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Can Bills stop the outside zone run and “eye candy” of the Sean McVay offense?

The impact of Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods could be paramount to success

Los Angeles Rams v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

With new offensive and defensive coordinators on Sean McVay’s staff, it’s as important as ever to track not only the results, but the process. The LA Rams have been one of the most successful offensive and defensive teams in their first two games but there are 14 games left to go in the regular season and if they want to avoid the issues they ran into at the end of 2018, it’s imperative to know what other teams will now know what LA has had success with and how to stop it.

That includes a 2-0 Buffalo Bills team with quality talent on both sides of the ball and after eight quarters of play it seems as though they’ll be preparing for an offense that is actually quite a lot like the one that was so successful in 2018. Until it wasn’t and it appears that the Bills are preparing for pre-snap motion — aka “eye candy” — and outside zone runs that setup play action and other elements that helped the Rams finish second in scoring two years ago.

What will Buffalo be doing on defense to counter what has worked for LA so far, assuming that McVay isn’t prepared for teams preparing for what he expects them to be prepared for?

Mark Gaughan of Buffalo News explains why it’s up to the Bills defensive line to create problems for the Rams offense by stopping LA’s outside zone run.

The basis of the Rams’ offense is the outside zone run play. They get defensive linemen moving laterally to defend the outside run then bootleg in the other direction. The defensive ends need to set the edge. It’s not easy for those big-bellied D-linemen to change direction quickly. Then all kinds of motions and fakes work off of the run action.

But the Rams’ misdirection takes time to develop. If quick, elite defensive linemen burst into the backfield, it can throw the timing off. The Bills’ defensive linemen sometimes call it a BSU play. That stands for Blow Stuff Up (or something like that).

As Gaughan explains, defenses will want a “BSU” play on first or second down to keep McVay from continuously being in the spots he wants his offense to be in. Players like Mario Addison and Ed Oliver will often be publicly judged by their sack totals, but stout run defense is what leads to more sack opportunities. As Addison told Buffalo News, “They do run east to west ball, but for us, we’ve just got to rely on our fundamentals, which is going to take us to the ball ... You can’t be out of your gap or they’re going to expose you.”

Addison also mentioned that left tackle Andrew Whitworth is someone he’ll have to keep off of himself because “Once he grabs you, it’s hard to get him off.”

In Week 1 last season while playing with the Carolina Panthers, Addison notched no tackles, one QB hit and no sacks against Whitworth and the Rams offensive line. And if there was a two-week all-pro roster, Whitworth would be the 2020 left tackle right now. With the Bills, Addison is tasked with playing multiple positions along the defensive line and last week got a sack as the 3-tech.

Gaughan also expertly explains the differences in the two teams’ offensive lines, with the Rams excelling as “mobile, wall-you-off blockers” and the Bills as “road-grading maulers,” which is what Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers will be facing this Sunday.

With LA’s offense on a hot streak in the first quarter, they only faced:

  • 3rd and 2 on their first touchdown drive
  • 3rd and 2 and 3rd and 3 on their second touchdown drive
  • 3rd and goal from the 3-yard line, converted for a touchdown that gave them a 21-3 lead

The Rams didn’t face their first 3rd and long until a 3rd and 9 with 3:06 remaining in the second quarter.

McVay had his offense run the ball on five of their first seven plays and at that point Jared Goff was able to complete his first 13 attempts, moving the Rams down the field and not even giving the Eagles pass rushers many opportunities to pressure or sack him.

Josh Schrock of NBC Sports BayArea also described some of McVay’s early offensive tendencies this season this week, noting that McVay “stealing Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers plays has led to Rams success.”

The Rams have always been a heavy play-action and pre-snap motion team under McVay. So while that hasn’t changed, the Rams have been utilizing more of the outside zone concepts the 49ers find so effective. They use heavy pre-snap motion — as do the 49ers — to get defender’s eyes moving and use outside zone to get the defensive line moving laterally and then hit them with a bootleg the other way.

Going off of this Darrell Henderson play reel from Sunday against the Eagles, in which Henderson had 12 carries for 81 yards and two receptions for 40, Schrock describes the first run in the footage as one similar to an 80-yard run by San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert this season and that the third is an “inside trap play” that Shanahan favors frequently.

Here is an “inside trap” as described by Erick Streelman of Win With the Pass:

In the case of “Trap Right” this requires the left guard to pull to the opposite side of the center. With starting left guard Joe Noteboom on injured reserve for at least three weeks, that duty falls on the shoulders of backup David Edwards. Trap Left and now the pulling guard would be Austin Corbett. In any variation of the play, that guard is pulling.

Streelman is a big fan of the trap play, as well as the complementary “Dart” play.

The DE is more than likely one of the best players on the field. On Dart, we trick him by pass setting and running underneath him. Then we come back with trap and hit him out with a quick pull. He is forced to defend a variety of blocks. All of that slows him down on his pass rush.

