On September 19th, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Los Angeles Rams In this Week 2 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
This offseason the Colts and Rams competed off the field for the services of quarterback Matthew Stafford. In the end Stafford went to LA and now the Colts will try to make Stafford regret his trade destination. Soon we’ll know if they can do just that.
Let’s see what we can expect in week 2.
You have heard a lot about Sean McVay. We all have. He was the boy wonder who came to the Rams and flipped everyone on their heads taking a team lead by Jared Goff to the Super Bowl in just his second season as head coach. In 2017 McVay took over a team that had gone 4-12 the year before, in McVay’s first season the team nearly flipped their record going 11-5, which was the Rams first winning season since 2003!
You’ve heard a lot about Sean McVay, because Sean McVay is pretty good at this whole coaching thing.
Central to McVay’s success has been his offensive system.
The history of Sean McVay’s system goes back to the Bill Walsh, West Coast Offense, which was then adopted and adapted by Mike Shananhan. To make a long story a little shorter, Sean McVay made his way under Shananhan during his time with the Washington Football Team from 2010-2016. McVay has taken what he learned under Shananhan and once again adapted the old system to the modern NFL.
I wanted to get a better understanding of their offense so I sat down and charted their week one game against the Chicago Bears. At first the McVay offense seems super complex and while we will see new wrinkles and complexities as the season goes on, at it’s core it is fairly straight forward.
The McVay Rams live in 11 personnel. 11 personnel means that the offense has one running back and one tight end on the field, put one and one together and you get 11. Football math is weird, sometimes.
Examples of 11 personnel for the Rams:
Both of these formations use the same exact personnel grouping. One running back, one tight end and three receivers. I could spend the next hour typing up explanations for every way I saw them use 11 personnel but in the process I would lose even the most dedicated of readers, I’m sure.
Instead we’ll focus on why a team would want to base the majority of their offense this way. There are a lot of advantages of using a single personnel grouping most of the time but the biggest advantage it provides is one of exploiting matchups. The Bears played a lot of man (and matching zone) coverage so there weren’t always great matchups to exploit. Against teams who use a lot of pure zone coverage (ie. the Indianapolis Colts) putting your running back or tight end out wide means that a teams number one or two cornerback is covering someone unlikely to get the ball while the Rams can get guys like Cooper Kupp working in space against safeties and linebackers, who have almost no chance to cover someone like Kupp, consistently.
Another thing to consider is that one play they can give you an empty backfield, five wide receiver look and on the very next play without making a substitution, bring everyone in tight into what looks like a run formation. For example:
The very next play:
Beyond this just being a matchup issue, it’s a defensive substitution issue, too. If you’re the defensive coordinator and it’s first and 10 in the second quarter, the Rams offense is at their own 28 yard line and the score is tied 7-7, what defensive line group do you send out? Do you want two linebackers on the field, or three? Because no matter what you decide you’re wrong. You go light? This offense can pull in tight, give you some misdirection with a receiver in motion and gash you for 5-10 yards. You go heavy and they can spread you out and make your poor SAM try to cover someone like Cooper Kupp. And because they don’t have to substitute to do these things, they don’t have to allow the defense the opportunity to substitute, either.
And you might be thinking back to how we saw the Peyton Manning era Colts do similar things using the no huddle for years, and you would be right, Manning and those Colts were multiple, using the same personnel groupings but those Manning era receivers usually stayed on one side of the field. Sean McVay has expanded on what those Manning teams did, brought some similar ideas to the West Coast Offense and packaged the whole thing up, making it accessible to anyone using his system. You don’t have to have a quarterback as special as Peyton Manning to use McVay’s system, even though Matthew Stafford is very good, Jared Goff took this team to the Super Bowl a few short years ago, which should be all you need to know to understand how not special you can be to run McVay’s offense at a high level.
I’ll stop waxing poetic and get back to the merits of this system.
Because they have so many ways to use 11 personnel, including repeating similar looks without having to switch up personnel grouping in the middle of a drive to get into that look, means they can make setting up defenses look easy.
The Setup. pic.twitter.com/CoRWn6xXQg— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
The Rams ran that tight end screen on the Bears 42 yard line, near the end of the first quarter on 1st and 10, with 11 personnel, QB under center and tight end in-line to the left. Receiver Cooper Kupp goes in motion from right to left and the rest is history. The very next play the Rams come out in the same alignment and send the same receiver in motion but instead they handed it off for a two yard gain. Have to cover your bases, right?
