THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — At the midway point of last season, the Los Angeles Rams were 8-0 and a popular Super Bowl pick.
The current Rams hit their midseason break at 5-3 and a much less popular pick for postseason success. The defending NFC champions are in third place in the NFC West midway through a year marked by in-season roster upheaval and a three-game skid.
Sean McVay acknowledges he's an eager vendor of the standard one-game-at-a-time coaching clichés, but he has learned enough in his 2½ seasons in charge to know the Rams really do have a chance to accomplish anything they desire down the stretch.
"This league has so many ebbs and flows, and we're (only) halfway through," McVay said Monday night. "So much can be changed in these eight weeks. I think one of the things that has helped us over the last couple of years that you have to really be conscious about is not looking ahead. So many things are unpredictable. You start looking ahead, (and) you don't take care of the business at hand."
That business is a trip to Pittsburgh (4-4) on Sunday after a week off. McVay and his Rams were mostly absent from their training complex last week after a 10-day road trip concluded in London with back-to-back victories.
The Rams went into the break with visible progress on both sides of the ball since that three-game skid. The offense is looking more effective after an uncharacteristic dry spell, while the defense has been boosted by the addition of cornerback Jalen Ramsey and renewed success by its pass rush.
"I think we're progressing," said safety Eric Weddle, the only remaining secondary starter from Week 5 one month ago, thanks to the trades of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and the probable season-ending injury of safety John Johnson.
"We know we have guys that can play our style of football and have a strong, strong second half of the season," Weddle added. "It's on me as a leader to make sure we get those guys right, and we're going to do it."
McVay spent hours in self-scouting during the break, analyzing what worked and what didn't in the first half. He refused to share any details of his findings, but after joking repeatedly about stress and exhaustion earlier in the season, McVay looks and feels renewed.
"I think it's important to get away, but I did look at some stuff, especially at the halfway point where you really have enough inventory to really be thorough with a self-scout," McVay said. "It was a little bit of that, and then it was relaxing. But it's good. It was a good balance. I feel good. Excited to get back at it with these guys."
The Rams' passing offense is fifth in the league with 287.2 yards per game, and Jared Goff has thrown just one interception against five touchdown passes in their last four games. The passing offense still has many areas for improvement, and so does the line charged with keeping Goff upright, but Los Angeles is confident it can throw the ball even if receiver Brandin Cooks is out for a while with his latest concussion.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Rams' rushing offense is 20th in the league, and its 3.9 yards per carry is 21st. McVay's high-flying schemes were built on the play-action threats created by a solid running game, and the Rams don't have it yet this season.
Two players stood out in the first half. Cooper Kupp has been one of the NFL's top receivers, catching 58 passes for 792 yards and five touchdowns in an impressive return from the knee injury that sidelined him midway through last season. Pass rusher Dante Fowler has 6½ sacks and a fumble recovery alongside 32 tackles, and his last two games were outstanding.
Todd Gurley's massive new contract doesn't kick in until next season, but the Rams could use a big impact now from their franchise running back. Gurley hasn't produced a 100-yard rushing game this season, and he hasn't topped 65 yards since Week 1. His touches and production are down sharply, but the Rams still insist they aren't preserving Gurley's health for the stretch run. We'll soon find out whether Gurley can give more than he was allowed in the first half.
Cooks saw specialists in Pittsburgh last week after his second concussion of the season, and he plans to see them again soon, McVay said. He wouldn't say whether Cooks could play this week. McVay had better news on pass rusher Clay Matthews and running back Malcolm Brown, who are expected to practice this week. McVay is optimistic about both players being ready for Sunday.
92: Gurley's carries through eight games. He had 169 at the midway point of last season.
The Rams will be tested immediately by the Steelers, but a win would put them in position to go to 7-3 at home against struggling Chicago a week later. The final six weeks will determine the NFC West, with Baltimore arriving for a Monday night showdown before four division matchups in December.