Why Defenses Fear Stafford, Rams
NFL Divisional - Los Angeles' win over Tampa Bay last weekend was a reminder of why Sean McVay felt his offense needed a quarterback who could take over games. The evolution of the team's personnel and structure are such that the quarterback has to bear more of the burden than he did three years ago. Whether or not that is the Rams' own fault due to their team-building practices is a different discussion, but the reality is that responsibility for the offense's success has shifted more towards the man under center. Matthew Stafford proved on Sunday that he can bear that burden when it matters most.
Stafford's shot plays are the ones we all remember. That is what he does and has always done. The sideline ball to beat Cover-2 on third-and-20 for a touchdown to Cooper Kupp and the end-of-game seam throw to—guess who?—Kupp are as good endorsements as any for Stafford and the value he brings. That said, it was all the consistent gains mixed in between those highlight moments that elevated this performance to a different level. This version of the Rams offense necessitates that the quarterback be able to do that, and Stafford delivered against the Buccaneers.
The first tenet of Stafford's performance was simply taking what the defense gave him, particularly early in the game when the Bucs were insistent on soft one-high structures. Stafford found both Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. on over routes in the first half because of how the Bucs were handling those routes with their deep safety. The Bucs wanted to stay high in their zones to respect Stafford's ability to push the ball downfield, while still asking their free safety to nail down on the crossing routes. That is a fine way to handle it if the free safety can play lower and fire early, but that was not the case with Tampa Bay.
The Bucs are in a three-deep, three-under zone pressure on this play. With the cornerbacks all sitting deep in their zones, the free safety (Jordan Whitehead, 33) needs to handle the No. 2 receiver (Kupp) rather than backpedaling to play a true deep middle zone. That's the trade-off a team has to make when they surrender a coverage body, but still want to prevent explosive plays.
Whitehead clearly feels the crossing route from Kupp coming, given how early he flips his hips to the right hash and looks to drive on the crosser. Whitehead hesitates to drive all the way down, though, perhaps because he was not confident in the angle he had. As such, Whitehead stayed high over the route to take away a big play rather than a completion, giving Stafford a clear window to hit his favorite receiver. Easy pitch-and-catch for a fresh set of downs.
Not long after, the Rams hit Beckham on a similar crosser. In this instance, the Bucs are playing more of a tilted one-high coverage with press coverage to the condensed side of the formation (bottom of the screen) and off-coverage to the other (top). With this approach, the off-coverage corner can see things developing in front of him, and therefore he can pass crossers off to the deep safety and replace him as a deep defender while the safety nails down on the crosser with the leverage advantage. The problem is that the deep safety pays Beckham an outrageous amount of respect with the depth he gets, and Beckham flattens off his route, creating a massive cushion between the intended catch point and the safety. That may be the product of a sharp coaching point out of the Rams' staff or just Beckham's feel for the position, but either way the result is a free 9-yard connection.
Stafford picked apart those same one-high coverages vertically, too. Though it only netted a field goal in the end, Stafford's strike down the seam to Tyler Higbee thrust the Rams into the red zone on their first drive of the game.
This is just 2x2 four verticals. It is a simple concept, but for that reason, the quarterback has to be snappy in his decision-making and deliver the ball with enough juice to beat the safety comfortably. For Stafford, that is no problem.
The two outside receivers convert their routes into comebacks because they are capped by the cornerbacks playing off-coverage, but Stafford was never really concerned with that to begin with. Since the Bucs were in a single-high look, Stafford knew that all he needed to do was toy around with the deep safety and throw a seam ball opposite of where he opened to. The moment the deep safety inched to Stafford's left to get body presence near Kupp, the quarterback whipped back to the right with zero hesitation and put one right on Higbee's facemask.
As the game rolled on, the Bucs started to tighten up a bit in coverage. Defensive backs played tighter to routes, intermediate zone defenders got better body presence in throwing windows, and the pocket became a smidgen less comfortable, the final drive notwithstanding. These opportunities in which Stafford merely had to locate the right target rather than throw them open started to dwindle. These are the moments where we are reminded why the Rams acquired a quarterback like Stafford (and, later, paired him with a receiver like Beckham).
The Rams are running a three-level concept on the following play: post (deep), wheel (intermediate), and swing (short). The idea is to get the defense to stretch itself too thin covering one area to properly defend another. On this rep, the Bucs pass things off just fine, but both Stafford and Beckham conjure an open throwing window out of thin air.
First, notice Beckham's eyes at the beginning of his route before he commits vertically. Beckham (in the slot to the top of the screen) is peeking the deep cornerback's depth and relativity to the boundary. He knows that the cornerback is gaining depth and staying square, so he is not going to win with the wheel route over the top. The cornerback wants to flow over and cap it. Beckham has to keep a light pace and find space under the cornerback, and he does.
Second, Stafford's eyes and trigger take the nickelback out of the play. Stafford opens the play with his helmet parallel to the line of scrimmage, trying to bait the nickel into coming up for Kupp. The nickel is trying to squeeze Beckham and knows he should, but the split-second he stutters his feet, Stafford feathers the ball right over him, underneath the deep corner, and away from both of them.
The final tenet of Stafford's game is that he does not feel bound to reading out concepts in a rigid way. Reading out a concept does not have to be a pure one-two-three across the field. It can be and often is, but the best of the best know how to take shortcuts or create workarounds for themselves. Stafford has the skill and arm talent to do that, as he did on one completion to Kendall Blanton.
To the trips side of the formation, Higbee is at the No. 3 spot closest to the formation and Kupp is in the middle at the No. 2 spot. Higbee is running a deep over route with Kupp cruising in behind him on a dig route. Typically, the quarterback would want to read the over route, then take their eyes back to the dig route as the natural progression, but that is not what Stafford does here. Instead, Stafford knows in the back of his mind that he has Blanton on the one-on-one on the near sideline. Though Blanton isn't a sexy one-on-one receiving option, a one-on-one is a clear, reliable bet to take if the quarterback is willing. As such, Stafford reads the front side out only so far to stay on time with the backside comeback. Stafford gives Higbee a chance on the deep over, which would be the most explosive option on this concept, then skips reading Kupp to throw the backside comeback.
This is a good example of a quarterback having answers before he needs them. If Stafford had read this play all the way out, he may have found Kupp just fine, but that is a riskier proposition than the certainty of a one-on-one, especially out of a five-man protection scheme. The deep safety was tilted to the trips side and Stafford did not want to waste time in the pocket confirming whether or not the safety would drive on Kupp's dig route. Of course, cutting corners is not what a quarterback wants to do every single play, but having a quarterback who knows when and how to take shortcuts without just checking the ball down is brutal on opposing defenses.
Heading into the conference championship game, the offense's success will again hinge on Stafford's play. The Rams and 49ers have played twice already this year, and twice the 49ers have battered the Rams up front and forced Stafford to win the game. Stafford failed both times, but he has been playing some of his best ball in the postseason. With the way the Stafford-coaster operates, perhaps a recent stretch of great play does not forecast anything heading into the next game, but McVay and the Rams have to feel good about Stafford doing for the offense what they believed he could to this point in the playoffs.