Breakdowns

Battle for the Final Playoff Spot: A Swap of NFC West Teams?

Since 2015, an average of six teams that missed the playoffs one year made it the next. Last season, the Steelers, Browns, Colts, Football Team, Buccaneers and Bears were the 2019 non-playoff teams that reached the postseason (granted, they did expand the playoffs to fit in two additional teams).

So far, we’ve highlighted four teams that made the playoffs in 2020 and will miss it in 2021 – and their counterparts that missed it but will make it this season. With moves made by 2020 playoff teams to improve, and a lack of significant improvement from middling teams, this season could feature less new faces in the playoffs than usual. With that said, the last story of this series will be a little different. We won’t say which of these teams will miss the playoffs. But it is safe to assume only one of these two teams will make the postseason.

Part 1: Dolphins in, Bears out

Part 2: Cardinals in, Steelers out

Part 3: Chargers in, Titans out

Part 4: Cowboys in, Saints out

Los Angeles Rams

In 2020, the L.A. Rams finished 10-6 with the best defense in the NFL, allowing only 18.5 points per game. The defensive unit’s greatness was in its balanced. The Rams had the 1st ranked defense in passing yards (3,051) and TDs allowed (17), while also being stout against the run with the 3rd least rushing yards (1,460) and yards per attempt allowed (3.8).

The Rams minimal struggles mainly stemmed from inconsistencies on offense. In their 18 total games (including playoffs), they had 6 games with under 19 points per game and 5 games with 30-plus points. Realizing that their offensive woes stemmed from turnovers and QB play, they went out this offseason and brought in former Lions QB Matt Stafford in a trade that sent 2020 Rams starting QB Jared Goff to Detroit.

While this is viewed as an upgrade at the QB position for 2021, it will absolutely change their style of play, allowing more down-the-field elements to Sean McVay’s offense. Last season, Goff had the 6th highest percentage of his throws short of the sticks with a minimum of 200 drop backs. Along with this, only 45.8% of his yards (3rd lowest) came before the catch, which suggests a low percentage of completed throws down the field. With Stafford now at QB, the Rams receivers will be asked to create more explosive plays through the air to pick up chunk yards. Last season, Stafford had the highest average depth of target in the league (10.1 yards), signifying a potentially massive shift in how the Rams offense operates. Stafford is also an upgrade in terms of ball security, as with Goff at QB in 2020 the LA Rams had the 7th most turnovers in the league and the 8th most fumbles lost.

Defensively, the Rams will be bringing back the majority of the key pieces from 2020, but will be without star S John Johnson and CB Troy Hill. Both players played over 93% of the total defensive snaps from last season. These will be major losses for the back-end of the defense, but shouldn’t drastically affect the game-by-game production of the top ranked defense from a year ago.

The success of the Rams in 2021 will rest on the ability of Stafford and the passing offense with the assumption that the defense and run game will be productive like usual.

San Francisco 49ers

The story of the 2020 49ers was dominated by their top players ending up on Injured Reserve. Last season, the 49ers lost more than 11 key contributors to IR, including Nick Bosa, George Kittle and Jimmy Garoppolo. This season, the dominant defense of 2019 should regain key contributors, especially along the defensive line. Last season, San Francisco remained as one of the better defenses in the league against the run (7th least yards and 6th least yards/attempt allowed), but the secondary struggled to limit TDs and force turnovers. With Bosa and Dee Ford returning from injury, and Javon Kinlaw entering his second season with the team, the defense should improve in two major aspects that made them successful in 2019 – sacks and pressure rate. Last season, they finished with the 9th fewest sacks in the league with 31, just one year after having 50 total sacks, good for 4th best in NFL. The player with the most sacks on the roster in 2020 was DE Kerry Hyder, who moved on this offseason to the rival Seahawks. Beyond the ability to actually bring the QB down, the main issue for this defense getting pressure on the QB. In comparison, in their 2019 Super Bowl bound season, they had the 10th highest pressure rate in the league at 37%, a number that dropped to the 10th lowest in the league this past season at 30%. When looking at total pass rush snaps, this is a difference in about 86 pressures throughout the season. 

On offense, the struggles for San Francisco mainly came from uneven QB play an inability to limit turnovers, and issues on the interior offensive line. In the draft, they brought in No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance before doubling up on offensive linemen later in the draft. The expectation is that based on the current contract and situation, Garoppolo will come back healthy after last season and regain the starting job. Despite only playing 6 games, he struggled as the Niners QB with 5 INTs and 2 fumbles. A large portion of his playing time came without Samuel, Kittle and players such as Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jalen Hurd. But after emergence of Brandon Aiyuk last season as their WR1 due to injuries, and with a healthy crop of RBs, Samuel and Kittle back on the field, the 49ers offense is also primed for an uptick in output and consistency.

The majority of their losses last season came against teams that finished with a better record than them, but they pulled out two very important divisional wins against the Rams in Week 6 and Week 12. In these games, they held the Rams to an average of 18 points while scoring 23.5 points. This will be the strategy for the 2021 49ers: win defensively and survive on offense. If they are able to have a top 5 total defense in the NFL next season and hold opponents to under 20 points a game, they should absolutely be in contention for the last wild card spot with the LA Rams.

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