In less than two short years as a head coach, the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay has transformed the game. The success displayed by Jared Goff last year in his second season and first under McVay, after many had written the first overall pick in 2016 off as a bust, has become a model that many NFL franchises strive to emulate, including the Chicago Bears. As the schedule-makers would have it, those two organizations square off this weekend. Here is a look at some of the ways McVay has created an offensive machine, which currently ranks No. 2 in the NFL in yards and scoring.
In today’s NFL, one of the ways a talented offensive mind can put his players in position to succeed is by dictating to a defense. If a play-caller can force a defense to use a specific personnel package, coverage or front — or even all three — on a given play, and then call the exact perfect play to exploit that look, he has done his job at a very high level.
The Rams enjoy the presence of Todd Gurley, one of the league’s more talented running backs, on their roster. Some coaches would be satisfied with his level of talent and assume that he would be able to create yardage against any defensive front. But McVay is not some coach. His usage of offensive personnel this season has dictated defensive personnel so well, putting his running back in an even better position to succeed. The Rams use "11" offensive personnel — one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers — almost exclusively. Out of their 782 offensive plays this season, 742 (95 percent) have come from this personnel group. No other team cracks 80 percent. When a defense sees "11" offensive personnel in the game, it thinks pass, and puts extra defensive backs on the field. However, the Rams run the football 42 percent of the time (312 plays) when using this formation, and average 5.3 yards per rushing attempt. Only the Seattle Seahawks run more out of "11" personnel in terms of a percentage of their plays.
What this translates to, on the field, is getting Gurley (#30) running against lighter boxes:
Here the Detroit Lions use their 4-2-5 nickel defense against the Rams’ "11" personnel. Detroit has six defenders in the box, although the backside cornerback gets as close as he can given the alignment from the receivers. Los Angeles runs Gurley to the right side, and the timing and angles on the blocks are absolute perfection:
Gurley is untouched until he gets to the unblocked corner, and he uses a stiff arm to get around him:
By relying on "11" personnel, McVay has put his offense in position to get a talented running back working against lighter defensive fronts and packages with extra defensive backs on the field. Putting your players in position to succeed is the primary job of a coach, and McVay is doing that part extremely well.
More and more offensive coordinators and play-callers are using motion as a part of their play structure, and the numbers bear that out. Back in 2014, only 12 percent of offensive plays used motion. So far this season, that number is 39 percent. In fact, the use of motion has increased every season since 2014. So the idea that McVay using motion and movement pre-snap is revolutionary is perhaps a stretch. But McVay, as you might expect, still is a bit ahead of the game. Look at this chart from Keegan Abdoo, a researcher for Next Gen Stats:
McVay has taken things a step further and used jet sweeps, off of jet motion, more than anyone in the NFL. Meaning every time the Rams send a receiver in jet motion on a given play, the defense is forced to respect the potential sweep with that player.
Which is why McVay often uses that as an element of disguise:
Brandin Cooks (#12) comes in jet motion before the snap, and as this play begins Goff (#16) fakes a sweep to him, as well as a run to the left with Gurley. This is all eye candy for a Sail concept to the right side, with a deep corner route and an intermediate route from TE Tyler Higbee (#89). Cooks continues to the right flat, giving Goff an outlet. But the QB doesn’t need to take that, as his tight end is open on the out route:
Because of the motion and the eye candy, the linebackers are slow to get into their drops here. As Cooks releases to the flat, he pulls the cornerback down toward the line of scrimmage, expanding the throwing window for Goff to hit the out route.
On this play from their high-scoring affair against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Rams take things a step further:
McVay pairs jet motion with play-action once more, but he uses them to set up a throwback screen to Gurley after the run fake:
The motion from Robert Woods (#17) pulls one defender to that side of the field, and between the motion and the run fake the Chiefs end up with just one defender in position to stop the screen, but with RG Austin Blythe (#66), C John Sullivan (#65) and LG Rodger Saffold (#76) setting up a convoy for Gurley. Only an incredible hustle play chasing down Gurley from behind prevents this from being more than “just” a 19-yard gain.
These three plays are from one drive, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of plays was confirmed with the NFL. There is no doubt that these three plays are from just one drive. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate…
Apologies. It is the holiday season after all and I’m a sucker for “A Christmas Carol.” Where were we…
Having looked at some of the elements McVay has used this season to spark a high-scoring offense, I want to conclude by looking at three plays from one drive against the Lions last week. These three plays incorporate some of what we have already discussed and illustrate how, putting them together in different designs, McVay can set up a defense for different offensive designs and keep the defenders on their toes.
Following a Lions’ punt, the Rams take over possession on their own 20-yard line in the first quarter of a game knotted at 0. After a Gurley run on first down netted just a yard, the Rams went straight to the line of scrimmage without a huddle for second-and-9. This is the play they would run:
The Rams line up with "11" offensive personnel (note the six defenders in the box) and once more use jet motion, sending WR Josh Reynolds (#83) in motion before the snap. Again they use a run fake, with Gurley faking a run to the right and releasing to the flat. This comes on a “split zone” design, with Higbee executing the cross block from right to left and away from the run action. All of this is yet again eye candy, as Goff is retreating into the pocket, and after some nifty movement around pressure, looking for Woods on a deep out:
Goff drops in a pretty good throw, Woods makes a great catch, and the Rams have a first down.
On that first down, the Rams lineup to run this play:
Los Angeles lines up with "11" personnel (again, against a six man box) with Goff under center. They show Detroit the same split zone rushing design, with Higbee showing the cross block from right to left (and then releasing to the flat) and Gurley aiming to the right edge. Once more, all of this is eye candy. Goff boots to the left and eventually will find Reynolds on a deep crossing route:
Finally, a few plays later, the Rams face a first-and-10 on the Lions’ 31-yard line. Now that we have seen play-action and jet motion a few different ways, what does McVay dial up? The throwback RB screen, working off jet motion and play-action:
As we saw in the example against the Chiefs, the Lions end up with just one defender facing a convoy in front of Gurley:
Another big gain for this offense, thanks to the madness of McVay.
Sean McVay is doing fantastic things with the Rams offense. By dictating personnel, using motion and stringing plays together, he is keeping defenders honest and opposing defensive coordinators awake at night. The Bears’ defense and Vic Fangio are going to have their hands full this Sunday night going up against this crew.