Sean McVay is rightfully getting a great deal of credit for transforming the Los Angeles Rams from perennial throw-rugs into the champions of the NFC West. As the Rams prepare to host to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night—the prodigal franchise’s first home playoff game in L.A. proper in 39 years—here’s a question worth pondering: How did McVay so quickly turn the NFL’s least-efficient offense into one of the the league’s best?
Just one season after scoring a league-low 14.0 points per game, the Rams led the NFL by scoring at a clip of 29.9 points per game this season. It’s conventional wisdom at this point to celebrate the 31-year-old McVay for being an innovative wunderkind. And it’s true he developed a scheme that plays to the strengths of his personnel. But what exactly does that mean? How does that apply when it comes to Jared Goff, who looked like a surefire bust as a rookie but is now every bit the franchise quarterback GM Les Snead hoped he’d be when he traded up to draft Goff first overall?
It’s a copycat league, as the saying goes, and McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur have found success by blending different concepts different teams have been using in different ways. To wit:
I’ll get to what some of that looks like in a bit. But some personnel reinforcements have indeed helped, too. The Rams’ biggest and most consequential offseason signing was the addition of left tackle Andrew Whitworth. But late in free agency, L.A. also signed veteran center John Sullivan, who had been a backup in Washington, where McVay was an assistant before the Rams hired him. That connection has proved vital to Goff’s development, as Goff acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times:
“It takes a lot off my shoulders for sure, with his ability to understand defenses and make a lot of calls up front. ... If I see something, and overrule, I can. Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s right.”
The Rams also made some changes at receiver by adding Robert Woods in free agency, drafting Cooper Kupp in the third round, and trading for Sammy Watkins. One major result, according to the L.A. Times, has been a 36-percent decrease in dropped passes by the Rams’ receivers. But the team’s leading receiver—and the fulcrum of the offense—is running back Todd Gurley, who returned to his outstanding rookie form and then some this year.
Gurley led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,093), and his 1,305 rushing yards was a close second to Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt’s 1,327. But Gurley’s 64 catches led the Rams, and his 788 receiving yards and six receiving TDs both ranked second on the team. And this is where McVay’s and LaFleur’s scheme kicks into gear: By finding a variety of ways to get Gurley the ball, Goff is able to use play-action often—and to his advantage. Per Pro Football Focus, Goff used play-fakes on 29.1 percent of his throws this season, second only to the Texans’ Deshaun Watson’s 30.3 percent. Goff’s play-action passer rating of 109.3 ranked ninth, and his 1,446 play-action passing yards led the league. As Andy Benoit noted over at Sports Illustrated, the Rams’ use of a outside-zone blocking system—i.e., one in which all of the linemen move in a given direction in unison, thus pulling more defenders with them—further works in concert with that heavy use of play-action. And the Rams did all this even as they used an “11” personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on a league-high 75 percent of their plays this season.
Tavon Austin caught just 13 passes, far and away the lowest total in his five-year career. But he has emerged as a rushing threat and as a decoy: Austin averaged 4.6 yards per attempt on 59 carries. The threat he poses by going in motion before the snap has proved to be invaluable. That kind of pre-snap movement freezes the defense—will Austin get it on a jet sweep or not?—in addition to creating space for Gurley to do his thing.
Here, on a third-and-11 against the Seahawks in Week 5, the Rams had Austin line up in the backfield and just gave it to him:
McVay has also made clever use of the rule that allows coaches to communicate with quarterbacks via the in-helmet headset until the play clock hits 15 seconds. The Rams sometimes use this to their advantage by breaking their huddle quickly and lining up so McVay can diagnose the defense and relay what he sees to Goff. Rather comically, former NFL quarterback Chris Simms called this “cheating” and “immoral.” But then-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians took the air out of any budding controversy by acknowledging during the week of a Cardinals-Rams game that the Rams aren’t even the first team to do this.
Then there are the formations and route combinations the get flipped around to create space for receivers depending on what the defense may show, as this excellent thread demonstrates:
SI’s Benoit further described how this functions given the formations the Rams use:
This team, more than any other, aligns its receivers tight to the formation, inside the field numbers. Those tighter splits eliminate the sideline (an imposing 12th defender), giving each L.A. receiver a two-way go. Defenders must cover more ground and more route possibilities; because of the clustered spacing, they’re more susceptible to rub and pick routes. McVay builds a lot of these rubs and picks into the beginnings of his plays by aligning receivers close to one another, and those receivers get open quickly. It’s what the Patriots have perfected in recent years. It’s how you beat man coverage.
A personal favorite of mine was the double slant the Rams ran on the goal line to get the ball to Watkins for a TD against the 49ers way back in Week 2. There’s simply no way for the outside defender to get inside fast enough to stop this:
McVay is pretty much a shoo-in to be coach of the year. But in a wide-open NFC in which the top-seeded Eagles won’t have Carson Wentz due to injury, McVay also has the Rams in position to possibly achieve much more.