The Rams and 49ers are two teams heavily featuring a similar offensive game plan based around these zone runs and “eye candy” and both have had early rushing successes despite not heavily investing in the running back position or having experienced options there; the 49ers have Raheem Mostert and his 80-yard run, but he played in only 13 snaps in Week 2 before an MCL sprain forced him out. Replacement Jerick McKinnon, who didn’t play in 2018 or 2019 due to injury, had a 55-yard run on 3rd and 31 against the Jets.

Similarly, the Rams have had to move the ball around from Cam Akers to Malcolm Brown to Darrell Henderson and so on because of injuries but Brown and Henderson have both had success in the backfield. Akers has 17 carries with a long of six yards but hurt his ribcage on the first series in Week 2 and didn’t return. Tevin Coleman wasn’t having success in the San Francisco backfield and he went on IR this week.

Bills defense

In Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, the Bills allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive on Miami’s second possession but Buffalo’s defense was as stout as Sean McDermott had ever hoped for the rest of the first half. Consistently forcing third and long and the Dolphins punted on four of their first five drives for a total of 41 yards gained before a field goal just before the break.

In the second half the Bills were without linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano and Miami was able to tear through the middle of the field for 17 second half points and an 85-yard drive that became a turnover on downs.

Gaughan also examined Buffalo’s challenges for the secondary with regards to what McVay likes to do pre-snap and post-snap, getting information from Bills safety Jordan Poyer, who describes LA’s busy backfield as “eye candy”:

“A lot of misdirection stuff, a lot of stuff behind the line of scrimmage, pre-snap and post-snap,” Poyer said. “So watching the film before even getting our game plan, I understood that our eyes are going to be probably the biggest thing coming into this game, figuring out where our eyes need to be and reading our keys. Because there’s a lot of stuff behind the line of scrimmage ... eye candy, trying to get you looking one way and the play’s going the other way. ... I think our coaching staff did a good job coming up with a game plan we feel good about.”

Touchdown Wire’s Mark Schofield wrote last week that “Sean McVay is back on his presnap motion bull” following the Rams 20-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Schofield wrote, perfectly enough, that LA’s 2018 offense stumbled as the season and playoffs wore on because defenses started to “ignore all the eye candy that McVay showed the defense presnap — usually in the form of jet motion from a wide receiver — and play quarters coverage in the secondary.”

Schofield writes that against the Cowboys, jet motion and a fake outside zone running play were in use by literally the Rams first offensive snap of the season. Except instead of failing like it did in 2018, LA has been one of the hottest offenses — especially first quarter offenses — in the NFL so far.

The Cowboys run Cover 4 on this play, just like those teams that seemed to have McVay figured out. Only here, the vertical route from the tight end creates some confusion between the cornerback and the safety, and the crossing route that eases into the boundary is wide open for Goff. But Goff does note even need to throw that, because the flat route is also open from the backside receiver slicing underneath.

Late on this drive, McVay returns to jet motion. As I said, he is going to make you pay attention to the motion man any way he can, because it will set up everything else the Rams are going to do in Week 2 and beyond. How does he do it on this 2nd and 6 play? By throwing a screen to the motion man.

Robert Woods gained 30 yards on that play.

Schofield says that McVay is hoping to force teams to play more man coverage against his offensive weapons in the future. Clearly the plan against the Eagles defense was a success as LA gained more yards, more rushing yards and scored 17 more points than they did in Week 1.

When the ball flips sides, Gaughan details what sort of defensive plan Josh Allen could be facing against Brandon Staley’s Rams:

The Rams will play zone. They played only four snaps of man-to-man against Dallas. Allen will have to be patient. Fangio is known for using quality linebackers to make underneath coverage very blurry for the quarterback. It’s a mix of man and zone underneath, and it’s hard for the QB to diagnose. Rams linebackers Micah Kiser and Kenny Young aren’t viewed as elite but they’re off to a good start. Against Dallas, the Rams played a lot of quarters (four-deep) coverage. If you see the safeties at 10 to 12 yards deep, Allen will have to hit some deep seam passes. Otherwise, expect L.A. to force a lot of underneath throws.

Gaughan later notes that the Rams have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL at running screen passes and that Woods leads the NFL with 377 yards on screen passes since 2017.

In Week 1 we saw the receiver Robert Woods, gaining 105 yards on six catches with 87 yards coming after the catch. In Week 2 we saw the runner Robert Woods, scoring a five-yard touchdown run on an end-around, one of Woods aforementioned favorite plays.

Buffalo could see either or both version of the player they drafted in 2013 and lost to the Rams in free agency in 2017, where McVay turned him into a player capable of 30 more receiving yards per game and at least 100 more rushing yards per season. This was of course before the arrival of McDermott and GM Brandon Beane in 2017 and today the Bills are in the talent acquisition business.

Woods wasn’t their main focus a few years ago but he will be on Sunday, as well as LA’s outside zone run with their running back trio and the “wall-you-off blockers” in front of them.