in the passing game either, despite his diverse skillset. On Sunday he had four catches for eleven yards. That matches his highest number of catches on the year. On third down, he barely ran a route; on the first 8 third downs the Bengals ran, Mixon was used out of the backfield once. He moved the chains. Three time he was used in pass protection, and four times he was off the field.
Situational football you may say. Maybe so. But Giovani Bernard was hardly used through the air either, an elusive third down back who throughout his time in Cincinnati has been one of Andy Dalton’s preferred targets on short yardage passing downs. As Goodberry intimated above, why sign him to an extension if you’re not going to use him? Everything about the Bengals preseason suggested we’d get the offense we all anticipated, but that’s just not been the case. What’s holding them back?
Maybe the truth lies at the most position of all. Rightly or wrongly, Andy Dalton has been the lightning rod for this team’s offensive struggles ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2011. He’s in his ninth year in Cincinnati, and in 2014 signed a six year, $96m extension. Forever maligned as the yardstick for good or bad quarterbacks, Dalton’s best year came in 2015, where one of the more talented Bengals rosters in memory helped him guide the team to a 12-4 record before THAT famous capitualtion in the playoffs to The Steelers. Dalton broke his thumb in week 14 and missed the rest of the season, contributing to their failure to progress.
Since that season, the Bengals are 19-36-1, with no playoff appearances. Dalton’s stats have tailed off significantly in that time, and this season he’s on course for his worst year statistically to date. What we know about Dalton is that he rises and falls with the talent level around him, and frequent injuries to his top two targets over the last nine years – AJ Green and Tyler Eifert – will have held him back. The aforementioned offensive line struggles have also played a role. But you only have to look around the league to find plenty of quarterbacks playing in similar situations and still are able to produce; Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck have all had arguably worse scenarios and have elevated their game to remain competitive.
We will never see that from Dalton. It’s sad but true. He leads the league with the number of performances with a QB rating of less than 70.0 (81). For uncatchable passes over 5 yards, he is 6th worst in the league at 32.4%. Increase that to 10 yards and he’s third worst with 43.4%. According to PFF Dalton ranks 32nd out of 33 quarterbacks when it comes to the number of downfield passing attempts, ironically one ahead of his opponent this weekend:
Lowest attempt % of 20+ yard downfield throws among 33 qualified QBs per @PFF— Evan Silva (@evansilva) October 10, 2019
33 (last) Jared Goff 5.9%
32 Andy Dalton 6.8%
31 Flacco 7.7%
30 Case Keenum 8.1%
29 Derek Carr 8.1%
1 Ryan Fitz 23.1%
2 Stafford 22%
3 Josh Rosen 17.9%
4 Deshaun Watson 17.6%
5 Mahomes 17.4%
On Sunday his team had one of their better games of the year moving the ball between the 20’s. But their redzone struggles and third down conversions denied them any chance of a victory at Wembley. They finished 6-18 on third down, and this was inflated thanks to some momentum on their final drive in garbage time. Zac Taylor obviously wanted to see what he had in Dalton this year, but I doubt he’s come away impressed. With no cap penalty, $17m to be saved and a very early draft pick likely, expect the Bengals and The Red Rifle to part ways this offseason.
Nobody should be surprised that the Bengals’ defense has been off-kilter this season. It took Zac Taylor almost three weeks to hire a defensive co-ordinator once he was officially unveiled as head coach. And lets not forget he had another six weeks before that when he knew he’d be heading to Cincinnati to organise his staff…
Lou Anarumo had very limited DC experience before joining the Bengals, just a spell as interim co-ordinator in Miami in 2015. A career defensive backs coach, it’s unsurprising to learn that the secondary might be the best aspect of this unit. That’s not glowing praise for a defense that has shipped the most yards per game in the league (435.8). But they’ve conceded an average of just 1.4 touchdowns through the air, good enough for 15th in the NFL. And that figure is improving – the last three games the average is just 1. Not only that, but they rank sixth in redzone defense in the league.
