Looking back at the first 10 games of 2021, it appears that Sean McVay has morphed his offensive scheme back to his early days with the Washington Football Team.
McVay still runs variations on his staple concepts: the outside zone run game, motion, both early and late, shifts, and using wide receivers and tight ends interchangeably as blockers and pass catchers. All unite to gain space, leverage numerical advantages, and create coverage mismatches.
The Rams still mainly set up in the “11” personal grouping at an 87% clip. But this new LA attack is passing on two out of every three plays, lining up in wider sets, using less “bunch/stack” sets and and at 17%, running much less play-action.
Starting at the beginning
McVay’s version of the West Coast offense began with the Gruden brothers. First as a wide receiver coach with Jon on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later with his younger brother Jay, as tight ends coach and eventually offensive coordinator at Washington. There, the younger Gruden had taken his brother’s horizontal moving scheme and extended it vertically down the field. McVay embraced this version and his tenure was defined by deep routes, empty backfields, and wider formations, mostly out of the shotgun formation. Sort of a spread-west coast hybrid.
When McVay came to Los Angeles, he inherited quarterback Jared Goff. Goff was a rhythm passer, a game manager who performed best from a script and was best making mid and short throws. He also inherited Todd Gurley, a game-breaker who was a weapon in both the run and pass game.
Gurley’s running ability allowed McVay and Goff to flourish in play-action. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods were skilled and willing blockers, as well as stellar receivers. Bunching them with TE’s Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett and combining them with the outside zone run game let the offense scheme their playmakers into advantageous matchups.
Along came Matt Stafford
The acquisition of Matthew Stafford allowed McVay to come full circle. Longer routes, wider sets and letting the QB read the defense from shotgun. The receiving routes are still layered and the Rams are still dangerous from the slot, with 75% of 2021 passes going to inside receivers. Last year, Kupp and Woods had 80% of targets from the slot.
The 2021 Rams offense is near the top of heap in scoring, passing and total yards. The problems begin with red zone touch down percentage and third down conversion percentage where they drop out of the top ten. Compounding these problems is their averaging 15 points in three losses, compared to 32 in wins.
During the Goff/ McVay era, teams used to crowd the line of scrimmage and force him to throw it long or wide, now opposing teams set back in deep coverages and try to force Staff/ McVay to throw short and over the middle.
What are the answers to the offensive struggles?
To be honest, during McVay’s tenure with the Rams, as it was with WFT, the offense has a love/hate relationship in the red zone. A lot of that has to do with the run game being more of a finesse and timing nature, but play-calling and offensive philosophy need scrutiny.
As a fan, it’s exciting fun watching LA’s vertical, big play passing game, but there are areas where McVay could easily integrate successful aspects of his offense from the recent past.
No. 1 Use the jet sweep/motion more often
Even with the WR injuries, the Rams still have enough speed and playmakers to make this play viable. Boot legs, play-action and screens can all be set up off of this motion. The use of jet sweeps in conjunction with the outside zone and play-action forces linebackers and safeties to hesitate because of confusion in diagnosing the play. Linemen get an extra step to seal off defenders and open lanes for runners.
No. 2 Make a commitment to the running game and clock
It’s not about piling up massive yardage or the time of possession, it’s about controlling the flow of the game. This was a hallmark of past Ram offenses. McVay used to mix quick snaps and long counts, keeping the opposition off kilter. When the offense bogged down, he moved to the hurry up to energize the team.
No. 3 Use more stack/bunch sets
Tighten up the field. LA has good blocking WRs, use them to shorten the edge for quick pitches and get the RBs some one-on-one’s outside On pass plays it will force defenses out of press coverage, create mismatches on crossing routes and allows for picks to be set.
No. 4 Stay with the “11” personal groupings
There just isn’t enough talent at TE to rationalize using two. Kendall Blanton is practice squad caliber and Brycen Hopkins can’t get on the field, for who-knows-what reason. Having three WR’s, forces the defense into nickel or dime packages, creates room to run routes and generally reduces the amount of big bodies in the middle areas, making it harder to chip and redirect WRs.
What to expect down the stretch
The Rams have a tough schedule down the stretch. Tough rematches with the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks, tilts with division leading Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens, and favored games against the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Of course, the defense will have to hold up their end, but the offense will have to improve on the 15 points the have averaged in their losses. Although Stafford is talented, the Rams should not be hesitant to use schemes and sets that have been proven in the past. McVay used to script the plays for the first couple of drives. Considering LA’s sluggish starts, he should consider doing it again.