Once upon a time, the Los Angeles Rams and their brilliant offensive mind had the league in the palm of their hand. They were nigh-unstoppable offensively. Their bust quarterback was a superstar. And the postseason looked like a mere formality in crowning the soon-to-be NFC champs.
Alas, a stretch of poor play and a quick fall to the second seed has the Rams looking like a potential one-and-done for the second year in a row. A few weeks ago, it seemed the best way to run with the Rams was to attack their weak pass defense and hope to win a game 45-42. Now, after having been held down by strong defenses a couple times, it seems possible teams have figured Sean McVay out. Or at least figured him out enough.
So how have they done it? What did the Bears and Eagles do to shutdown such a confusing, explosive offense? How did they turn a Ferrari into a Prius?
The best place to start is with maintaining discipline in pass coverage. That may sound like an obvious thing. But it has been easier said than done ever since Sean McVay took over the Rams last season. Here is a basic explanation of why the Rams’ offense causes so much confusion:
They frequently line up in tight formations such as this.
This sets up a myriad of advantages. The corners cannot press for fear of losing their assignment in the mire of bodies. Routes will naturally and legally set picks more often. Defenders have to communicate assignments more often and switch assignments more often. The receivers are in line to block. It provides McVay with a lot of potential weak spots in the defense he can exploit.
He then exacerbates those weak points by throwing in a lot of jet motion, as well as frequent play action. All of his receivers have proven capable of running the ball, so the defense has to account for them receiving a handoff. But then they also have to account for the motion setting up a different route combination. And since the motion frequently comes from tight formations, the defense has to make calls and switches very quickly if they hope to stay in their assignments. The whole goal of McVay’s misdirection, motion and play action is to get the opponents in less-than-ideal situations.
Even without motion, the tight formations, mixed with play action and criss-crossing routes force defenses to make decisions quickly, or risk getting gashed for chunk yardage. Below is a perfect example of this.
Robert Woods, the near side receiver, and Brandin Cooks on the far side both run their deep routes towards the far sideline in a flood combination. That draws the deep safety over that direction. Cooper Kupp is in the slot on the far side, with cornerback Mackensie Alexander covering him. His route takes him underneath the linebackers, forcing the switch from Alexander to the slower linebacker Anthony Barr. The mismatch results in a long touchdown.
Because of the play action, Harrison Smith crashed inside to Todd Gurley, when he could theoretically have been in better position than Barr to take Kupp as he crossed over. None of this was necessarily poor defense by the Vikings, other than the deep safety trailing far side. Rather, they merely did everything McVay expected them to do.
That is how the Rams overload teams. So how do you counter that? Well, the easy answer is staying disciplined in zones. Teams that expect a ton of misdirection and simply hold their assignments as planned have fared the best against McVay late in the season. The Lions were the first team to be really successful in this area. But no team fared better than the Bears in week 14.
It started with schemes. The Bears knew that so much of McVay’s downfield success comes from play action, and often with only two or three routes. So the Bears countered with a lot of cover three, cover four and cover six, which took away much of the Rams’ long-developing downfield action. The heavy zone emphasis also neutralized much of the effectiveness of McVay’s misdirection and motion tendencies. The Bears simply stayed home, carried out their assignments and forced Jared Goff to work through progressions. And through the end of the season, it has become clear that Goff is vulnerable when out of rhythm.
In that game, Chicago kept Goff under 50 percent completion, picked him four times and hit him eight times. One week later, he had similar struggles against the Eagles, though his final numbers from that game look a little better. Those teams figured out that with coverage discipline, heavy on zone and a strong pass rush, you can force Goff into lapses in mechanics and some panicked decisions.
It also helps to have a front that can neutralize the run on its own. The Bears had that, the Eagles had that. It means the secondary does not get sucked in by play action as much, as they can sit back when the Rams show run. Chicago did not use any crazy run blitzes or exotic run defensive schemes to hold Gurley to 28 yards. They merely had a strong front four mixed with two lightning quick linebackers who could fill gaps effectively.
The Rams ran the ball 10th-most often this year, in terms of percentage. It sets up everything for them, from play action to downfield passing to screens. The teams that kept Gurley down controlled their games.
Of course, the Bears boast the best defense in football, so expecting all of the Rams’ opponents to perform at that level could be a stretch. However, the Rams’ Division round opponent is the Dallas Cowboys, who check a lot of the same boxes the Bears did, albeit to a slightly lesser extent. Pro Football Focus rates the Bears’ front fifth-best in football, the Cowboys sixth. Athletic, rangy linebackers? Check. Quality, disciplined defensive backs? Check. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to follow the formula.
And then if the Rams get through Dallas, the two remaining opponents are similarly equipped to contain them. The Eagles and Saints have each already beaten them once this year, and both defenses started finding their stride towards the end of the season. Each team has some of the best athletes up front in football, which is the type of defense that has cratered the Rams at times in the last four weeks of the season.
Coverage discipline in zone, pass rush, stopping the run. That is where defenses have to build up from. If Dallas, or any of the Rams’ playoff opponents can maintain that, it makes the once-unbeatable McVay offense appears human.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.