THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — There are two ways, and only two, to watch a football game, according to the Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater.
If a team’s offensive line is porous, he said, he focuses on the line of scrimmage, wondering from where the defensive pressure will come, because it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else. But if the line is stout, he concentrates instead on the quarterback, then the play as it unfolds.
“When I’ve been watching the Rams, I’ve been watching the quarterback a whole lot,” Slater said. “I think most other people are, too. And that’s what they want to watch. That’s what makes the Rams so appealing.”
Across his two decades with the Rams, Slater took pride in compelling people to watch the quarterback. He now marvels at a team that has rushed for the most yards in the N.F.L., passed for the fourth most and scored more points than every other team but the Kansas City Chiefs, all behind a beastly offensive line.
The Rams’ five players up front synchronize blocks that spring running back Todd Gurley through chasms and ward off blitzers so quarterback Jared Goff can throw to a cadre of dynamic receivers. That has fueled the franchise’s best start since 1969 — 8-0, heading into Sunday afternoon’s game at New Orleans — and optimized the viewing experience for the best offense in the N.F.C.
“You see it around the league all the time: All these skill positions can be erased without a good line — they can’t get the ball, they can’t get rid of the ball, they can’t run with it,” Goff said recently, sitting at a picnic table outside the Rams’ facility here. “When I see a pressure that’s hard to pick up and no one ever gets close to me, I sit back there nice and clean and look good throwing the ball — that’s all everyone’s going to see. But I know, and we all know, how hard it is up there.”
The Rams’ line, graded the most efficient at pass blocking by Pro Football Focus, is a hodgepodge of talent that reflects the team’s priorities: intelligence and athleticism, savvy centers and powerful tackles who understand the geometry of the sport, and guards who can dominate on the line but also block in space. They are linemen who, as General Manager Les Snead put it, can get in the way and then stay in the way.
The line consists of holdovers acquired through the draft, like left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Rob Havenstein; free-agent splurges like the two-time All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who played his first 11 seasons in Cincinnati, and center John Sullivan, who played for Rams Coach Sean McVay in Washington and has been instrumental in easing Goff’s transition; and a waiver claim, Austin Blythe, who supplanted the suspended Jamon Brown at right guard for the first two games and never relinquished the job.
The same five players have started all eight games this season, and four of those five started the first 15 games of last season, too. That continuity allows the Rams to make dummy calls at the line of scrimmage, drawing defenders offside or, as the NFL Network analyst Shaun O’Hara speculated, fooling them into expected the inverse of an actual call, like a run instead of a play-action pass.
The line’s stability is also revealed by the synchronicity of the linemen’s movements — in the lateral steps they take when run-blocking so that Gurley, the league’s leading rusher, can find a crease and zip through it. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams rank first in adjusted line yards, a statistic it developed to measure offensive line performance by isolating its impact on a running play.
“Remember those videos where people did a flash mob?” O’Hara, a three-time Pro Bowl center who spent most of his playing career with the Giants, said in a telephone interview. “Everybody starts dancing and wow, all of a sudden, everyone’s on the same page. They didn’t say anything. They just played the music and everybody knew. Nobody was stepping on each other’s feet. When you look at the Rams, they all have the same footwork, everybody’s got the same fluid motions.”
The Rams’ proficiency on first downs diversifies their options: No team averages more yards rushing (5.7) or passing (11.5) on first-and-10 than the Rams do. Their efficiency prevents unfavorable down-and-distance situations, in which defenses can expect a pass.
“Sometimes we just explode, and it feels like we’re unstoppable,” Saffold said. “But that’s because all 11 guys know what they’re doing all the time.”
That awareness is a central principle of McVay’s philosophy. Coaches are only as good as what the players know and thus can do. The best-designed plays can implode if a player forgets a detail. Before last season, McVay’s first as coach, the offensive linemen recognized they were not being coached so much as being taught.
In his 13th season, Whitworth said he had yet to encounter a scheme that placed greater responsibilities on an offensive line because of the “mental gymnastics” demanded. The personnel in McVay’s offense rarely changes (one running back, one tight end and three receivers are the norm), but the system, aside from an expansive playbook, features loads of tempos, cadences and no-huddle elements, in which just a word or two signifies a play.
There were times when the offensive line coach, Aaron Kromer, who now also coordinates the run game, would walk into the position room during the week and, before installing new plays, preface his remarks with a caveat. He would tell the players to calm down, that there would be a lot to process that day.
But, Kromer said, he went on to explain everything and why it was critical that they understood it. That notion ran counter, players said, to how some other teams seem to approach coaching: ordering a block on a certain player on a certain play, for instance, without conveying the reasoning behind it.
“Any time we have a meeting,” Havenstein said, “it’s why are we doing it. It’s how we are doing it.”
On Wednesday mornings, when the Rams reconvene after a day off to begin planning for their next opponent, Kromer greets the linemen by discussing defense, not offense. On Fridays, the entire offense gathers to review where, and how, defenders fill the gaps on rushing plays.
Having that foundational knowledge allows the linemen to adjust over the course of a game, as they did in the second half last Sunday against Green Bay.
“It gives you a lot of confidence to realize I’m never going to be put in a position where what I’m being asked to do isn’t sound football,” Whitworth said. “You understand the concepts of what they need to do to make their defense work and how you’re going to counteract that instead of being told what to do.”
Slater observed this phenomenon in person twice, the last two springs, when he and other former Rams stars were invited to attend off-season workouts. Sitting in on an offensive meeting that first year, Slater watched McVay drill every position group — from receivers to running backs, quarterbacks to linemen — on five plays. The next year, McVay did the same thing — only this time, the nuances were deeper, the minutiae more intricate. When McVay quizzed receiver Brandin Cooks, who had been acquired about two months earlier, he knew all the answers.
“Everybody else did, too,” said Slater, who now coaches the offensive line at Azusa Pacific University. “Everybody understood why that particular detail was so important to the play.”
Before joining the Rams, Whitworth said, he was accustomed to telling receivers to block on run plays. Now, receivers like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods initiate conversations with Whitworth and others about why they block the way they do on a particular play.
The Rams have assembled one of the best lines in the league for what amounts to a pittance, investing about $31.4 million this season, 16th among the league’s 32 teams, according to Overthecap.com. It’s no coincidence that the three teams who have spent the least — Buffalo, the Giants and Arizona — are a combined 5-19.
The difference is apparent every time O’Hara studies the Rams’ film. He analyzes the technical aspects, like Sullivan’s combination-blocking or Saffold’s square hips on running plays or Havenstein’s aptitude at moving the front-side defender. But there’s something else he has come to realize, too.
“They’re a fun group to watch,” O’Hara said.