When comparing the Los Angeles Rams running attack from 2016 to 2017, there were drastic difference. Not only in terms of production, but also creativity and scheme wise.
Newly appointed Head Coach Sean McVay brought along with him a totally new and creative offense, and the numbers showed. In 2016, the Rams were 31st in both total rushing yards and yards per carry, proving to be an extremely ineffective ground game behind the legs of pro bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year RB Todd Gurley. 2017 was the turn of a new leaf with the ground game landing 8th in total rushing yards and 7th in yards per carry.
Multiple factors played a role.
Obviously the turn around in play from multiple players helped, a much more potent passing attack, some offensive line additions (Andrew Whitworth, John Sullivan), and most importantly, Sean McVay.
Even though McVay is thought of as a Gruden disciple (he is), he just as much inherited football knowledge from former Washington Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan. Shanahan is notoriously known for implementing a zone blocking running scheme which has been wildly successful in the NFL, and is now used league-wide. Shanahan was responsible for engineering a Terrell Davis-lead 2,008 yard rushing season in 1998. He also turned sixth-round pick Alfred Morris into a 1,613 yard rusher in his rookie season.
The zone blocking scheme is essentially a group of offensive lineman that move in unison and block gaps, as opposed to the traditional man blocking scheme where offensive lineman are specified to block a player. The offensive lineman move horizontally as opposed to vertically on their first step, and move in a unit blocking as they go along. The RB then follows the lineman reading his gaps, looking for a potential hole or cutback lane to burst through.
Pro Football Focus graded all rushing attacks last season and the Rams were the top outside zone rushing attack. This is what the PFF guys said:
By almost any measure, the Los Angeles Rams were the league’s most successful team when it came to running outside zone last season. They averaged 1.7 yards per carry before contact and 5.6 yards per carry total with 33 explosive runs (gains of 15 or more yards), eight more than any other team. They did that despite forcing only 15 missed tackles on 146 carries for one of the lowest broken tackle rates in the league.
Elsewhere, the Alvin Kamara effect was on full display as the New Orleans Saints actually led the league in total yards per carry despite ranking fifth in yards per carry before contact. While the Rams forced just 15 missed tackles on 146 carries, the Saints’ backs doubled that (30) on fewer attempts (129) for a significantly better broken tackle rate.
The Rams seemed to have found a scheme that worked for everybody involved. Athletic offensive lineman that could climb to the second level and make blocks in space, a RB with good vision and strong ability to hit his second gear quickly, and WR’s willing to block downfield springing runs for big gains.
The Rams will look to continue to build on the strong foundation they built in 2017 as their entire offense relied upon their ability to run the ball effectively.