Sean McVay: Setting the Table

Perhaps the marquee matchup of Super Bowl LIII pits one of football’s brightest young offensive minds against a veteran defensive genius. The chess game between Sean McVay and Bill Belichick is going to be a battle for the ages. Both men have shown over the years (a few more years in Belichick’s case) the ability to dictate to an opponent what they want to do, and then take advantage of the ensuing situations. For McVay, one of his abilities as a coach is to set up a defense over the course of a game for one big play.

This is something that many have looked at, including myself in this piece for Pro Football Weekly, looking at how McVay used jet motion and movement over the course of the Los Angeles Rams’ Week 13 game against the Detroit Lions, and in particular during one specific drive. But the Lions game is just one example. Looking back at the NFC Championship Game, you can see how over the course of that contest McVay was setting up the Saints’ defense for one big play, a play that would be the Rams’ longest run of the afternoon.

Like all offenses the Rams incorporate a mix of zone and power blocking designs into their offensive system. But if left to their druthers, the Rams would run almost exclusively outside zone, and with good reason. In the 2017 season, for example, they were the league’s best outside zone blocking team according to Pro Football Focus, averaging 1.7 yards per carry before contact, and 5.6 yards per attempt. They also tallied 33 explosive rushing plays on outside zone (defined as runs of 15 yards or more), eight more than the second-best team.

This success continued into 2018. Los Angeles ran the outside zone play 280 times this year, most in the league. They ran for 1,555 yards on outside zone plays, most in the league, and out of those yards, 946 of them came before contact, again most in the league. Those 280 attempts resulted in 84 first downs and 14 touchdowns, most in the league. Finally, they averaged 5.6 yards per attempt and…stop me if you’ve heard this before…most in the league.  

The Rams use two ways to set up this play. First is through their usage of personnel. Los Angeles is almost exclusively an 11 personnel team, using it on 87% of their offensive plays through the regular season and the playoffs. This number is actually down from the regular season, during which they ran 11 personnel on 90% of their offensive plays. By staying in this formation exclusively they dictated the defensive personnel, which in turn gave Todd Gurley the highest percentage of light boxes to face in the running game.

The second way the Rams set this play up is through the use of motion. Whether pre-snap (jet motion) or post-snap, when the tight end sifts or slices across the formation to throw a block, the Rams use movement as both eye candy and to create opportunities down the road.

But during the playoffs, the Rams have relied a bit more on C.J. Anderson in the running game, who is more of a north/south runner. As a result, Los Angeles is using inside zone more in the running game. However, that does not mean they are getting away from the movement and motion elements, they just take on a different feel, and McVay can still use them as part of a way of setting up the defense for a big play late in the game.

Let’s start with one example, a 1st and 10 play from the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game. On this occasion the Rams come out using 12 offensive personnel, with Jared Goff (#16) under center and Anderson (#35) behind him in the backfield. The Rams have their two tight ends to the right and a stack slot look to the left:

Here is the design for this inside zone running play:

Brandin Cooks (#12) comes in jet motion across the formation, showing the defense a potential jet sweep. Gerald Everett (#81), the tight end on the wing, executes the sift or slice block across the formation, aiming for the defensive end. Anderson takes the handoff on the inside and looks for a crease to form:

As you can see on both the sideline and the end zone angles, the motion from Cooks causes the linebackers to slide a bit, giving the offensive line some advantageous angles when aiming for the second level defenders. Anderson puts his head down on the inside and picks up five yards, giving the Rams a manageable second down situation.

Early in the second quarter the Rams turn to the same look on a 2nd and 2 play in New Orleans Saints’ territory. Only this time the tight ends are paired on the left side and the stack slot formation is to the right. However, the design is the same. Cooks comes in jet motion, Everett slices to the backside defensive end, and Anderson looks for space on the inside:

This time Anderson puts his head down and staying on the left side, he picks up four yards. As you can see from the end zone angle, however, the motion causes the linebackers to slide in response, and there are creases available backside if Anderson or Gurley ever decide to plant their left foot in the turf and bend this run to the backside:

Something that the New England Patriots need to keep in the back of their minds this week.

So now we advance into the third quarter. Having shown the Saints’ defense this inside zone design twice out of 12 personnel, McVay tweaks things a bit and runs it out of their base offense, 11 personnel. With 8:04 left in the third quarter the Rams face a 2nd and 6 on their own 29-yard line. They line up with Goff under center and with three wide receivers in the game, using a tight wing slot to the right with TE Tyler Higbee (#89) in the wing, and another stack slot look to the left. While the personnel is different, the design is largely the same:

This time Robert Woods (#17) comes in jet motion, and it is Higbee slicing back towards the defensive end. Yet again Anderson gets the carry and he puts his head down, picking up another four yards:

By now you are probably wondering: Where are we going with this? So far we’ve seen three plays gain a whopping 13 yards? Is this really the explosive Rams offense Patriots fans should be worried about? Are these the plays you called me here to read about? Four and five yard gains? Please tell me you have something more, Mr. Schofield. These men are about to play the game of their lives. Please tell me that you haven’t pinned their hopes to a slice block.

With 4:55 remaining in the third quarter the Rams are in the red zone, facing a 1st and 10 on the New Orleans 17-yard line. The visitors are trailing 20-10, and break the huddle using 11 personnel once again. This time, they start with a trips bunch on the right:

However Woods shifts his alignment, moving into a stack on the left:

This brings us to the 2×2 alignment the Rams used on the previous example. Now this is what they run:

Woods comes back in jet motion, Anderson aims inside, and Higbee slices across the formation. Exactly like the three previous plays. But their is a difference. Higbee is now serving as a lead blocker, as Goff fakes a handoff to Anderson and flips the ball to one of the other receivers on the field, Josh Reynolds (#83). Reynolds takes the pitch from Goff and follows Higbee around the left end. The TE throws an excellent lead block and Reynolds is not stopped until just short of the goal line:

This was the Rams’ longest run of the game, and tied a 16-yard run by Mark Ingram for the longest of the game. Los Angeles would score a touchdown a few plays later to cut the Saints’ lead to three.

This sequence is part of the madness of McVay. He is incredibly adept at hitting a defense with the same look a few times, and then countering with something when the time is right. By showing the Saints this inside zone look early and from a few different personnel groups, he prepared them for the eventual end-around to Reynolds, and his receiver nearly punched it into the end zone. McVay is a master play-caller, and the Patriots need to be ready for his impressive sequences come Super Bowl LIII.

For more on the Rams’ offense listen to the Monday edition of the Locked On Patriots podcast.

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