Former Washington Footballers Offensive Coordinator Sean McVay is one of the most exciting head coaching hires in recent memory.
On a macro level, it’s exciting for the league as a whole because McVay is the youngest head coaching hire in league history and will be bringing his youthful pep to Los Angeles, hopefully to help revive the NFL fan base in the city. For the Rams at the micro level, McVay could be the one to make the Rams young, expensive offense look the way it is supposed to.
Assuming McVay had a strong influence in Washington’s system installation, game planning and play calling last year, the style of offense that he is bringing over is good news for quarterback Jared Goff. Washington’s offense last year was about as close to a true “spread” offense as an NFL can get. Considering Goff played in Cal’s “Bear Raid” system for three years in college, McVay’s spread-out attack should give Goff the conditions he needs to succeed.
McVay likes to stretch the field vertically. If executed well enough, the vertical game will open up room underneath for easier throws in that area, and it will soften up the box for the running back. Defenses are willing to force fifteen-play drives, but they do not want to give up big plays, so forcing a defense to respect the threat of a big play down the field will make the rest of the offense run smoother.
Three or four verticals is the simplest way to attack down the field. It is a staple of aggressive offenses in all ranks of football, from high school to the NFL. McVay adds two interesting twists to this tried and true concept in this clip, one to the strong side and one to the weak side. Let’s start with the strong side.
The strong side of the formation (three receiver side) has the less drastic change. Normally on three or four verts, all three receivers on the strong side of the formation will go vertical and the inner two receivers will take slight bends inside at about 16-20 yards deep, while the outside receiver stays outside and strictly vertical so as to force the deep safety to choose between splitting receivers.
In this instance, the outside receiver takes an inside release to his vertical stem, then breaks off into a ‘dig’ (deep-in) route over the heart of the field. With the deep safety focused on the vertical routes, that ‘dig’ route is a 1-on-1 battle unless one of the underneath defenders drops deep.
McVay doesn’t allow that to happen. Linebacker Damien Wilson, who showed blitz off the left edge before the snap, trotted back into coverage after the snap. Normally, Wilson would have gained more depth that he did and drifted toward the middle of the field or followed the running back out of the backfield, but the Washington receiver running a shallow crosser distracted Wilson and got him to bite forward. The same goes for Dallas’ strong side safety, who rotated down from a Cover 2 look into a shallow zone. His job is to flow down into the heart of that three receiver set and look for work, but when they all took vertical stems, he saw the crosser and saw where Cousins was looking, he bit on the short route.
But wait, there’s more! The shallow crossing route is normally a vertical route for verticals concepts. Most of the time, that player is another vertical threat that the safety has to worry about and adds one more option for the quarterback to choose, theoretically giving the quarterback better odds of someone getting open. What the shallow crosser does is make the read unclear for the linebacker, as stated previously. If that receiver were to have gone vertical, the linebacker would have had one clear read: follow the back out of the backfield or drop into an intermediate zone if the back stays in pass protection. The crosser seemingly confused Wilson into thinking there would be a coverage switch with himself and the cornerback, so Wilson followed the crosser, leaving the running back wide open. (Of course, Cousins was oblivious as could be.)
This play is a bit less fancy, but it does showcase something that Washington’s offense did a lot with McVay at the helm. McVay loved to call vertical combinations with three receivers on the same side of the field—it’s no coincidence that the last play was exactly that. Three vertical stems coming from the same side of the field, especially with as tightly bunched as McVay often had them, can create for some weird combinations and angles that defenses aren’t used to seeing all that often.
For one, McVay makes it tougher for the defense to predict who is going where because the receivers’ stems intertwine at the line of scrimmage. Tight end Jordan Reed, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and wide receiver DeSean Jackson are lined up in that order from left-to-right before the snap, but switch into a line up of Jackson, Reed and Crowder from left-to-right by the time the most vertical player is about seven yards down the field. It’s a massive mix up that causes the defense to rethink their assignments.
The vertical stems force the defense to retreat, and the middle of the field linebacker is locked onto the quarterback’s eyes, so he naturally drifts toward the middle of the field as Cousins’ eyes do. Cousins should have known that the vertical stems, as well as the down and distance (3rd-and-14ish), would force the defense to back off, allowing him to look off the linebacker real quick and hit Reed near the sticks. Of course, 3rd-and-14ish is not going to be converted most of the time, but this play design did give the play a chance, at least as much of a chance as one can hope for on 3rd-and-14ish.
Washington’s offense featured bunch sets often last year. Whether it was to create unique angles in the vertical game or to spur confusion in the short-to-intermediate area, Washington utilized a lot of tight three receiver sets to catch the defense out of position. In using these bunch sets, McVay often had the receivers intertwine their route stems as soon as the ball was snapped. Upper echelon defenses will not be phased too much by the mix ups, but for most defenses, the slight pause that reevaluating one’s assignment takes is enough for the quarterback to find an open receiver.
