Film Room: Rams Offense

Film Room: Rams Offense
Film Room: Rams Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

Sean McVay is not a quarterback whisperer. That title would suggest that McVay has an intrinsic ability to develop quarterbacks and help them improve on their entire skill set. No coach has that type of magic touch; it does not exist. Rather, McVay is a top-class offensive playcaller whose quarterbacks outperform their skill sets because the offense sets them up to do so.

For the previous three years, McVay was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. He was responsible for producing the illusion that Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than he truly is. For 2015 and 2016, the two years in which Cousins started all 16 games, he ranked sixth and fifth in offensive passing DVOA, respectively. Cousins was also third in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) over the past two seasons among quarterbacks who started at least 24 games; only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were higher than Cousins over that span.

The Los Angeles Rams hired McVay this offseason and made him a head coach at the ripe old age of 31. McVay is by far the youngest head coach in the NFL now, but the Rams did not seem to have any reservations about his youth. The Rams hired McVay to fix their offensive woes and salvage their two most recent first-round picks, Todd Gurley and Jared Goff.

After winning Rookie of the Year in 2015, Gurley fell off a cliff in 2016. He faced a dip in production toward the end of his rookie season, but that was seen as an aberration because the team was bad, not an omen for the future. Things did not get better in 2016. Gurley ran for fewer than four yards per carry behind a disastrous Rams offensive line. Knowing his explosive potential, the Rams desperately needed to unlock his talents again.

Goff, on the other hand, posted historically bad numbers as a rookie last season. He ranked 50th in ANY/A among 52 quarterbacks since 2000 who started at least six games as a rookie. Additionally, he threw seven interceptions to just five touchdowns, while being sacked 26 times in seven starts. The conditions in which Goff were forced to play in were poor, but he was as much the problem as the 10 players around him.

The Rams front office set out to retool the other offensive skill positions this offseason to allow their new head coach to work his magic. McVay has done just that. Through two games in 2017, Goff's sophomore campaign under McVay is promising. The second-year quarterback looks a little more comfortable and has been given a more suitable offense in which to operate. McVay has opened up the offense in a way that Jeff Fisher never did for any of his quarterbacks.

Spacing and vertical pressure are key components to McVay's offense. McVay is notorious for using tight, bunch, and stack formations with his skill players. Aligning players tight to the formation gives receivers more space to work with on the perimeter, while also giving them direct access to the seams. Bunch and stack formations do not allow defenders to easily press or pick up receivers right off the snap. The closeness of receivers' alignments makes it easy to intertwine their route stems early on and confuse defenders. These formations often coax defenses into playing their cornerbacks wide in off-coverage and utilize two deep safeties as a precaution measure.

McVay's Rams faced the coach's former team this week. The Redskins came to Los Angeles, revamped and rejuvenated, ready to take down their former offensive coordinator. While the Redskins ultimately won, McVay did not make it easy on their defense.

Playing with a lone deep safety is a risk versus a McVay offense. Versus any team, playing with one deep safety instead of two is the riskier call, but McVay is particularly well versed at putting deep safeties in a bind, and forcing cornerbacks, nickelbacks, and box safeties to be wrong when picking up receivers in coverage. Even the defense that understands his offense best had issues keeping it under control.


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Wide receiver Robert Woods and tight end Gerald Everett are tight to the right side of the formation here. Woods is up on the line of scrimmage and is the widest player to that side of the field, while Everett is lined up inside and behind Woods. This alignment by the skill players leads to the inside player being able to run to the flat underneath the wideout. From there, he could run a wheel route or extend to the boundary. Either way, the threat that he might run under the outside receiver is troubling for a defense, because the outside receiver acts as a mini buffer between the inside receiver and a defender.

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Cornerback Josh Norman and safety D.J. Swearinger are tasked with handling the two Rams pass-catchers. At the snap, Norman (24, at the bottom of the screen) opens himself to the field, jabs the receiver, and peaks at Everett. Because the wide receiver took an outside vertical stem, Norman did the right thing to carry the receiver up the field.

Swearinger, lined up over Everett, was confused by the tight end's first step. Everett's first step was forward and wide to the right, suggesting he may be pressing up with his outside receiver's vertical stem to cut under it. Swearinger assumed that was the case, and began to trail wide to pick up Woods on the outside. Swearinger was wrong. Everett was merely widening his path so that he could bend back toward the seam. Goff, after initially looking left, was able to find Everett free down the seam with the deep safety too far away to make a play. That is how to scare a defense out of single-high coverage shells.

Once defenses are scared of single-high coverage shells, it is easier to run the ball. The Rams are in a symmetrical 21 personnel look (two tight ends, one running back) on this first-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. There are five offensive linemen and two tight ends attached closely to the line of scrimmage, giving the Rams seven immediate blockers. On the other side of the ball, the Redskins have three defensive linemen and four linebackers in the box. The Redskins' two cornerbacks are playing 7 yards off and 2 yards wide of the Rams two wide receivers. Two safeties play over the top, the shallowest of the two playing 12 yards removed from the line of scrimmage. The Redskins were scared of the Rams' possible route combinations.


