Rob Havenstein heard all the talk. So did Jamon Brown. Same with Rodger Saffold
It was impossible not to.
The three Rams offensive linemen are holdovers from a group that was regarded as the worst line in the NFL last year, a distinction no one was shy about pointing out.
Bluntly. Loudly. Conspicuously.
If the hits and criticism weren’t coming from the voices around the team, they were right there staring back at them in the mirror, or when they reflected on a season in which the Rams line failed to spring one of the best young running backs in the game for more than 100 yards in 16 games and surrendered an absurd 29 sacks.
That included a horrifying 26 in the seven games rookie quarterback Jared Goff started.
So yeah, they heard it all.
“You take it personal,” Havenstein said. “How can you not?”
“It’s hard not to take it personal,” Brown said. “Because you take pride in what you do. But It is what it is. Numbers and results don’t lie.”
Havenstein and Brown weren’t talking in past tense, but they have every right to. So does Saffold. Same with Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, the two newcomers to the Rams offensive line.
You might as well throw new line coach Aaron Kromer in there as well. And Coach Sean McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
They’ve all played a role in the Rams line going from the worst in the NFL to one anchoring an offense that’s averaging a league-high 35.7 points through three games.
Which, considering the hot mess of an offense the Rams flung out on the field week after week after frustrating week last season, wow.
And while you’d get no argument that Goff and Todd Gurley and new wide receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp and rookie tight end Gerald Everett deserve the biggest bows for the remarkable turnaround, let’s not kid ourselves: If it ain’t happening up front in run- and pass-blocking, it ain’t happening anywhere else on the field.
The transformation of Goff. The production of the passing game. The resurgence of Gurley and all those mind-boggling points. None of it happens if Havenstein, Brown, Sullivan, Saffold and Whitworth aren’t carrying out the orders of McVay. Kromer and LaFleur at the high level they’ve been.
And in doing so, providing Goff the necessary time to thoroughly scan the field on most of his pass attempts and throw from safe pockets. Goff has thrown to eight different wide receivers twice in three games, and on a handful of occasions he has been afforded enough time to deliver the ball to Gurley as his last option for significant gains. Goff has been sacked just three times on 81 pass attempts, and while he has had to use his feet, moxie and pressure-awareness to buy an extra second or two or create space to throw from, more often than not he’s operating in clean, safe pockets.
“I can’t say enough about those guys. They haven’t gotten any credit and it’s been mainly them,” Goff said. “With Todd’s production, I know Todd would say the same thing, he’s been running well but he ain’t running anywhere without any holes. He’s not catching the ball out of the backfield and Robert (Woods) and Sammy (Watkins) and Cooper (Kupp) and Tavon (Austin) and all the guys we got aren’t catching the ball – if we don’t have time.”
Gurley endured one of the worst sophomore slumps in recent memory last year, gaining just 885 yards and averaging 3.2 yards per carry. He has surged over the past two weeks, running for 201 yards on a 4.5 yards-per-clip average.
The improved passing game obviously helps. Teams can no longer pay lip service to Goff and his weapons while loading the box against Gurley with eight or nine defenders. But the improved scheme and imagination of McVay’s offense and bigger running lanes have also helped.
It all points to an offensive line that was battered, bruised and continually called out last year, only to return this season remade in some areas, better and more mature in others and collectively better-coached and more efficient.
And that represents quite the turnaround.
“It’s your job, so absolutely you take it personal,” Havenstein said. “You have a bad year in any other business, you get fired. I think a lot of the guys that carried over from last year to this year, we worked our buns off to make sure we showed everyone we were good enough to be here. In terms of self assessment, obviously we all took it very personally. We looked at what we could do as an individuals to add skills to the room. We’re still working on that.”
Step one in the rehabilitation process was firing Jeff Fisher and replacing him with McVay, who subsequently added Kromer, a veteran line coach and former offensive coordinator who has a long track record of developing strong lines.
“You see where Aaron Kromer is, typically there’s been a lot success that follows it and guys play hard up front, they compete.” McVay said. “They’re sound fundamentally, I think he does a nice job, he’s got a great vision for the run game and how you protect. The more that I’m around him, the more you have an appreciation for him, you feel great that he’s our offensive line coach and it’s been a joy working with him so far.”
Aside from some changes Kromer made schematically – the Rams are a combination zone, gap, trap and pitch run offense – he has fostered a positive environment that encourages dialogue and queries.
That was a point of emphasis in the staff McVay assembled. He put a premium on teaching and development and creating a positive environment.
“We talk about it all the time, as a coach you’re really a teacher,” McVay said. “But, it’s important for us to realize that you’re not only transmitting information, you want to make sure that you’re giving it back and there’s a dialogue because if you’re just giving out information and never forcing them to give it back to you, you have no idea where they’re at. So, I think that’s part of the learning process, that’s what makes him a good teacher and really, we’ve got a lot of example of that on our coaching staff. That was kind of what we sought out when we were assembling this staff.”
Kromer embodies it.
“Our approach is it’s their offensive line, and I’m the teacher,” Kromer said. “I’ll give them the information. I’ll show them how we think we should do it. But it’s ultimately their line, and they’re going to get out of it whatever they put into it.
To the outside it might sound like a cliche.
But the Rams locker room is living proof of it.
And the offensive line is no exception.
“We’ve got a great vibe in that room right now,” Havenstein said “You can ask questions to try and get better. It’s just a really good environment right now.
“I feel like guys in our room, we can ask questions about techniques and little things and the differences between defensive players and how we can go about attacking them,” Havenstein added. “We have a good atmosphere there to learn and communicate and ask questions.”
Step two was upgrading the talent level.
The Rams immediately targeted Whitworth in free agency, believing he’d make an impact on multiple fronts. The 35-year-old All Pro offered an immediate and dramatic improvement from Greg Robinson, who never lived up to expectations as the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and, by last year, was a liability protecting Goff and Case Keenum’s blind side.
Whitworth has been everything the Rams could have hoped for in that regard, allowing just one sack through three games and surrendering the fewest quarterback pressures of any lineman in the NFL.
Just as importantly, Whitworth was a willing and conscientious leader the Rams envisioned as a tutor – along with Saffold – for a young offensive line. The signing of Sullivan, a veteran center also noted for his leadership qualities, was designed to have the same effect.
For youngsters like Havenstein and Brown, it was a game changer.
“They’ve meant so much to our success,” Brown said.”
Added Havenstein: “I think a lot of it comes down to the leaders we have on this team and in that room. Whit. John. Rodger. They’ve done a great job helping the rest of the room out. Whether it’s just scheme things or a technique thing here or there. Whatever it is.”
Of course none of that means anything if the players don’t execute and perform. But like Brown said, numbers don’t lie and through three games the line is performing at a more than acceptable clip. It’s the result of the new additions making an impact, Brown and Havenstein being healthy and getting better and Saffold settling in at left guard after moving up and down the line of scrimmage last year.
“We’re developing,” Kromer said. “I think adding Andrew Whitworth and his veteran play and knowledge of the game and way to prepare has helped the group. John Sullivan is a really smart football player. And he can help with tips and understanding defenses. So when you have that combination of veteran presence and youth it’s really helped develop the group.”
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