The Rams didn’t use this formation and motion combination again until they were on the Bears 36 yard line (the same area of the field), near the end of the third quarter on first and 10. The Bears defenders seemed to have a vague memory of the last time the Rams gave them this look and they weren’t going to let them hit them with the same play again.
The payoff. pic.twitter.com/YP0XFRRBEq— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
Only the Rams didn’t hit them with the same play again. The Bears defenders flow with the receiver in motion and bite up toward the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Khalil Mack even gives tight end, Tyler Higbee a little bump, getting his hands on him early before getting into his pass rush. But this time, instead of blocking and falling off to catch the screen, Higbee bursts downfield past linebacker Roquan Smith and Matthew Stafford puts the ball right on his tight end for a big gain.
Would this play have worked even without the “setup”? Maybe. The motion, the play action, Higbee’s speed downfield, it all adds up to a play that’s tough to defend when your quarterback can make throws like that look easy. But the fact that those defenders might remember that formation, that motion and the highly successful play you ran the last time they saw it, means that play has an even higher chance of success than just relying on everything else going right.
Now that you know a little of what they do on offense; work to get favorable matchups, stress defenses by using the same personnel grouping in many ways and set up defenders who probably didn’t have a chance anyway, let’s take a look at some of their tendencies (if there are any to be found) from week one.
On third down they were in 11 personnel 10 out of 10 times. On third and five or more yards to go, they lined up in shotgun six out of six times, passing five times (converting twice) while rushing once (converting once). Two of the passes thrown were on third and more than 10 yards and both of those passes were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. One was converted (by tremendous individual effort from the receiver), the other was not. Their lone rush came on third and 9, late in the 4th quarter, from their opponents 20 yard line, with a 13 point lead. It gained 14 yards.
On third and less than five yards they were in gun twice (converting once) and they threw the ball both times. They were under center twice (converting once), they threw once (they converted) and they ran once.
On the day they converted four out of 10 third down attempts. Two of those attempts came by way of uncommon plays- a slot receiver on a bubble screen that broke tackles and went 15 yards when the offense needed 13:
Kupp great individual effort on 3rd and 13 pic.twitter.com/GhNXSyAVlJ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
And a run that went for 14 yards when the offense needed 9:
Rams 14 yard run to ice the game on 3rd and 9. pic.twitter.com/MDhdUVugTJ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
Leaving their two predictable conversions as a third and one throw to Cooper Kupp who came open after lining up stacked with another receiver at the line of scrimmage. The formation allowed Kupp a mostly clean inside release and an easy conversion that he almost broke for a touchdown:
Kupp 3rd and 1 conversion pic.twitter.com/BIjFctMqZI— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
The other predictable conversation came on third and goal from the one yard line. The Rams lined up under center, sent the receiver lined up in the slot on the left (Kupp) in motion to the right. The play was designed to go to the slot receiver sneaking out of the backfield into the flat but the Bears had it covered. Instead the QB worked to his second read and hit another receiver for a touchdown in the back of the endzone:
Rams TD on 3rd and goal from the 1 pic.twitter.com/kmiKrOb3MQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
If you’re really savvy, you might have noticed that three of these four conversions came one the same drive in the fourth quarter when the Rams were up by 13 points.
What does all of this mean?
Considering we only have ten plays to pull from, it doesn’t led itself well to predicting what the Rams will do on third down in week two. It does tell us that the Rams went zero for five on third downs in the first half and four for five in the second. We also know that had the Bears defense just stopped very stoppable plays the Rams would have converted only two of 10 attempts on the money down. Ultimately it probably wouldn’t have mattered, the Rams only converted one third down play (the stacked quick hitter to Kupp mentioned above) when the Rams lead was one score or less. But it is interesting to note that the Rams were just one for seven on third down attempts before their final touchdown drive put them up by 20 points.
On first down the Rams ran the ball 9 times and threw the ball 11. But when you take away their first down runs in the fourth quarter when up by 13 points and their two first down runs inside the opponents three yard line, the Rams ran the ball three times and threw it 11. Surprisingly, they only passed from a shotgun set five times and they ran it from gun four times. Though three of those runs came during that fourth quarter stretch and my gut tells me they only ran it those three times to try to even out their tendencies on paper.
This tells me that the Rams didn’t want to try to run on first down. Maybe they didn’t think they would have success against the Bears or maybe it’s a core tenant of what they will do in 2021. It will be interesting to see how the Rams start each set of downs this weekend.