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McVay stressed the box with immediate blockers, while giving wide receivers space to roam in the flat and presenting four possible vertical threats down the seam. Having been beaten a few times down the field by this point in the game, the Redskins opted to prevent the possible deep pass. Todd Gurley was able to run through the weak box for an 8-yard gain.

The fear of McVay's vertical combinations has opened up space in the flat, as well. Linebackers are more inclined to stay put over the middle of the field and zone cornerbacks are hesitant to peel off of wide receivers to prevent passes to the flat. Couple that with constant two-high safety looks, and defenses are ill equipped to handle the underneath and flat areas of the field. Gurley has seen an early boost in receiving production as a result.

Once again, McVay made use of a tight formation. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Derek Carrier are snuggled up to the line of scrimmage to the left side of the formation. To the other side of the formation are two more possible pass-catchers, with Gurley aligned 7 yards deep of the center. Gurley is aligned to where he could quickly become the third threat to either side of the field.

The Redskins defense is in a quarters (Cover-4) coverage. Four deep players, the two outside cornerbacks and two safeties, trail off into deep zones, while three underneath defenders patrol the middle and flat areas. McVay called the perfect play to beat this coverage.


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At the top of the screen, Watkins runs a 10-yard in-route. The vertical stem forces the cornerback to carry him up the field, but also holds the safety to that side of the field. Carrier, the tight end, is running his stem slightly behind Watkins -- again, the wide receiver sets up the possible buffer for the inside player to smoothly cut outside. Instead, Carrier sits at about 5 yards depth for a stick route. The two vertical stems force the linebacker to pause, unsure of whether to stay put to defend the stick route, or fly to the flat for the running back. Ultimately, the linebacker stays home, and with the cornerback and safety playing deep on Watkins, there is nobody within 10 yards of Gurley when he catches a swing pass in the flat.

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Everyone on the team has been the beneficiary of McVay's offense because he has made everyone's job easier. By forcing defenses to be wary of deep passing and punishing them when they are not, McVay has quickly created a Rams offense that feeds off of itself. The passing game is more efficient than ever before. Defenses now have to respect the Rams' passing attack, allowing for Gurley to run through lighter boxes and regain his confidence.

The ceiling on the offense as it is currently constructed has yet to be seen. Goff still shows many of the traits that troubled him as a rookie; McVay is just better at hiding them than Fisher's regime was. If Goff himself can not further develop, the offense may stall out down the road. That said, Goff and this offense are already miles ahead of where they were a year ago. McVay has shown before he can adapt and improve as the season goes on. There is no doubt he can do the same in Los Angeles.


10 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2017, 3:19pm

#1 by t.d. // Sep 22, 2017 - 3:43am

I didn't really have an opinion about the hire, but obviously the guy can coach

Points: 0

#2 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Sep 22, 2017 - 7:42am

Nice article. The film study here, and the Rams offensive performance thus far (especially last night's game!), are a damnin indictiment of Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff.

Points: 0

#3 by garion333 // Sep 22, 2017 - 8:42am

Yup, absolutely. Matt Waldman is fond of saying Fisher and company brought in a kid who only ever spoke English and wanted him to learn Chinese. That takes time. Instead of fitting their system to the QB, they wanted him to learn their (horrible) system.

Points: 0

#4 by MarkV // Sep 22, 2017 - 8:52am

I think it's mostly unfair to blame Fisher for a bad offense. He was not an "offense" coach. There is plenty to blame him for, but it was other geniuses that made the Rams offensive abomination

Points: 0

#6 by Mr Shush // Sep 22, 2017 - 9:14am

It may not have been Fisher's offense, but Fisher persistently hired bad offensive assistants over quite a significant time-frame, and that is on him. Brian Schottenheimer in particular had no business getting another OC gig after the Jets, and no business keeping either of those jobs as long as he did.

Points: 0

#8 by Noahrk // Sep 22, 2017 - 10:56am

Absolutely, there's no way Fisher gets a pass for that. If only knows about defense then maybe he should have stayed a DC. If you want to be a HC you have to be responsible for the whole team. Same excuse Rex Ryan always flung.

Points: 0

#10 by Raiderjoe // Sep 22, 2017 - 3:19pm

yes fisher was ehad coaching sicne 1994. had bucky Richardson, steve mcnair, vince young, k. Collins, and some tiohers. all sorts of quartreb acks. not even sure of my point anymore five seconds afetyr typing that but he was head coach for over 20 straight years by time he had j. goff last season. so no excuses

Points: 0

#5 by MarkV // Sep 22, 2017 - 8:52am

I think it's mostly unfair to blame Fisher for a bad offense. He was not an "offense" coach. There is plenty to blame him for, but it was other geniuses that made the Rams offensive abomination

Points: 0

#7 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 22, 2017 - 10:00am

For the previous three years, McVay was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. He was responsible for producing the illusion that Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than he truly is.

If you want to make irrational Cousins arguments and attribute all of a QB's success or failure to a coach and/or system, then you need to generalized it and also argue that Brady and Manning the Greater are charlatans, too.

So how about it? Tom Brady as mediocre system QB buoyed by a HOF coaching staff? (They are 13-5 in competitive games played without him {discounting end of season 2nd-stringer games}). I thought not.

Points: 0

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