I would like to say that the problems with the Rams on third down boiled down to one simple factor. Improve THIS ONE THING, and suddenly the Rams succeed. However, as this tape study shows, the Rams have major issues in all facets of the third-down passing game.
For this play breakdown, RamBuck and I focused on the "makeable" third downs (3rd-and-7 or less) from the last three games. With a sample size of 19, we thought we had enough for a fair assessment of what’s working and what’s not.
The NFL success rate on these third downs ranges from 45-55%, per a study by Chase Stuart. The Rams got only 5 first downs on these 19 plays, a paltry 26% success rate. Let’s have a closer look at what’s going on.
Digging into the personnel
For comparison’s sake, a breakdown of personnel/pre-snap formations is as follows:
- Total charted 3rd and 7 or fewer plays: 19
- Plays in shotgun: 15 (79%)
- Plays in pistol: 1 (5%)
- Success of plays in shotgun: 3/15 (20%)
- Success of plays not in shotgun: 2/4 (50%)
- 11: 11 total (58%)
- 12: 3 total (16%)
- 21: 2 total (11%)
- 22: 1 total (5%)
- 13: 1 total (5%)
- 03: 1 total (5%)
One notable observation is that the Rams changed their personnel groupings significantly on 3rd down when they faced the Vikings. After using 11 personnel over 90% of the time on 3rd and 7 or less vs. Browns/49ers, they only used it once in 8 plays (12.5%). They also introduced much heavier personnel vs. the Vikings, going with multiple tight ends for 6 of 8 plays (75%) and 3 tight ends twice. It’s unclear if this was a specific matchup that Cignetti thought the Rams could win vs the Vikings’ physical corners, or if this was just taking advantage of Kendricks being more healthy than he had in weeks.
What’s Working on 3rd Down
Here’s one rare example of a third down play that was designed well and worked perfectly.
3rd and 6
Lining up for a third and six, Frank Cignetti draws up a simple concept -- flood a zone with more receivers than the defense can cover. Tavon Austin is outside the numbers to the left, with Lance Kendricks in the slot and Cory Harkey attached to the line. All three will go into their routes with Kendricks and Harkey dragging defenders toward the middle of the field. It’s a bit strange to have two slow TEs here, but the outside CB responds to Tavon’s speed threat by playing off coverage.
With the Vikings rushing only four, Foles has all day and a plethora of options, particularly as Gurley has no one to block and leaks out into the flat. As Foles drops back, he keeps his eyes locked on the middle linebacker to freeze him in place. Austin runs up the stem and forces the CB to take a couple steps backwards, creating separation before he goes into his break and making him an obvious target. Foles delivers the ball relatively on time and Austin has enough wiggle to slip a tackle at the sticks and get first down yardage.
This kind of execution should be the staple, but for whatever reason is not. What’s going on to blow up these plays? You name it, we found it.
What’s Not Working on 3rd Down
Poor QB execution on predetermined targets
Against the Vikings, Cignetti attempted to win big on several occasions, sending three TEs out in pass formation. This may have been a product of using hurry-up to transition from 2nd to 3rd down, hoping to be able to catch the opposing defense flat-footed. However, against the Vikings’ sure-tackling base secondary, this tactic failed to create any noticeable advantages.
Still, however, this play should have worked but for Foles’ maddening slowness in his dropback, read and delivery.
The Rams go empty on third-and-four, never a favorite of mine as it completely eliminates the threat of the run. Kendricks, Cook and Harkey are lined up as a "big trips" formation to the right, and each runs similar out-breaking routes. Cook appears to be the primary target, and runs a fairly crisp curl route.
However, the danger of running this route vs off coverage is that as soon as the receiver starts his break, the defender can recognize it and make his own break on the ball. In QB breakdowns, you constantly hear analysts like Greg Cosell talk about the need to throw the ball before the WR starts his break. This is a clear example of that. If Foles gets the ball out on time, Cook can make an unimpeded catch. If the ball is late, the pass gets broken up -- or worse.
Even though all Foles has to do is catch the snap, drop back one step and throw, his footwork and motion is so slow that by the time this happens the window for this route is closed.
Poor blitz / rush pickup
In week 7, the Browns clearly wanted to set a tone on defense in the Rams’ first third-and-makeable opportunity of the game, a 3rd-and-6 play in the second quarter. Showing no respect for the run or Foles’ ability to beat a blitz, the Browns put all of their front seven at the line of scrimmage, showing big blitz. In response, Foles motions Benny Cunningham from the right to the left side of the formation.
However, as the Browns rush six, something goes horribly wrong. Greg Robinson lunges to take the outside rusher and misses entirely, and Cunningham is forced to clean up the mess. He lets the inside rusher come free rather than the outside man, putting the pass rush one step closer to Foles. Foles whirls and throws over Tavon Austin’s head as Quick begins to set a pick for a WR screen.
It’s unclear if the throw to Tavon was his primary read, though it wouldn’t be surprising given the pattern of plays we’ve watched. But if Benny and the left side of the OL had been capable of picking up that blitz for a second longer, Jared Cook immediately comes free deep for a possible touchdown.
Failure to execute pre-throw picks
On a third-and-three shortly afterwards, the Browns provide a different look, rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage. You would expect Benny Cunningham to realize that he has no job in the pocket and leak out into the flat, but he does not, effectively taking himself out of the play.
Thus, Foles’ only read is to Tavon Austin, who is running a shallow cross underneath three verticals -- each of whom is adequately covered. Jared Cook has the job of chipping the linebacker in coverage to help Austin get separation, but he fails to register much of a chip and the LB quickly switches coverage to Austin and breaks up the play, getting away with some legal mugging inside the five-yard zone.
Strange play calls
Why are the Rams so afraid of going over the middle for these third-down conversions? It’s a mystery to both of us. Nonetheless, here we have another designed quick-hitting play that fails because our quarterback isn’t fast enough in his motion to execute it.
The Vikings DBs are playing close on the Rams’ big-body receivers Quick and Britt on 3rd-and-7. Foles executes a quick play-fake on an inside handoff to Cunningham to draw the linebackers in as the RT Reynolds and RG Brown drift out to set up a screen. Foles then turns and throws out to his receiver, but he hop-throws it without any real velocity.
However, the defensive backs are spaced smartly, and blow up the attempt by Britt to occupy both defenders while Quick catches the ball. By the time the ball arrives, four defenders are closing to snuff out the play before it has a chance.
Personnel: 11 (looks like 20)
Sometimes, even when everything works, the play fails at the last possible moment because of the Rams’ old nemesis: drops.
Here we have a beautiful play-call on third-and-3 in the first quarter against San Francisco. Presnap motion from Stedman Bailey in the slot helps Foles identify man coverage from the defense, at which point he likely shifts his priority from a shorter route to a deep sideline route from Kenny Britt.
The 49ers rush only four and drop three LBs to the sticks to shut down the dump-off options to Cook or Gurley, coming out of the backfield. As Foles drops back, he keeps his eyes locked on the safety to freeze him in the center of the field. The OL holds up well, and Foles snaps his head over to where Britt is rapidly gaining vertical separation and throws a perfect deep ball...
...which gets bobbled and bumbled and falls to the ground. Time to punt, yet again.
What can be done?
I'd like to be optimistic that bringing in a veteran third-down-man like Wes Welker will instantly make a difference. However, he will be operating in this same slow-timed offense, dependent on his quarterback and the offensive line not to blow up plays before they start.
What needs fixing? More than Welker alone can provide.