Rams Film Room: What’s wrong with Cam Akers and the racing game?
It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Rams’ run game was one of their offense’s biggest question marks this season. Cam Akers is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry and the team’s 117 total yards in two games ranks 31st in the NFL. The Rams’ 2.7 yards per carry also rank dead last.
This was also an issue with the Rams at the start of the 2021 season. However, that changed in Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals. With the Rams rushing for over 100 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars the previous week, it was the Cardinals’ game that set the tone for the rest of the season.
Sony Michel carried the ball in this game 20 times for 79 yards. It was the second of five consecutive games with 70 or more yards for Michel.
A performance that sets the tone is exactly what the Rams need on Sunday against the Cardinals. With games against the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys on deck, the offense is going to have to find a balance.
They must be able to throw the game on the ground, which will require multiple pieces to work in conjunction with each other. In addition, the Rams will have to determine who will be the hot hand in the backfield.
The offensive line
For a good running game to be successful, it all starts with the offensive line. So far this season, the Rams have an offensive line problem. The Rams rank 31st in yards before contact and according to Football Outsidersthey rank 29th in adjusted line yards.
These rankings were on full display against the Buffalo Bills. Darrell Henderson had a good run on the outside, but other than that he averaged 2.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Akers had three carries for zero yards. The offensive line was simply beaten and that’s well said.
However, at the start of the season, a very bad game that ends up being an outlier will seriously skew the numbers. There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of the offensive line.
In his first start at guard, Alaric Jackson ranks sixth in the NFL in blocking among guard win rates according to ESPN stats and information. With Brian Allen out, Jackson will get more playing time over the next few weeks. After a very poor opener, the offensive line turned things around and is already 19th overall in block win rate.
On Henderson’s touchdown against the Falcons, he entered the end zone untouched. On the play, Rob Havenstein took out two players, Coleman Shelton sealed his defender, and then Cooper Kupp had the finishing touch, blocking safety.
Additionally, the Rams rank 16th in rushing DVOA on offense and 15th in EPA per play. According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams also rank eighth overall in run blocking. It’s still very early in the season. We have a week where the Rams were beaten hard up front and another where they started to show some good things. The next few weeks will show a lot.
The diet works
It would be one thing if the system didn’t work, but that’s not the case at all. The scheme was working as expected, especially last week against the Falcons. The offensive line blocks in its spaces and opens creases for running backs.
All in all, it was a very good performance last week. The offensive line blocked much better and McVay made the necessary adjustments. The newly introduced Ben Skowronek rear package served its purpose. Offense was almost three times more effective in this formation.
Still, the Rams miss opportunities for bigger chunks of yards. The scheme works and the hole is there for the plug. One missed block will unfortunately blow up the whole game.
In this example below, Henderson picks up about four yards. However, at the back, Higbee is not attacking his defender quickly enough. It’s a tough ask for Higbee and Skowronek also offers no help as he drives past to take the defensive back. It’s a race that could have lasted almost 10 meters, but it’s more of an average gain.
It’s the little things right now that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. The Rams’ running game is just on the verge of a breakout. On some games they are a block away. A few missed chances with Akers missing cut lanes or a missed block by an offensive lineman or tight end prevented him from taking it to the next level
What’s wrong with Cam Akers?
Watching the movie, it’s pretty clear that Akers isn’t the same as before Achilles’ injury at the end of 2020. The sooner the Rams realize that fact, the better. He lacks confidence in his vision, explosiveness, contact balance and decision. Often this season, he looks uncertain. He looks too often to try and bounce the game away.
McVay’s offense, especially in the running game, is all about zone concepts. In a zone run pattern, a good zone running back will take advantage of a crease opening by cutting against the tide to find the open zone.
That’s exactly the case in this game in the second half. Pause the video a little after the one second mark. You will notice that there is a huge reduction lane that was walled off by AJ Jackson. Instead of reducing, Akers gets caught in the side. He does not see the way of reduction which would have given him a positive yardage.
Akers currently ranks 34th of 35 running backs in rushing yards relative to expectations according to MFB analyzes. His -0.29 EPA per carry is also tied for second worst in the league. Missing those creases and hesitating at the start of his runs is a big reason for that.
On the play below later in the fourth quarter, Akers doesn’t seem to know where he wants to go with the ball. His vision and indecision are on full display. The majority of this run is made up of stuttering footsteps and the hole he takes he probably should have hit a full second sooner. Looks like he wanted to bounce the game on the outside, but there was an initial opening in the B gap that he should have hit immediately.
The difference with Henderson
This next game from Henderson comes exactly one game later. Akers didn’t have ideal blocking on the previous snap, but he hesitated, lacked early vision and didn’t explode in the hole when he was there.
Blocking for Henderson isn’t great in this game either. However, he realizes that nothing is going to happen on the left, reduces and still manages to pick up a few yards. He is much more confident and decisive with his cuts.
Looking at Henderson, he’s just a lot more decisive in his runs and hits the holeshot with a lot more explosiveness. At the moment he is a much more confident runner. While Akers is near the bottom in terms of peak yards versus expectations and EPA per rush, Henderson is in the middle. He’s 18th in rushing yards compared to expectations at 0.16 and 10th in EPA per carry.
What does Sunday mean?
For two weeks, the Cardinals rank 10th in EPA run defense and 11th in DVOA. Not a bad defense as they are in the top 10, but they can definitely be faced. In Week 1, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had seven carries for 42 yards against the Cardinals. Isiah Pacheco and Jerrick McKinnon also added 16 carries for 84 yards. Arizona allows 4.2 yards per carry, which ranks 15th in the NFL.
If the offensive line plays like it did last week, that will definitely help things. McVay should also be able to plan some on-court looks against that Cardinals defense he’s had success against in the past.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford currently leads the NFL in interceptions. The best way to help a quarterback is with a consistent running game. The Rams need to find a balance on offense. As the Rams enter a turning point in Week 3, finding that balance and running the ball effectively could be critical to their success.