Rams feel better about this year's 3-1 start compared to a season ago

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- For a second consecutive season, the Los Angeles Rams are off to a 3-1 start. But they'll be the first to tell you that not all 3-1 starts are created equal.

For instance, 2019?

"You played good enough to win but you didn't feel real good about how well we were executing even though you were winning," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "I think in this situation, we feel pretty good about the way we're executing as a football team."

Said quarterback Jared Goff: "We're just playing a lot better at every spot, every phase."

The Rams are in second place in the NFC West behind the 4-0 Seattle Seahawks as they prepare for a third trip to the East Coast to play the Washington Football Team (1-3) on Sunday.

Last season, their 3-1 start -- which included a drubbing by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- resulted in a 9-7 finish that kept them from a third consecutive playoff appearance.

With three new coordinators, a revamped backfield and a host of new defensive starters, their identity is still taking shape. But through a quarter of the season, Rams coach Sean McVay -- who is returning to Washington for the first time as a head coach after spending seven seasons there as an assistant -- likes what he sees.

"What I've been encouraged with is that this team has shown a resolve, a mental toughness," McVay said, "and an ability to win games in different ways."

In a season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys, the offense resembled the 2018 version that propelled the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance. The defense produced a late-game stop to secure a 20-17 win.

The offense continued the pace, if not stepped it up a beat, in a dominant Week 2 performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which cornerback Darious Williams produced one of his team-high two interceptions to halt an Eagles momentum surge in the third quarter.

And although they dropped a game in Week 3 to the undefeated Bills, the Rams departed Buffalo with resolve after they staged a 29-0 run in the second half to overcome a disastrous start and nearly completed what would have been a historic come-from-behind win.

Last Sunday, they grinded out a win over the New York Giants, in a game that wide receiver Cooper Kupp admitted left "kind of a bad taste in our mouth" because of how the offense performed.

"It can be an ugly win; it can be a great win," said Whitworth, who is in his 15th NFL season. "Whatever it is, you find a way to win that game, and I think we've shown that in all four games regardless of our record."

The defense has allowed an average of 20 points per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL and is an improvement from the 22.8 points allowed per game last season.

"We are encouraged," first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said. "But far from satisfied."

Staley, who kept a 3-4 base defense but often deploys five defensive backs, wants to see the unit improve its alignments and fundamentals.

"It's not anything big," he said. "It's just these little things that add up to a lot of big things."

Among the goals of Staley's scheme is to get two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald into more one-on-one situations. Donald has 3.5 sacks this season, though his pass rush win rate versus double teams has jumped from 61.1% in 2019 to 71.6% this season.

"It's a good start. I'm pretty sure that we made mistakes here and there," Donald said about the season. "We'll continue to get better."

The offense is scoring an average of 26.5 points per game, which ranks 14th in the league and is an improvement from last season's average of 24.6.

The run game has outperformed expectations since moving to a committee approach after the departure of Todd Gurley II. Behind Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson Jr., Malcolm Brown, along with several receivers who have carried the ball, the Rams are averaging 142.3 rushing yards per game compared to 93.7 yards last season.

But the most notable improvement belongs to Goff, who is now in his fifth season. His Total QBR has jumped from 40.6 through the first four games of 2019 to 72.5; his completion percentage is up from 64.2% to 72.1%; and his touchdown-to-interception ratio has improved from 6-to-6 through four games last season to 6-to-2 thus far in 2020.

Goff said the offensive line has provided the most promise, but he also pointed to his improved footwork for his personal success.

"My feet have been so much better through these four games than really anytime my career," Goff said. "Just the consistency with my feet and the consistency with my eyes. A lot of that is credit to the O-line."

The offensive line has a pass block win rate of 63.4%, up from 56.9% last season.

With the portion of their schedule featuring NFC East teams -- which have combined for three wins this season -- nearly complete, the difficulty of the Rams' schedule should pick up. They'll begin division play in Week 6 in San Francisco and must also play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots later this season.

But, compared to a season ago, there's plenty of confidence around the Rams that they have a solid foundation to build on.

"You can start fine-tuning how you play the game," Whitworth said. "And I think that's how you really truly start to get better and better as a team throughout the season."