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The Los Angeles Rams have a red zone problem

Jared Goff’s and Sean McVay’s high-scoring success early in 2017 hides the fact the Rams have scored just 11 touchdowns in 19 red zone chances

Los Angeles Rams vs San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams lead the NFL in scoring with 142 total points. New head coach Sean McVay is already celebrated for rejuvenating an offense that was moribund for more than a decade, without a top 10 finish—or even a top 20 finish—in yards or points since 2006 (L.A. is currently fifth in traditional total offense, and sixth in offensive DVOA).

And McVay has completely flipped the outlook on former first overall pick Jared Goff, who went from an uncertain, inaccurate punchline in seven starts in 2016 to one of the most efficient and productive passers in the league—Goff went from an ANY/A+ that was barely half as good as average NFL performance a year ago (57 percent) to playing 37 percent better than the index average so far. Goff’s league-leading DVOA is more than 115 percentage points better than his negative score in 2016 and he’s already got 1200 more DYAR after leaving yards all over the field as a rookie; his QBR is up from 22 to 60, good enough for 10th.

For a Seattle Seahawks team that has had trouble moving the ball on the Rams’ stacked defense for years and enters Sunday’s game with tons of concern for its own offense, the last thing it needed from this matchup was to have to keep a blistering scoring pace against a competent Goff. Not to mention Todd Gurley is running with a purpose again, and Los Angeles now has Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp to stymie the Seahawks’ suddenly-thin secondary.

However, the hidden secret of the Rams offense is that for all the pinball-like scoring it hasn’t been all that adept at generating touchdowns. For example, Los Angeles hung 35 points on the Dallas Cowboys last week, but reached the end zone only twice compared to seven (7!) field goals. S-E-V-E-N. As Alistair Corp mentioned in his game preview, the Rams missed out on opportunities from the Dallas 12-, 10- and 15-yard lines.

The proportion of offense from kicker Greg Zuerlein is not just a one-game phenomenon either, as Zuerlein is responsible for 56 of those 142 points on the year. L.A. has also gotten two defensive touchdowns and a safety, so Zuerlein gets credit for essentially 43 percent of the offensive scoring.

Zuerlein has 3 more field goals than the next closest kicker—a gap equal to the difference between second and 14th. And Zuerlein is a good kicker. He hasn’t missed in 2017. But six of those kicks also came inside the 20 yard line, suggesting not just that Zuerlein has had a leg up in degree of difficulty, but at the same time indicating the Rams might have a red zone problem. Indeed, Los Angeles has had more plays inside its opponents’ 20-yard line than any team except the New England Patriots (who played five games already) and the Rams only managed to convert touchdowns on 57.8 percent of those drives.

That’s still good enough for 13th in the league, but not as strong a ratio as you might expect for an offense supposedly so prolific.

Goff has been considered one of the best red zone quarterbacks this year because he doesn’t have any interceptions in that part of the field. Goff is completing more than 70 percent of his red zone passes, behind only Alex Smith and Eli Manning right now, and he’s been more productive than either of those starters too, with six touchdowns in that territory. Goff has been perfect targeting Kupp, Watkins and Gurley down there, and he’s also five of six with three touchdowns inside the 10. But given the number of opportunities, the fact remains Goff hasn’t orchestrated the Rams’ offense as efficiently in the red zone as he might have.

L.A. beat writer Cameron da Silva points to execution errors that have inhibited the Rams as the field gets tighter and one-on-one matchups magnify near the goal line. And it will only get harder for Goff and McVay to sort out those issues this week, as Seattle is second best at preventing red zone touchdowns (33 percent) in 2017.

Of course the Seahawks’ have their own challenges getting the ball past the goal line, with a ratio (45.5 percent) even lousier than Los Angeles’s, but for all the worthy encomiums handed out to Aaron Donald and Wade Phillips the Rams alternatively are fourth-worst in allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 69 percent of red zone chances. So if they can reach the goal area this might likewise be an opportunity for Russell Wilson and company to improve on that figure.

But whereas Wilson’s sometime failure to punch it in seems like an aberration from superior play in the middle of the field, and many quarterbacks not named Aaron Rodgers bog down in the compressed quarters near paydirt, Los Angeles’s struggles might signal a more serious offensive inadequacy hidden by its scoring success early in McVay’s maiden voyage.

Our friend Ben B highlights how a full third of the Rams’ 12 offensive touchdowns came after drives of 20 yards or less. Thanks to its sturdy defense, Los Angeles has enjoyed the best starting field position on average in the league, and those short fields have been a big factor for L.A.’s scoring success: Ben notes how against Dallas Zuerlein also got field goals on “drives” of nine yards and four yards.

And despite these difficulties approaching the end zone, it’s not like Goff’s unit has scored a bunch of times from farther out either. The Rams have just one touchdown longer than 20 yards.

Lastly, Ben points out the Los Angeles offense benefited from playing just the 24th-hardest group of defenses this early in the season, further tilting the odds in favor of inflated results.