The 3-1 Los Angeles Rams have been boosted staggeringly by first year head coach Sean McVay’s offensive scheming. It has made Jeff Fisher’s 2016 monstrosity look utterly archaic. After a quarter of the season, this Rams offense has scored the most points in the league. Moreover, it has managed to compensate for a defense that is struggling in the transition from 4-3 to 3-4, particularly regarding run fits.
Quarterback Jared Goff is leading the league in yards per attempt and places third in passer rating (amongst those who have started four games). McVay has supplied the passer with simple, fast reads. Just look at Goff’s release time of 2.92 seconds, ranking 7th in the league. It helps that the offensive line has been bolstered, with Goff sacked only four times in the four games this season. That is in stark contrast to 2016, where Rams quarterbacks went down 49 times.
Another player who has benefited from McVay’s intelligent gameplans is Todd Gurley. Gone are the days of stacked boxes, with Gurley facing eight plus men in the box, as he’s facing stacked boxes at just the 34th highest rate in the league this season. His production, naturally, has soared. With seven touchdowns this season, Gurley now has the most by any Rams player in the first 4 games of a season in the Super Bowl era.
Touchdown-wise, the usage of Gurley in the passing game must not be overlooked. He has become a genuine receiving weapon, and a complete running back, with: 11.6 yards per catch, 234 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. Now, instead of Gurley’s presence in the backfield being one dimensional, teams must respect the passing game too.
Look at this first play, taken from the Rams’ 46-9 Week 1 home victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Los Angeles is up 27-3 with 2:34 left in the second quarter, facing a 1st and 10 on Indianapolis’ 48-yard line.
The Rams come out in 11 personnel with an inline tight end to the right side of the formation and a tight, inside the left numbers, wide receiver stack. The Colts respond with nickel personnel, and are showing a Cover 4 or Cover 2 zone coverage.
Pre-snap, the receiver at the base of the stack – Tavon Austin (#11) – runs a jet motion across the formation and Goff fakes the handoff to him. This has two crucial effects on the defense. Nickel cornerback Nate Hairston (#27) buzzes down to the line of scrimmage and becomes a blitzer who will pursue the potential jet sweep from the backside. The motion also leads to Antonio Morrison (#44) and John Simon (#51) flowing to the side of the play fake.
With a second handoff faked to Todd Gurley (#30), Morrison is left near-disorientated. As well as being more central, he attempts to gain depth in fear of the deeper pass. The blitzing Hairston also continues his path to Goff, staying with his assignment rather than going with the checking and releasing Gurley.
Gurley is thus left wide open, with the only player underneath in that area (Hairston) out of the play. The Colts’ coverage is a Cover 3, with Malik Hooker rotating down to cover the hook curl/deep out. The Rams’ route combination carries the deep zone defenders well away from the play, leaving Hooker as the only man who can make the tackle soon.
As Goff backpedals to create room for the dump-off to Gurley and evade Hairston, the more ‘free’ members of the offensive line leak out to the left and form a three man screen. Right guard Jamon Brown (#68), center John Sullivan (#65) and left guard Rodger Saffold (#76) all show impressive speed getting out to the second level.
However, Hooker’s speed coming downhill enables him to avoid the wall of blockers. He gets into a position to make the tackle on Gurley which would limit the gain to roughly 3 or 4 yards. Yet, there is a reason that Gurley is schemed to get the ball in space. He jump cuts past the tackler; making him miss and picking up 23 yards.
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When considering the context of the playcall, it becomes even more impressive. For one, the defense is desperate to make a play trailing by such a large margin, increasing a tendency to become over-aggressive. Meanwhile, the play-action call had to be honored: at this point in the game, Los Angeles has rushed for 56 yards off 12 carries at a 4.7 yards per carry average. Adding to that point, the only previous play of drive was a 12-yard Gurley run.
It gave the attack a nice chunk of yardage, with the two-minute drill eventually ending in a field goal that put them over three scores ahead (including two-point conversions).
Next up, we have another inspired way of getting Gurley the ball on the screen pass. This comes from the 27-20 Week 2 loss to Washington. Here, there is 6:23 remaining in the second quarter and the Rams are trailing 13-10, while facing a 3rd and 4.
Los Angeles lines up in 11 personnel, with trips receivers – including tight end Gerald Everett (#81) – to the field side. In the slot, they have a stack. To the boundary, they have an isolated receiver and Gurley in the shotgun.
Washington is in a nickel package with a split front. They are clearly trying to rush the passer. Their Cover 1 man coverage look is made even more obvious by the motion from the outside receiver spot to a trio bunch by Everett, as it is followed from the outside by safety DJ Swearinger (#36). Linebacker Zach Brown (#53) is also lined up directly over Todd Gurley (#30).
The Rams’ trio of wide receivers all run crossing routes to the boundary side, carrying the three defenders in man coverage with them and occupying the attention of the deep safety, Montae Nicholson (#35).
