The Los Angeles Rams demolished the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday. I guess the Rams were tired of losing after going winless through November. The Rams took their frustrations out on rookie head coach Urban Meyer and rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Matt Stafford threw for three touchdowns in the second half, the first of which went to Cooper Kupp. Kupp found a soft spot in the Jaguars’ coverage and was able to outrun the safety covering him for a 29-yard score. After the game, Kupp was asked what he saw on that play. Here was his response:
People went B-A-N-A-N-A-S for this answer. You remember when you were in college and stayed up all night in the dorms drinking and then went to Calc BC at 8 am on just two hours of sleep? While you were there you knew the professor was saying words, but it sounded like jumbled-up nonsense with a few buzz words thrown in. You remember that? That’s what this answer sounds like if you’re unfamiliar with football terminology. The phrase “nickel off the edge” sounds familiar, and “safety dropped down” is pretty self-explanatory, but the rest of his answer just sounds like locker room that average Joes like you and I would never understand, right?
In reality, what Kupp said isn’t too complicated at all. Let’s break down his answer step-by-step and diagnose exactly what he was talking about.
This refers to the Jaguars’ defensive coverage on this play. “Three-deep” refers to the amount of players covering deep, usually a safety and the two outside corners dropping back and preventing any big plays over the top. A fire zone is a type of zone blitz package. This type of defense is usually called when the defense is trying to force a turnover. This play brings extra pressure via the blitz and since it’s zone coverage, defenders will have their eyes on the quarterback at all times. The hope is that the extra rusher will force the quarterback to make a hurried decision, and the coverage team, which has been eyeing the quarterback since the snap, will be able to read his eyes and jump the pass for an interception, or at the very least, an incompletion.
This wasn’t a bad defensive play call. For one, the Rams were in a 2nd and 4 situation at the Jacksonville 29-yard line in a nine-point game. The Rams were trying to burst into the end zone to make it a three-possession game, but forcing a turnover or the Rams to take three would’ve kept it a two-score game. Also, the added pressure might have been able to force a sack thus putting the Rams into a 3rd & long situation giving the Jags a good opportunity to force a long field goal attempt from Matt Gay. However, the Rams’ offensive play call almost countered this play entirely. I’ll explain why in a second.
Prior to the snap, the Jaguars were in two-deep nickel coverage, meaning they had five defensive backs (that’s why it’s called nickel) on the field for a little extra speed to help cover the personnel the Rams were lining up. However, the nickel corner in this situation (the guy lined up over the slot receiver, which was Kupp in this instance) was the man that the Jaguars brought on the blitz. That’s why Kupp says the nickel was coming off the edge, as in around the edge of the defensive line to try to sack Stafford from an area where the offensive line normally isn’t looking to protect.
Obviously, after the nickel corner went for the blitz, Kupp was left uncovered, that’s why the right-side safety dropped down in order to have someone cover Kupp. You can’t leave the NFL receiving leader open like that so as soon as that nickel corner made a move toward Stafford the safety came down in order to prevent a quick dump-off to Kupp on 2nd & 4 to pick up the first down.
“It didn’t look like they were doing a replacement fire zone, so I knew that with the back away we were going to get three pushing through.”
A replacement fire zone means that one of the defensive linemen drops back in coverage instead of rushing the passer to replace the blitzer in coverage. Doing this forces the offensive line to respect the D-lineman off the snap, but then quickly figure out where the extra rusher is coming from. The only problem is now you don’t have one of your best pass rushers going after the quarterback and you no longer outnumber the offensive line with your rushers. Kupp says that they were NOT doing a replacement zone, meaning that there was no defensive lineman dropping into coverage, and because of that, Kupp knew they were going to have three players pushing the opposite side of the field from Kupp, opening up the middle of the field. The three players Kupp is talking about were the tight end, the opposite side wide receiver, and the halfback, hence Kupp saying “the back away.” All three of these guys ran out-breaking routes off the line of scrimmage thus sucking in the linebackers to the opposite side of the field from Kupp. So, as long as there was no replacement for the blitzing nickel corner, the middle of the field would be left wide open. That left Kupp one-on-one with the safety.
“I had an opportunity to run in there. If I could beat my guy, just had to beat the safety to the end zone”
So, once Kupp realized there was nobody in the middle, all he had to do was win his route against a safety. Safeties tend to have great awareness, but aren’t quite as good in coverage as their cornerback counterparts, so Kupp had a pretty decent mismatch. Kupp beats his man on the in route. At that point, he just had to beat the other safety, who dropped back into a high-deep zone, to the end zone. It became a foot race at that point and the other safety was leaning toward the right side of the field to help on the go route. With Kupp breaking in and the other safety leaning out to help the corner, there was virtually no chance for the safety to get to Kupp in time.
This was a very technical answer from Kupp, but once you understand the basics of a fire zone and how to draw attention from the defense. The play call from McVay really drew the defense away from Kupp and you could tell that the play was designed to go to Kupp’s side of the field, whether it was the go route or Kupp himself, because Stafford immediately looked to that side of the field. That’s how this play almost perfectly countered the Jaguars’ defensive play call. It’s also likely that the Rams detected this defense before the snap, because if you watch the play again, the right tackle, Rob Havenstein, picked the blitz right away. They knew it was coming so it only makes sense for Stafford to look at the guy who had a mismatch and was uncovered off the line of scrimmage.
Sean McVay may not be the best head coach in the NFL, but this play, even if by luck, was perfect in this scenario. Kupp’s breakdown is just icing on the cake for the well-oiled offensive machine that is the Los Angeles Rams. Hopefully, Kupp scores a few more touchdowns against Cover 6 or Nickel 40 so we can get a few more breakdowns and help the entire football world understand the game just a little better.