RAMS // RAIDERS OVERVIEW
This game laughably opened as a pick-em before being quickly bet up to “Rams by 3,” in the pairing of wunderkind Sean McVay and former wunderkind John Gruden. A few quick words:
It can seem like hyperbole when people talk about the game “passing a coach by,” but the NFL truly does change a tremendous amount over the years. Every so often, you can find an interview in which Bill Belichick — who is probably the greatest living football historian — talks about the way a certain defense or strategy has changed; and when you are out of the game for a while, it can be extraordinarily difficult to immediately know the best ways to attack looks and schemes you have never seen before yourself. Of course, it is not unheard of for a coach to return to the sidelines after a lengthy layoff and to have success (Dick Vermeil), and unlike Joe Gibbs (for example), Gruden spent his downtime in the broadcast boost where he was continually immersed in the game. But some of the statements Gruden has made this offseason lead one to wonder if he has kept up with the league as well as he should have. Gruden always had a strong offensive mind, but he has sounded like a cave man at times this offseason. This should be a fun ride to watch — regardless of the outcome. I’m a Gruden fan in general, and “huge success” or “a total train wreck” would be an entertaining journey.
RAMS RUN OFFENSE
Are you kidding?
What is left to say?
While individual metrics (elusiveness, tackle-breaking, etc.) did not credit Todd Gurley with an MVP season, his ability to read the defense and hit it in the right spots in this Sean McVay scheme were incredible. These are elements that cannot be accounted for in analytics, but Gurley can do things in this offense that no other running back could do. Last year, he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, while finishing eighth in yards per carry and second in total rushing yards, hauling in an additional 64 catches for a wide receiver-like 788 yards and six touchdowns — at a marvelous 12.3 yards per reception. The Raiders do not have the talent on defense to be an above-average force against the run, registering as a neutral matchup. As is almost always the case: Gurley is a full-go.
RAMS PASS OFFENSE
As noted earlier in this article, Jared Goff finished near the bottom of the league last year in pass attempts, though his efficiency was great in this scheme, at 7.8 yards per attempt (seventh in the league) and 28 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. McVay has further stocked the cupboard with offensive weapons as the Rams go for broke — attempting to pay up at other positions to win a Super Bowl while they still have a talented, cost-controlled arm under center. Sammy Watkins has been replaced by superior all-around player Brandin Cooks, while Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods will continue to soak up looks.
The relatively low volume of this pass attack and the locked-in targets for Gurley lower the available targets for all these guys (last year, Watkins finished shy of five targets in over half his games, while Woods finished with five to eight targets in 75% of his games), and Kupp is guaranteed looks as an outlet receiver and third-down maven; but Cooks should have three or four monster games this year, while Woods should have two or three big games of his own. Each is worth a tourney bet in any week, as a guy with true week-winning upside — enough so for you to justify absorbing their inconsistency. Last year, wide receiver expectations were elevated in matchups against the Raiders by a rate of more than 10% over league-average production. They did allow below-average expected yards per target, but they allowed a 10% increase in catch rate compared to league average, and even with Paul Guenther taking over in Oakland with a better idea of how to run things, the talent is not in place for the Raiders’ secondary to experience a rapid turnaround.
RAIDERS RUN OFFENSE
The good news: Wade Phillips does not care about stopping the run. He is going to get after the quarterback and try to lock down perimeter receivers — forcing teams to march down the field without turning the ball over or making mistakes against his aggressive, talented unit. This led to the Rams finishing 30th in yards allowed per carry last season, and even finishing 28th in rushing yards allowed per game (in spite of leading games most of the time).
The bad news: Cave Man Gruden is in love with Doug Martin — he of the 2.9 yards per carry in back-to-back years. (That is not a typo.) I’m expecting talent to win out here, and for Marshawn Lynch — who was a top-15 back last year in elusive rating, and a top-five back in avoided tackles — to clear 16 carries per game this season. If he sees 16 carries and a couple targets in this game, he’s a great option on the small slates; but the uncertainty makes him an iffy proposition on any slate bigger than two or three games.
RAIDERS PASS OFFENSE
Last season, the Rams were just below the top tier in expected yards allowed per target, and they were a top five team in catch rate, while finishing fourth in the NFL in sacks along the way. This year, they have revamped their secondary with Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters (who were “teammates” on the 2016 All-Pro squad). Phillips will let both of these guys gamble, and this defense will generate some seriously fun games this year between their pass rush and the aggressive ball-hawking of these two guys, but one thing to consider here is that the Raiders’ offensive line ranked seventh in adjusted sack rate last year and first the year before, and PFF has them rated as the number seven offensive line heading into this season. That’s not to imply that the Rams will be unable to generate pressure, but it will create some plays in which Carr has more time than the Rams are banking on — which can lead to big-play opportunities against aggressive corners. That’s too thin to make Amari Cooper or Jordy Nelson a viable play on the large slates, but it does provide intriguing boom/bust upside on the small slates. Amari, especially, is worth a slim bankroll investment on small slates for the week-winning upside he has if the Rams break down a couple times.
This Oakland team is not going to involve the running backs heavily in the pass game, and Martavis Bryant is functioning as their low-target number three, which means that in a matchup such as this one — with All-Pro corners on each of their top-two wide receivers — we should expect a volume spike for tight end Jared Cook. The Rams ranked 19th in DVOA against the tight end last season, and while this doesn’t scream “attack,” it was their worst mark against any position.
Gurley is a full go, while Cooks and Woods are moderate-floor plays with week-winning upside. Goff also carries a moderate floor on his low volume, but his ceiling is enough to keep him in the conversation on the small slates given the offense he is working in. Kupp always carries a strong floor, and he is a preferred weapon in the red zone — which doesn’t ever put him into the “week-winning” conversation, but he can add some nice guaranteed points with respectable upside if you are needing to fill out a roster.
On the other side, Lynch has to be considered on smaller slates, though we should be slightly concerned that Gruden will play Doug Martin far more often than any sane man would. (“Corona! Hooters! Spider 2 Y Banana!”) Amari and Jordy are small-slate tourney plays only, but Cooper has a long-shot chance at breaking the slate open if things go just right. Jared Cook is never exactly “trustworthy,” but he should see a spike in targets in this one, and is a great tight end bet on the two-game slate, where the other three teams do not feature their tight end at all.
*UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 2 // Full “Updates” List
Martavis Bryant has been suspended again. Good thing Gruden traded a third-round pick for him.
If you had him on any deep-shot tourney rosters, be sure to remove him.