Washington blitzes linebacker Mason Foster (#54), in a 30 alignment, on a stunt inside that has defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (#95) looping behind it. This is troublesome for the offensive line, as it engages right guard Jamon Brown (#68) leaving right tackle Rob Havenstein (#79) with two pass rushers to deal with.
The play still succeeds though, as the blitzing linebacker leaves space for Gurley to the field side. That, combined with the man coverage being carried to the boundary, sees Brown struggle to get across to cover Gurley in man coverage. Leaking out quickly, the running back has cavernous room to run and receivers sealing the edge for him. Gurley registers 26 yards on the catch-and-run.
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Again, the ‘set-up’ for the playcall was well executed by McVay. On the offense’s previous play, they had tried to go deep middle to Robert Woods. This, of course, made the deep pass far more believable, leaving the underneath free in another example of getting the defensive to flow to one side and then throwing it the other.
In the Rams’ 41-39 Week 3 road win over the San Francisco 49ers, Gurley formed a big part of the hitch-flat concept. It is early in the game – 4:54 remaining in the first – and Los Angeles confronts a big 3rd and 2 on San Francisco’s 7-yard line. The Rams lead the 49ers 14-7.
The offense hurries up to the line in a shotgun formation that has a tight bunch to the field side, and an isolated receiver and running back to the boundary side. They do this via 11 personnel, with Tyler Higbee acting as the lone receiver. The effect of their no-huddle, fast tempo is the defensive scrambling around. The 49ers struggle to get aligned properly, but they appear to be showing either a Cover 1 or Cover 3 press from nickel personnel.
Post-snap, it becomes clear that the coverage is man with linebacker Navarro Bowman (#53) as a spy and deep safety Jimmy Ward also spying the quarterback from his deep third shell. For Goff, this is a simple coverage diagnosis due to the route combination to the boundary side. This is because hitch route run inwards by the isolated receiver Higbee (#89) is being followed by the safety Jaquiski Tartt (#29), who is lined up as a cornerback on this play.
Higbee and Tartt provide a large obstacle for Ray-Ray Armstrong’s (#54) man coverage on Gurley’s flat route. Armstrong is forced to navigate around them, and there is a speed mismatch present anyway. He is also disadvantaged by the defensive disorganisation pre-snap. Gurley has clear separation, and Goff executes the simple two-man read correctly. He delivers the seven-yard touchdown pass perfectly, leading the back outside.
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One play prior to this touchdown, the offense had hit Gurley on a check and release hitch directly up-the-middle – stressing a different part of the defense. On the drive, the frequent no-huddle from the offense was starting to tire the defense out.
Jet Play-Action Wheel
Finally, McVay’s ability to use misdirection to spring Gurley and his run-after-catch potential was again witnessed in the 35-30 Week 4 triumph at the Dallas Cowboys. It is 2nd and 3, with 2:59 to play in the third quarter. Los Angeles leads 26-24.
The Rams come out in a shotgun formation and 11 personnel. To the boundary side, they have a tight stack of receivers and to the field they have an inline tight end, a running back and an isolated receiver. The Cowboys are in nickel personnel with a two-high safety look. However, Jeff Heath (#38) is slightly higher than Kevon Frazier (#35), hinting at a safety rotation to a Cover 3 off coverage.
Before Goff hikes the ball, he signals to Tavon Austin (#11) to begin his jet motion from the bottom of the stack. This sees Frazier come down into the box, ready to play his hook – curl zone. As Austin runs across the formation, and Goff fakes the jet sweep, all three of the Cowboys’ second level defenders flow downhill and laterally to the play fake.
The fake to Austin was so effective because of how much he had been featured in the offensive gameplan – mainly as a runner on jet sweeps or outside runs from the backfield. In many ways, this was a ‘coming out’ party for Austin within this offense. The ‘receiver’ carried six times for 48 yards.
Linebackers Jaylon Smith (#54) and Damien Wilson (#57), plus box-safety Frazier, are too shallow to cover intermediate routes thanks to the threat of Austin. As a result, Gurley, running a wheel from the backfield, is butt naked up the seam. The seam is naturally a weak spot for a Cover 3 defense in normal circumstances. Here, tight end Tyler Higbee’s (#89) post route commands somewhat commands the eyes of Heath as well. More importantly, with no second-level defenders to pass it off to the deep safety, Gurley is completely uncovered.
Running the wheel to the field creates more room, and the comeback from the isolated receiver keeps the field corner away from making a potential tackle. Goff drops it into Gurley excellently, and once more the running back showcases his ability in the open field. He makes another vicious jump cut, destroying Heath’s tackling angle and taking the pass to the house for 53 yards.
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Of course, Gurley is additionally utilized in the aerial attack in less remarkable ways, such as checking and releasing in a more conventional manner. McVay has transformed him into a leading offensive player of the year candidate.
Those cautious of being swept in by the hype surrounding this Rams team right now will point towards the danger of the offense’s effectiveness declining as teams attain more game film. However, I believe McVay is also skilled at adjustments and, with a weapon like Gurley to use in the passing game as well as the rushing attack, I think the Rams will not regress from their current high standard.