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Sean McVay: The Greatest Mind in the NFL

The NFL has seen great offensive and defensive minds over the past decade. Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin, and others. All bring a different flare to the game, between offensive innovations with various motions and route concepts, and defensive adjustments and using players in hybrid situations (safeties playing linebacker on 3rd down, defensive ends moving to defensive tackle in pass rush situations, etc.). All have paved the way for someone who is not only one of the greatest minds in the NFL today, but could go down as the greatest mind of all time. That man is none other than Sean McVay.

Photo: Los Angeles Rams

Since taking over as the Los Angeles Rams head coach in 2017, the Rams have gone from the bottom to the top in almost every offensive statistical category. In 2016, under Jeff Fisher, The Rams were the worst offense in the league, averaging 14 points and 262.7 yards a game. The next closest in both categories were the Cleveland Browns at 16.5 points a game, and the San Francisco 49ers at 308.1 yards a game. After firing Jeff Fisher before the end of the season, the Rams looked to find a new head coach with a winning mentality. After spending seven years with the former Washington Redskins, three of those years as the offensive coordinator, the Rams brought in McVay and made him the head coach, the youngest in NFL history at 30 years old. After Washington finished with the third best offense in 2016, McVay seemed like the best option for the Rams. To make the match more perfect, the Rams had drafted Jared Goff with the number 1 overall pick in 2016 as well. Goff was often compared to Kirk Cousins, the quarterback for Washington at the time, in terms of pocket mobility, accuracy, and arm strength. This, in theory, sounded like a perfect match. Fast forward four seasons, and they both have exceeded expectations.

Before I go any further, I am a big believer that how a professional quarterback plays is a direct result of the quarterback, regardless of scheme or game plan. If a quarterback throws two interceptions in a game, or makes poor reads and decisions, the majority of the blame is on the quarterback (unless the ball is tipped or slips through his receivers hands). At the same time, however, I do believe a quarterback can be greatly helped by a proper scheme in place. In Carson Wentz's situation, which I highlighted in another blog over a month ago, he is a veteran quarterback who has shown he can thrive in different offensive schemes. On tape, the majority of the mistakes that have been made are a direct result of his decision making. So to put the blame on only Doug Pederson is lazy. In Jared Goff's situation, which is a near opposite of Carson Wentz's situation, he is greatly helped by his offensive scheme, but is still the main factor of the offense's success. I have drawn up some plays that the Rams have ran this year, to show how effective the Rams offense is.

I know this looks confusing to the majority of people. I'm going to break down the play step by step on the offensive and defensive side. Before I do, there are a couple of things to note:

  1. The circles are the offensive players (besides the center, he is noted with a square), and the triangles are the defensive players.

  2. The zigzag line means "motion". A motion is when the quarterback signals for a player to move before the snap of the ball. Only one player can motion at a time, and they can not move upfield before the ball is snapped. On the defensive side, that same zigzag line shows how the players move with the motion. In this case, the right side cornerback, or Stephon Gilmore in this example, moves to the left side of the field and drops back while doing so.

  3. If a line ends with a perpendicular line, or a T-shape, that means the player is blocking someone. The left wide receiver, or Cooper Kupp, is responsible for blocking the left side cornerback. If you look at the offensive line and tight ends, each one has a blocking line directed towards the man they are responsible for.

  4. If a line ends with an arrow on the offensive side, that means that player is getting the ball. In this particular play, the running back is getting the ball. The arrows on the defensive side show where the defensive players are moving after the ball is snapped.

Lets start with the beginning of the play, the motion. The right receiver, Robert Woods, is signaled by Jared Goff to motion across the formation. The ball is snapped when the zigzag becomes a straight line. In this position, the defense must flow to the side on the motion in order to respect the possibility of Woods getting a handoff from Goff. If Woods gets the ball, the left most defender would have the opportunity to make a play.

At this point in the play, Akers has gotten the ball and the blocks have developed. Woods is carrying out his motion to keep pulling the defense away from the run, and the backside blockers are scooping (getting to the play side, then blocking backside) the men in front of them. This flow creates a natural hole in the B gap, the space between the tackle and guard. This hole is highlighted by the red and green lines to show how the defense has flowed and been blocked by the offense. The full play, with a breakdown, is shown below.