I know I’ve talked about 11 personnel but the Rams do also use 12 personnel, which is 1 running back and 2 tight ends. By my count they used 12 personnel, 10 times against the Bears. Matt Stafford was under center for 8 of those plays and they ran the ball seven times, throwing it only three. But once again, if you take out goalline attempts (two) and that series of runs late in the fourth quarter up by multiple scores (four), you’re left with three passes and one run from 12 personnel. Once again this tells me that the Rams simply did not care about establishing any kind of running game.
The Rams ran 10 plays inside the redzone. Six passes and four runs. Four plays came from under center, two passes and two runs, three of the plays from under center were in 12 personnel. Six plays came from a shotgun set four passes and two runs. When outside the 10 yard line they passed twice and ran once, the other seven plays included four passes and three runs. On plays inside the five yard line the Rams were in gun twice and under center three times, running twice from under center and throwing both times they were in shotgun. It seems that the only time the Rams prefer to run is at the goalline and even then it’s not an open and shut case.
What does it all mean?
Well maybe not much right now. The Rams have a different quarterback and a new passing game coordinator as Shane Waldron left to take the Seahawks offensive coordinator job in the offseason. Given those changes the Rams play calling and tendencies will no doubt change too.
What it does tell us about the first game is that the Bears gave up a lot of explosive plays. The Rams didn’t convert a third down until the second half and three first half drives stalled out resulting in two field goals and a punt. The score at halftime was 13 to 7 and on the fourth play of the second half the Bears had a coverage bust that resulted in a 56 yard touchdown pass. The Bears answered with a touchdown of their own making the score 20-13. Once again the Bears defense gave up a big play, allowing the Rams to punch in another touchdown four plays later.
The Rams didn’t have to sustain a methodical drive until the fourth quarter with the Bears defense exhausted and the game all but decided.
Lets take a look at who the Rams will rely on to make their system work.
Matthew Stafford spent 12 long seasons with the Detroit Lions. In those 12 years he put up amazing stats eclipsing the 4,000 yard passing mark 8 times, but his individual exploits didn’t often result in wins on the field, mostly because he was playing for the Lions and despite what some people will tell you, football is a team game. Quarterbacks can’t do it alone.
This past offseason Stafford requested a trade and he got his wish in January 2021. After one week with his new team, Stafford has to be pleased with his new situation. The big armed quarterback went 20 for 26 with 321 yards and 3 touchdowns and while those numbers aren’t really something new for him, playing on primetime in September and winning in primetime, let alone winning a blowout, probably feels unfamiliar for Stafford.
Things went well for Stafford
MATTHEW STAFFORD WELCOME TO LA— PFF (@PFF) September 13, 2021
Another one: Matthew Stafford slings a 56-yard TD to Cooper Kupp. No one close to Kupp.— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 13, 2021
Sometimes guys just make plays for their quarterback
Will you just watch the presence of Matthew Stafford on the play?— SeattleRams (@seattlerams_nfl) September 13, 2021
Now ask yourself, what would 16 have done?
It’s ok, we all know. pic.twitter.com/Ezs6vIft5S
Matthew Stafford did everything the Rams could have asked of him. In this offensive system Stafford has a very real chance to put up MVP type numbers. That’s not hyperbole, he has a real chance to break some Rams records and lead the league in several categories.
The Rams made news a couple weeks ago trading for former New England Patriots running back Sony Michel. Michel rushed one time in week one and he gained two yards. It was hardly enough to say that he won’t be a part of the offense in week two and beyond but the only thing we have to go on right now is the fact that Darrell Henderson led the Rams with 70 yards on 17 rushes and he got in the endzone.
Do you think Darrell Henderson keeps the bell-cow job this year for the Rams?— Dynasty Nerds (@DynastyNerds) September 13, 2021
Stats vs Bears:
⬇️All Touches vs Bears⬇️ pic.twitter.com/isUaerxbLd
Six of his 17 carries came late in the fourth quarter with the game already decided. The Rams obviously don’t need a super star running back to win football games, which is convenient because they don’t have one.
The receivers the Rams utilize are a good group. Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson and Robert Woods are all three solid targets. Jefferson was on the receiving end of Stafford’s first touchdown pass above. He had the awareness to realize he hadn’t been touched, he got up and scored. On Stafford’s third touchdown I posted above Woods is the one who made the toe-tapping grab in the back of the endzone. DeSean Jackson will be 35 this year but he was involved last Sunday catching two passes for 21 yards.