Washington’s offense featured plenty of motion, too, like in the play above. McVay would often motion players in or out of these tight three receiver sets.
After the running back (Chris Thompson) is motioned into the bunch set, Washington runs a curl/flat combo with Thompson and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. Crowder is running the curl, while Thompson sprints out to the flat. Over the top of Crowder, wide receiver Pierre Garcon is running a ‘dig’ route. This combination was a perfect counter to the Steelers’ blitz, and would have been a nice combination even without the opposing blitz.
The Steelers are running Cover 3 with a unique four-man rush. Instead of rushing both outside linebackers, the Steelers only rushed their strong side linebacker, stunted the two interior linemen to the weak side and blitzed inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons through the strong side. With the blitz, the coverage is naturally shifted at the snap. Whereas the two middle linebackers would normally man the middle of the field, the blitz forces the two intermediate zone players to start their play from the weak side (weak side inside linebacker and weak side outside linebacker dropping off the line of scrimmage).
Washington’s route combo nullified the blitz. With the strong side hook/curl area vacated because of the blitz, that weak side inside linebacker has a lot of ground to cover from his pre-snap alignment to where Crowder ends up stopping for his curl route. The linebacker’s real bind, though, is the ‘dig’ route. He sees the vertical stem and knows that he can’t let anyone beat him over the top, so he hesitates before attacking Crowder on the curl route. The moment of hesitation was all that Cousins needed to find Crowder in time.
Now, let’s get hypothetical real quick. Had the linebacker gunned straight for Crowder, he would have been able to either stop the play there or break up the pass. That being said, he would have left the strong side cornerback out to dry. ‘Dig’ routes are tough to cover to begin with because the cornerback can’t use the sideline to his advantage- it’s a route over the heart of the field. On this play, the cornerback would have been especially screwed because the receiver’s tight alignment to the formation created a natural cushion between the receiver and the Steelers’ deep third zone. The linebacker did the right thing by preventing the bigger play, but this concept had great potential for the offense.
Adjusting to Opponent
The mark of a good coordinator is not just the base scheme or flow of play calling, but how both of those things are altered for different opponents. Some defenses are going to blitz more, some defenses are going to play more man-to-man, some defenses will play different amounts of different zone coverages, and so on and so forth. No two defenses can be attacked exactly the same way.
The Vikings like to run Cover 2 and 2-Man coverage a fair amount. The shallow coverages coupled with Minnesota’s impressive pass rush often forces quarterbacks to panic, and that’s exactly what Mike Zimmer (or any coach) wants. This play from Washington is a nasty counter for those coverages, though.
On this play, it looks like the Vikins are running a hybrid coverage. To the strong side (left), the Vikings appear to be playing man coverage with the two cornerbacks to that side with a safety playing a deep half over the top of them. To the weak side (right), the Vikings appear to be running true Cover 2 coverage, where the cornerback is playing the vertical stem until the break and then playing the flat, the linebackers play middle of the field zones and a safety plays a deep half over the top.
Washington’s route combination to the strong side of the field creates a clear 1-on-1 for Cousins, both due to alignment and due to displacement of defenders by other routes.
In essence, the same route combo is being ran on both sides: one receiver gets deep then breaks left, while another receiver runs underneath them in the opposite direction. On the field side (left side and man side), the ‘out’ route takes the deep safety out of the equation before the route is even ran. Considering how much the receiver (Crowder) pressed to the sideline, the safety on that side of the field would have been gambling by sprinting to the boundary to make a play on the ball, not to mention there is a lot of ground to cover there anyway.
With the safety taken out of the equation by alignment, the other obstacle is the other cornerback, but since he is in man coverage and trails the underneath receiver over the middle of the field, he is no longer an obstacle, either. At that point, it’s up to Crowder to beat his man and Cousins to drill the throw. Both Washington players did their jobs and executed a beautiful play.
Marrying Shotgun Running with Todd Gurley’s Play Style
One of the biggest questions heading into the head coaching search was whether or not the Rams would get someone who could maximize their star offensive player, running back Todd Gurley. After a stunning start to his rookie season, Gurley has taken a tumble, largely due to poor offensive line play and bland offensive structure.
Gurley is a downhill runner. He’s best when he can get moving downhill without thinking or dancing too much. At the University of Georgia and in his first two seasons with the Rams, Gurley became accustomed to running behind a fullback or a pulling guard. Normally these sorts of running plays happen out of 21 or 22 personnel and start under center. The problem is that quarterback Jared Goff plays a completely opposite brand of football.
Coming out of Cal’s “Bear Raid”, Goff is used to playing almost exclusively from the shotgun and executing spread route combinations. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but when juxtaposed with Gurley’s old school, power football style of play, it becomes a problem. Luckily, McVay can marry the two young players’ styles about as well as possible.
