LONDON — “We got eight more to show everybody what we’re about,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth told his Los Angeles Rams teammates, before breaking down a postgame locker room celebration in London. “Put it in your damn mind. Eight straight.”
The Rams have not missed the playoffs since Sean McVay took over as coach in 2017, but are 5-3 through the first half of the season and find themselves in an unfamiliar spot, as they sit in third place in the NFC West behind the San Francisco 49ers (7-0) and Seattle Seahawks (6-2).
Eight straight wins could be necessary for the Rams to clinch a third consecutive division title or to even earn a playoff berth and avoid the proverbial Super Bowl hangover season.
The Rams opened the season with three consecutive wins before suffering their first three-game losing streak under McVay, which included division losses to the Seahawks and 49ers. They bounced back with back-to-back victories over the Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, who are a combined 1-15.
“It’s good to finish off with two wins,” running back Todd Gurley said. “Just build the momentum slowly.”
Said quarterback Jared Goff: “Starting to catch our rhythm.”
Coming off a disappointing Super Bowl appearance, the Rams have played well, at times, but haven’t performed consistently on offense, defense and even the once unflappable special teams.
McVay has said that the offense remains in search of an identity, which has been somewhat puzzling given the unit’s remarkable success the last two seasons. However, through eight games, it’s apparent the game plan has changed in 2019.
The Rams have 526 total plays from scrimmage, the second most in the NFL behind the New England Patriots. The Rams have attempted the third-highest number of passes at 315, just behind the Bengals and Falcons, while only handing the ball off 199 times, which ranks 14th for most carries in the NFL.
Goff, who signed a four-year, $110 million extension before the season, has become the focal point, throwing for 2,367 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions, as McVay has leaned heavily on the passing game.
Gurley, who last season rushed for 1,251 yards and scored a league-high 21 touchdowns, has faded into the background along with the run game. Gurley, who was sidelined in Week 7 because of a thigh contusion, has rushed for 355 yards and has scored seven touchdowns.
Before Sunday’s win over the Bengals, McVay said the Rams needed to “be more efficient in the run game, snap in and snap out,” but then Gurley rushed for only 44 yards and a touchdown against the worst rushing defense in the league. He sat on the sideline during the fourth quarter as rookie Darrell Henderson remained on the field.
McVay offered the same explanation that he has through the first half of the season.
“It just kind of worked out that way,” he said. “… I always say it’s the flow of the game and that was really what it ended up being.”
On defense, a recent shift in personnel could have coordinator Wade Phillips’ unit trending upward in the second half of the season.
The defense endured losses when outside linebacker Clay Matthews suffered a broken jaw, which has sidelined him the last three games, and cornerback Aqib Talib and safety John Johnson were placed on injured reserve.
But the completion of a blockbuster trade for shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey, along with trading cornerback Marcus Peters to the Baltimore Ravens, has allowed the unit to shift its scheme the last two weeks as the defensive backs play more man coverage, allowing the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback.
Over the last two games, the Rams have recorded 10 sacks. In their first six games, they had 13.
“We just got to keep rolling,” said defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has five sacks despite absorbing an overwhelming number of double-teams this season. “We’re feeling good, but we got to keep working. Can’t be satisfied.”
The Rams have an open date in Week 9 before they return to the road in Week 10 to play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
They’ll return to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in Weeks 11 and 12 to take on the Chicago Bears and Ravens in prime time before facing division opponents in four of their remaining five games, as well as the Dallas Cowboys.
McVay has remained optimistic that the Rams can overcome their uneven start.
“I think for us to get tested this early in the season is going to make us stronger in the long run,” McVay said.
It’s yet to be determined if the long run ends after Week 17, or lasts once again into the postseason.