Tyler Higbee is this team’s pass catching tight end and Matthew Stafford went to the sixth year pro five times for 68 yards. Higbee showed up big in a couple of situations including both of the plays highlighted in the section on the offensive system above. Higbee was also targeted over the middle in the endzone, but was unable to bring in the pass from Stafford. Higbee is another guy that I expect will have a big season relative to other tight ends around the league.
Before this week I hadn’t really watched Cooper Kupp play football. I thought that he was probably a fine player that was probably hyped up by being in a good system. I was wrong. Cooper Kupp was everything for this offense in week one. He was a deep threat, he was a yards after catch machine and he was the guy Stafford was going to if he needed to convert on third down. Cooper Kupp is really tough to cover.
Cooper Kupp puts Carlton Davis on SKATES pic.twitter.com/J0QGOyf4QT— PFF (@PFF) November 24, 2020
Cooper Kupp burned three Giants players for the TD— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) October 4, 2020
Those were just fun plays I found. Here’s a couple from last Sunday:
Cooper Kupp’s route running is underrated #CHIvsLAR— PFF (@PFF) September 13, 2021
Yep, still tough to cover. I’m putting this one in again because it deserves to be seen multiple times:
Kupp great individual effort on 3rd and 13 pic.twitter.com/GhNXSyAVlJ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 14, 2021
This Rams offense has the horses to make the system run and those horses catch a lot of passes.
Last week the Colts faced an offensive line that featured a 36 year old starting left tackle in Duane Brown. This week they will see Andrew Whitworth who turns 40 on December 12th of this year. Last season Whitworth missed two months with a torn MCL before rehabbing and returning to play in the playoffs. I was curious how he played at 39 after tearing his MCL two months prior so I went back and watched the Rams vs Seahawks game in the wildcard round of the playoffs.
Whitworth started off the game really well, he was moving fine, bending, getting low and driving defenders off the ball in the run game but about 10 minutes into the first quarter it started to look like the pain meds and adrenaline have worn off and he seemed to have lost his ability to move effectively. By the end of the first half he wasn’t playing well. He couldn’t get a push in situations he normally would have blown guys off the ball. He couldn’t do things like this:
Look at 38-year old Andrew Whitworth just casually moving DT Vernon Butler (330 lbs.) with one arm over 5 yards downfield pic.twitter.com/aV54a65wpm— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) September 30, 2020
No one could fault him for rushing back from an injury at 39 years old. He had only won two playoff games in his career before that game against Seattle and at 39 years old, he was playing on a lot of borrowed time. Now Whitworth is 10 months removed from that injury and week one indicated to everyone that Andrew Whitworth has fully recovered. The old guy played well in week one and Kwity Paye has pulled another tough assignment in week two with Whitworth looking like his old self.
Beyond Whitworth the Rams will start David Edwards and Austin Corbett at left and right guard, respectively. They’re both solid but unspectacular at their positions. Corbett was the 33rd overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft for the Cleveland Browns and while he hasn’t lived up to that draft position he has proven to be an adequate starter for the Rams.
Starting at center is Brian Allen. Allen won the starting job this offseason after not playing in 2020 due to a difficult recovery from a significant knee injury. The last time Allen saw extended action in 2019, Allen was fine. In week one of this season he looked solid but he did have a holding penalty that in hindsight the Bears probably wish they would have declined.
At right tackle Rob Havenstein has held down the starting spot since the Rams made him the 57th overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In that time Havenstein has become one of the best right tackles in the NFL. He isn’t perfect, he can be beaten but he’s a big upgrade from who the Colts saw on the right side in week one and week one did not go well for Indy.
This Rams offense is explosive, but they haven’t shown that they can put together a long drive when they don’t hit home runs. The Colts defense hasn’t shown that they can force base hits, either.
It might not matter but if the Colts defense can limit the Rams big plays, it’s possible that they’ll be able to force Matthew Stafford to make mistakes he wasn’t forced into making in week one.
It’s possible but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Rams win against the Bears wasn’t as dominant as the final score would have you believe. The Bears beat themselves blowing coverage, giving up huge plays and with really bad coaching decisions. The Rams are good but the Bears made them look even better. I’m worried about this Rams offense, but not as worried as I was before I charted their week one game.
Yes, I am saying there’s a chance.