That’s as pretty a picture as you can paint for this defense. On Sunday they got nowhere near Jared Goff – just three quarterback hits and zero sacks all game. They only had one tackle for a loss the whole afternoon. This lack of pressure up front makes it damn near impossible to win a football game, and it came against an offensive line that has had question marks this season. This isn’t something new for the Bengals – only one team (Atlanta, 8) have less sacks on the year than them (9).
But forget the pass rush not getting home, forget BW Webb slipping at a crucial moment; Linebacker is truly the worst position on this unit, and The Rams took full advantage. Cooper Kupp feasted on the open space between the LB’s and the secondary, with Nick Vigil and Germaine Pratt in particular exposed in coverage. Watch how McVay empties the backfield, spreads out RB Darrell Henderson to the flank, and Goff hits Josh Reynolds down the seam right over the outstretched hand of the Bengals rookie:
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
Some cynics might suggest that the 0-8 start and a wasted year is the best thing that could happen to the Bengals. A middling season might have seen Taylor keep faith with Dalton, but surely bottoming out in this fashion means a full rebuild is waiting for them in 2020. In Cincinnati Taylor has probably more job security than any other head coach in the NFL. And with a handful of potential franchise quarterbacks hitting the NFL Draft in April, it’s convenient timing to rip it up and start from scratch.
Outside of Andy Dalton though, there are signs of life from this team. They fight. They don’t quit. Blowout games have been taken to the wire by playing for the full sixty minutes. The roster seems to have bought in to the new regime, no mean feat when you’ve lost every game so far and have no previous experience to help your credibility. Joe Mixon might have biggest cause to complain about the situation out of everyone, yet watch him throw himself into this block:
This team believes. And Taylor thinks they’re close to turning the corner too, as he alluded to in his post-game press conference:
“Another tough one. Feels like I’m a broken record a little bit. We give ourselves opportunities. We feel like we can win these games, and we don’t find a way to finish them off in the second half. In the first half, I thought we came out with good energy. Guys were ready to play. Obviously, the third downs defensively really hurt us in that first half. There were some times the offense got to the fringe, got knocked back a little bit, and prevented us from scoring points there or potentially going for it on fourth down and putting ourselves in a better position to get some points. So that stuff was frustrating”.
“I told the team, hey, this is a good football team. This is a team that has a chance to go deep in the playoffs. I didn’t see anyone quit. I saw you guys fight for all four quarters to give ourselves a chance to win this game. We didn’t do enough. We’ve got to create some turnovers. We had an opportunity to get some turnovers there. Those are game changing plays we’ve got to find a way to come up with. So it was a tough day. We’ve got to find a way to make those plays and give ourselves our best shot”.
They also have unearthed a potential star in Auden Tate. Despite having a touchdown catch cruelly chalked off at the end of the game, Tate continued to show his big play ability with insane leaping grabs. In the absence of AJ Green he has been Dalton’s go to guy, targeted thirteen times on Sunday. Against Jacksonville the week before, Tate had five catches, each one astonishing. Watch him come down with the ball on this one despite pass interference from Tre Herndon:
Deep Completion? ✅— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 20, 2019
QB under Pressure? ✅
Tight Window? ✅
Double Coverage? ✅ @Bengals Andy Dalton's 33 yard-completion to Auden Tate had a Completion Probability of only 12.0%, the lowest of the week and the 4th lowest of the season.#JAXvsCIN | #SeizeTheDey pic.twitter.com/z5qLBRJ2Rw
Their run defense has also improved, in no small part due to the growth of 3rd year DT Josh Tupou. He was credited by PFF as being the best run-stuffing interior lineman in week 7. With Andrew Billings’ name being circled as a possible trade candidate expect Tupou to see more snaps going forward.
Finally, don’t overlook the Bengals special teams. They have one of the best Punters in the league in Kevin Huber, and Brandon Wilson is an electric kick returner with one touchdown and an average of 37.4 yards per return to his name this season. That’s the highest in the league.
For a team that is 0-8, that’s not a bad set of positives to build upon. They’ve got a rookie head coach, injuries, a lack of talent in key areas, lost some close games and been dominated in others. But maybe the situation isn’t as desperate as it first appears. If Taylor can follow in the footsteps of messrs Shanahan, McVay & LaFleur, don’t bet against him turning this tiger-striped ship around.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.