After earning a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Rams are set to face the Dallas Cowboys Saturday evening in the Divisional Round. The Cowboys are coming off a 24-22 nailbiting victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round and have won eight of their last nine games since Week ten of the regular season. The Los Angeles Rams, on the other hand, have cooled off from their hot play at the beginning of the season. Sean McVay’s team went 3-2 in the final five games of the regular season and have played uncharacteristically sloppy football.
The two teams last met during the 2017 regular season and the Rams came out on top by a score of 35-30. Both teams have gained new weapons on both sides of the ball since then, which makes for a very intriguing match-up this Saturday. Here are some things the Rams need to do in order to avoid an early exit in the playoffs this year.
Run Game is Key for Los Angeles Rams in Divisional Round Matchup versus Dallas Cowboys
Derailing the Zeke Train
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott came back with a vengeance in 2018. After a rocky season that was highlighted by his six-game suspension the year prior, Elliott proved he’s one of the league’s best backs by finishing with the most rushing yards (1,434) and highest average of rushing yards per game (95.6). It is no surprise that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan leans so heavily on Elliott to power his offense. The Cowboys finished with the 10th most rushing yards in the league and were second in the league in average time of possession.
During the Cowboys hot streak since Week ten, Elliott has carried the ball 18 times or more each game and has rushed for 85 yards or more in all but one match. He has five 100+ rushing yard performances, including a dominant 137-yard game against the Seahawks in the Wild Card round.
The Rams best chance at beating the Cowboys is stopping Elliott and the Cowboys run game. Dallas is 2-4 when Elliott rushes for 80 yards or less this season. However, that will not be the easiest of tasks for the Rams. Los Angeles has struggled to defend the run all season, especially down the stretch, allowing five straight teams to rush for 100 yards or more to end the season. Wade Phillips‘ defense finished 23rd in rushing yards allowed (1,957) and dead last in rushing yards allowed per attempt (5.1).
This statistic comes as a surprise after the Rams reloaded their defensive line with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler Jr in the past year, putting Suh and Fowler alongside Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. Even inside linebacker Cory Littleton has been a pleasant surprise in 2018, but despite the individual names, the Rams have struggled to defend the run as a unit.
This was not always the case, however. In the first six weeks of the season the Rams proved to above average in defending the run. They held the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and the Denver Broncos to under 100 rushing yards. The Rams forced all of those teams to become one-dimensional which allowed their best pass rushers to let loose in the latter half of those games. If the Rams front-seven can maintain their gaps, win the line of scrimmage and not let Elliott break off big runs, they will make the Cowboys one-dimensional. While Dak Prescott has been playing at a high level down the stretch, the Rams pass rush and secondary will be too much for him and the offense to overcome.
On the Flip Side
Offensively, much of the Rams gameplan should be what the defense is trying to prevent; establishing the run. Last postseason, turnovers put the Rams in a big hole and the offense was forced to abandon the run sooner than they had intended. But the formula to success in McVay’s offense is establishing the ground game. The Rams are 2-3 this season in games in which they rushed for less than a 100 yards.
While quarterback Jared Goff and receivers Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks get most of the love, running back Todd Gurley and the offensive line are the most important components. Gurley’s ability to run inside and outside the tackles puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses to stop the run by loading the box. When that happens, misdirection and play action become Goff’s best friends as defensive backs are usually left on islands with the Rams receivers.
One thing that stands out in the Rams play actions is how hard the linebackers and defensive linemen bite. As a linebacker, it is almost impossible to recover and drop back into coverage once you have come up two to three yards. Tight ends and opposing wide receivers are already where they need to be which makes for easing throwing lanes for Goff. And when the defensive line bites on the outside zone play action, they are moving laterally initially instead of up field. This means Goff will face little to no pass rush which will give him the opportunities to look deep down the field.
The Last Word
The Rams have a tough task ahead of them in facing the Cowboys. Dallas’ rushing attack has been amongst the elite this year and their ability to stop the run is fifth best in the league. Expect this to be a low-scoring football game. If the Rams can manage to win the line of scrimmage on defense and offense and get ahead early at home, they should be in good shape to win the game.
Prediction: Los Angeles Rams 20 Dallas Cowboys 16