As has been highlighted in the many plays above, McVay’s passing offense looks like a collegiate offense. There are a lot of four or five receiver sets out of the shotgun and repeated vertical attacks, coupled with easy and effective short throws. That being said, McVay calls for the quarterback to work plenty under center, too. McVay weaves zone running with his bootleg game, as well as man blocking run concepts and more downhill running concepts, even out of the shotgun. McVay’s rushing offense was not more multiple than, say, Anthony Lynn’s in Buffalo last season, but it is more intriguing than what the Rams ran last season.
Gurley will have to be more decisive than Rob Kelley was on this play, but this is a concept that has Gurley written all over it. If the Rams want to sustain some unpredictability, they’re going to need to find ways to run the ball out of the shotgun. This is how to do it.
McVay did not call this play too often because Kelley was generally good at executing zone schemes, so Washington leaned that way with him. This concept is a necessity for Gurley and Goff, though: it can keep Goff in the shotgun and not tip run play with Goff under center, while still giving Gurley the downhill power concepts that he likes.
Washington pulled the left guard and had tight end Jordan Reed flow to the heart of the formation to be a lead blocker. Kelley was given a lead guard and a pseudo fullback in Reed. Even if running out of the shotgun is not Gurley’s fantasy, this is the best way to make him feel comfortable there.
Red Zone Woes
Washington had one of the most efficient offenses in football. All throughout the year, they were able to march down the field at will, even with Captain CheckDown playing quarterback. Per DVOA, Washington’s offense was 5th in the league in passing and 4th on the ground, good for an overall 5th place offense. There is no denying that Washington had an effective offense.
There is also no denying that Washington struggled severely in the red zone. Only the Texans and the Jets had worse touchdown percentages in the red zone than Washington did. Washington converted just 46% of their red zone trips into touchdowns. For reference, the Browns (55%) and the Lions (54%) were the two most average teams for red zone conversions.
No one man is fully to blame for Washington’s repeated collapses in the red zone, but McVay is not without fault. Washington’s offense struggled to adjust to the red zone because it is a compact area. When playing in the middle of the field, there is a lot more room that the defense has to account for. In the red zone, the back of the end zone is the defense’s friend; it allows the safeties to play more aggressively downhill and not be forced to cover as much ground in the back end. Naturally, that creates tighter windows for the quarterback.
When Washington got down to the red zone, they often remained in four receiver sets and tried to spread defenses out. The problem is that spreading the defense our requires the defense to need to cover a lot of space, but with the field condensed, they no longer have to, so many of the advantages of spreading out the defense are nullified. Spreading the defense out can still work in the red zone—because anything can work if executed well—but it should not be the primary attack.
With as often as Washington tried to spread the defense out in the red zone, defenses continually gave Cousins the easy throws and then swarmed to make the tackle short of the sticks. Had Cousins been more aggressive and capable of fitting tight windows, Washington’s spread approach to the red zone could have been fine, but Cousins is not that type of quarterback and McVay needed to do a better job of understanding who he had at quarterback and adjusting to that.
To McVay’s credit, Washington’s offense did start to sort out their red zone struggles near the end of the season. McVay began calling for more in-breaking iso routes, as well as doing more to create natural picks and get receivers open without having to actually beat a defender. Still, Washington was only average in the red zone when they were at their best there. Hopefully McVay learns from Washington’s 2016 red zone struggles and rethinks his approach for the Rams.
Outlook in Los Angeles
Sean McVay won’t have near the talent that he had at his disposal in Washington. Washington’s receivers were far superior (especially as vertical threats), the offensive line was more reliable and Cousins had years of experience in the offense that Goff won’t have off the bat.
McVay’s biggest adjustment will be running his offense without DeSean Jackson. Jackson is the league’s deadliest deep threat and opened up so much for Washington’s offense. Defenses have to give him the utmost respect as a vertical threat because one wrong step can result in a touchdown for Jackson. Jackson was the ‘X’ factor for Washington’s offense and McVay won’t have anything like that in Los Angeles.
In a perfect world, McVay finds a way to turn Tavon Austin into a legitimate deep threat. To this point, Austin has not had the skills to separate from NFL defenders without the help of scheming. With a scheming stud like McVay, Austin is the most likely to become a playmaker in the passing game. But to be fully clear: Tavon Austin is not DeSean Jackson.
The Rams are still going to be bad on offense in 2017. McVay shouldn’t be penalized for that. Every position on the Rams offense is bottom-five in the league, sans running back. It’s going to take time before this offense can be reloaded again because the trade for Goff drained the Rams of draft capital in the 2016 and 2017 NFL Drafts. Sean McVay deserves a long leash until the Rams have capable offensive talent, then his true test will come.
For now, McVay needs to simply prove that he is more creative and less lethargic than the past coaching staff.