The play resulted in a seven yard gain, which doesn't sound like a lot. At that point in the game, the Pats defense was getting mauled on the ground and this type of run can demoralize a team. Let's take a look at a similar play from a few weeks prior.

Again, another confusing looking play that we will break down. The formation is similar to the first play, only now, the receivers are tighter to the offensive line.

  1. The zigzag line is the motion for offense, and the pre-snap flow for the defense. This time, Kupp is on a motion, and the linebackers begin to flow towards his motion side.

  2. The dashed lines indicate where the players are moving once the ball is snapped. Goff is carrying out his normal handoff routine, while the defenders are moving towards that side of the offensive flow.

  3. But wait! Goff keeps the ball and rolls back to the left. All of the solid lines are the routes for the offensive players, and the defensive reaction to the play action.

  4. After the Goff completes his roll out and throws the ball, his solid line becomes a dashed line again, to show the path of the ball.

Now that we have the play drawn up, let's take a closer look at how the play developed.

The linebackers, on this play, are responsible for any run threats they see. In this case, the motion would be their main threat, as the offense wants to get the ball to the edge. If Kupp gets the ball, and the defensive backs and the defensive end do their jobs, the play will be forced back into the flow of the linebackers. As the play action happens, the linebackers are forced to drop back into coverage. This is shown below:

The right outside linebacker, according to the offense, is responsible for covering the flat routes ran by the running back and the motion man. The middle and left outside linebacker cover the men that pass their area.

The defensive backs also have to react to the play action. Both corners drop into deep thirds (meaning three players take the deepest parts of the field). The free safety drops into the left side flat (0-5 yard area on the outside) in order to attack the flat route coming across the offense. Because of this coverage, along with the fact that the left side corner did not follow the motion man pre snap, and the drop points of the middle and right outside linebacker, we can determine this is zone coverage (each defender, in coverage, is responsible for an area of the field rather than an offensive player). As the play develops, Goff hits Woods in the flat and he gains twenty yards. This play is shown below.

Why is this important? The Rams motioned more than 30 teams in the NFL; the Ravens were the only team to motion more. From Week 1 to Week 11 the Rams used pre-snap motion on 28% of their plays; that's almost double the amount of the Saints, who are ranked 10th in pre snap motion percentage (Seth Walder ESPN). I couldn't find any data since then, but based on the film from the past few weeks, it seems like the Rams have been motioning at a higher rate. According to Dan Orlovsky, defensive backs are responsible for gaps or contain in the run game, and using motions can get them out of the correct gap. Motioning can also help determine if a defense is in man or zone coverage, as seen above. Being in man and zone can make a huge difference for the defense as well, as certain players could be taken further out of position and not be able to make it back to their zone in time.

These motions are key to the Rams offensive success. This has helped their offense be more efficient, even without one of the most gamebreaking backs in the league in Todd Gurley. In 2019, when Gurley was the lead back, the Rams averaged 93.7 rush yards per game. In 2020, with a running back committee utilizing Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson, and Malcolm Brown, the Rams averaged 126.1 rush yards per game. The nine teams above them, besides the Patriots, have either one or two clear cut lead backs. The Rams, Patriots, and 49ers are the only teams in the top half of the league that use true running back committees. This, and the frequent use of motion, has given the Rams offense an advantage over opposing defenses.


Final Notes:

Fun fact: the Rams are 36-0 under Sean McVay when leading at halftime. He knows how to coast how to control the clock when he has the lead. Despite their spotty play towards the end of 2020, they are still a threat and could make a deep playoff run. Although I took a small sample size, it is clear to see that Sean McWay has revolutionized the use of motion, which has been used since the inception of football.

Outside of play calling, the Rams players and organization believe in McVay. He has transformed the franchise from a laughing stock, back to its menacing presence that it had in the late 90s. If you need a sleeper team to pick for the playoffs, look no further than the Los Angeles Rams.

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