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Interrogating the enemy: Five questions with Turf Show Times

We talk with the enemy to get the skinny on the new look Los Angeles Rams ahead of tonight’s playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Do you smell that in the air? It’s the sweet, sweet smell of playoffs. For Atlanta Falcons fans, it’s been 12 long months since they’ve seen a playoff berth. (For the Saints, it was 2013, but who is counting?) The Falcons battle the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams later today, and we need the expert info. Like, how is Jeff Fisher orchestrating this impressive season with Nick Foles at quarterback?

We talked to Joseph McAtee of Turf Show Times, SB Nation’s awesome Rams blog. He gave us the lowdown on his Rams, and what he expects to see later today.

1) How much does the lack of experience worry you? It feels like one of those things that’s easy to blow out of proportion, but I know there’s only six Rams who have been here before, and that feels like it might be a factor. Any players in particular you worry about under the bright lights (cough, Sam Ficken, cough)?

On scale of 1 to 10...more than 1. I think it’s situational though. If the Rams get off to a good start on offense, it may be one of those soft spots that doesn’t get pressured. If, on the other hand, we get mired in a back-and-forth with bright spots on both sides of the ball for both teams and we get well into the 3rd quarter or the 4th and it’s a really close game? That’s where it would get closer to 7 or 8 on that scale for me.

Cause whether it’s K Sam Ficken joining the roster in Week 16 or HC Sean McVay coaching his first playoff game or QB Jared Goff who’s yet to marshal a major game-winning drive of the kind of late game heroics we ascribe to the transcendent QBs, there’s a ton of Rams involved in what could be game-deciding moments that haven’t been involved in many of them.

2) So, how would you stop Todd Gurley? Assume you have a solid but unspectacular run defense and absolutely no barbed wire will be allowed. Asking for, well, me.

The real key is to negate his effect in the passing game.

As good as he’s been on the ground this year surpassing 1,300 rushing yards in just 15 starts, it was his passing game viability that really had the bigger impact. Gurley racked up 788 yards on 64 catches through 87 targets and many of those were just backbreaking plays of two kinds. One, there’s the screen game for the Rams which has been devastating for teams to defend against. It’s not just Gurley’s athleticism and top-end speed both of which are very impressive. It’s that a well-timed screen negates a blitz. If you throw five or six defenders into the pass rush and the screen just goes right over their heads, that’s the kind of play that defensive coordinators have to adjust to. It affirms the risk level of calling a blitz. And if the DC gets away from blitzing often, well now you’ve made it easier for the Rams to protect Goff in standard passing plays. The other aspect of Gurley’s impact in the passing game has been downfield work, either up the seam or on wheel routes. He’s just an incredible athlete with acceptable hands as a receiver. Getting him in space never ends up badly for the Rams.

So it’s not that he’s easy to stop. But if you’re going to stop the bleeding on one of these wounds, it’s his impact in the passing game where has cut the deepest.

3) I think we’re all focused on Gurley, but I’m plenty nervous about the passing attack. What’s behind the resurgence for Los Angeles, and who do the Falcons have to worry about most on Sunday?

It’s a couple of things: system, application and diversity.

The system that HC Sean McVay has brought in has made it much easier for Goff to have success by getting most of the work done pre-snap. While much was made of the communication between the two to diagnose defenses and how that somehow lightens the load on Goff, it really has required the two to understand the offensive system and apply it consistently against differing defensive looks. The key is to isolate the flashpoint of the playcall so that Goff doesn’t really have to make difficult reads. It lessens the need for him to diagnose things pre-snap, and that’s why he’s been able to avoid bad decisions so regularly and limit turnovers.

And yes, Goff deserves credit for running that system appropriately. It’s worth remembering how we all were thinking of Goff a year ago this time. After waiting out more than half the season to start 7 games and go winless throwing just 155 yards a game while tossing just a handful of touchdowns to seven interceptions, many had already thrown Goff into the dustbin of failed top QB draft picks. But McVay was able to come in and put a system in place for him to flourish and the front office put a TON of new pieces in place on the starting offense that have all clicked. This year, he’s thrown the same number of interceptions, but he’s thrown 23 more touchdowns and about 100 more yards per game.

But lastly, it’s all the weapons around Goff that the Rams use frequently. There is no go-to guy. There’s no target that the Rams force it to in close conditions. And that’s kind of what makes it work. You have to cover WR Sammy Watkins. And WR Robert Woods. And WR Cooper Kupp. And TE Tyler Higbee. And TE Gerald Everett. And RB Todd Gurley. There’s just so much quantity-wise to cover because the Rams are sincere about employing all of them.

So between those three factors, the Rams have turned the worst scoring offense to the best scoring offense in the span of a single season for the first time in the modern NFL era. It’s just not supposed to be possible, but they’ve pulled it off.

4) If you were building an offensive gameplan to attack the Rams, what would it look like? How do you keep Aaron Donald out of the backfield, specifically?

So I think you start with the latter and accept that you don’t keep him out of the backfield. That means you have to do two things. Run at him to keep him from overpursuing and work your quarterback to the outside unless you have a mobile QB who can escape pressure up the middle. That’s a good start.

The real holes for the Rams are the natural pass rush from the edge and Alec Ogletree’s run defense. The Rams’ starting OLBs in Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin just haven’t been individually good enough to live up to the billing of the great pass rushers in the defenses coached by Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. And while the Rams as a whole have gotten pressure and piled up sacks, it’s been the collective design and coverage sacks more than a constant, haranguing rush from the OLBs on their own. So if you can force the Rams to bring extra defenders to support the pass rush, you can at least create more space downfield. And as good as Ogletree is sideline-to-sideline and as athletic as he is as a pass defender and as valuable as he is as a leader and the defense’s quarterback in calling out assignments, he does have a major flaw in his run defense. He isn’t great at shedding blocks, he’s not overly physical and he’s not a great tackler. But he does so many other things well and paired with Mark Barron, they form a strong ILB pair who can work off of each other’s strengths.

5) This is your first playoff berth in years (congrats, by the way), but I can’t imagine a one and done is what you’re hoping for.

No. No it is not. You never know when you’re going to be back here again. Whether it’s a Super Bowl or the wild card round of the playoffs, there’s no certainty to return. In guys are the only team to make the playoffs last year in the NFC and make it this year. So while I’m ecstatic at how quickly the Rams made good on the potential so many of us have felt they were sitting on for years, there are going to be plenty of teams who put a target on the Rams’ back in 2018. As great as this year’s been, if we bow out in this round, it’ll feel a bit incomplete.

And while that kind of unfinished business can be the primary factor for motivating a team to get back into the mix and close out that gap, it’s also something many teams fail every single year. So let’s just have the Rams win the Super Bowl and then we won’t have to worry about it.

BONUS: Do the Rams win this game? If so, what’s the score, and why?

I’m gonna run with my inner bias and say that the Rams’ offense really comes out clicking in the first half and puts enough points on the board to let them glide through a contentious second half, somewhat like our win over the Saints though I think the Rams get another scoring drive in. So I’ll go with a final score of 30-23, but I could see the 4th quarter getting very nail-bitey.