The New York Giants come in to their Week 4 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams after a winless September and a disappointing 0-3 start to the season. It might not have been so demoralizing had the Giants’ not lost to a San Francisco 49ers team missing half its starting roster.
But that’s where the Giants are as they travel to play the 2-1 Rams.
The Rams are coming off of a gut-wrenching loss to the Buffalo Bills in which they very nearly engineered the come-from-behind victory only to lose in the closing seconds of the game. The Rams have regained the offensive identity which helped carry them to the Super Bowl in 2018,
Let’s take a look at the Los Angeles offense and see what that means for the Giants’ defense.
Scheme and trends
When Rams’ head coach Sean McVay was hired in 2017 it was a curiosity — after all, the 30-year-old coach would be coaching players older than he was. Curiosity morphed into skepticism when analysts got a look at his offense which eschewed much of football’s long-held dogma. McVay’s offense practically lived in 11-personnel groupings, running them on 89 percent of their plays in 2018, and well over 90 percent before wide receiver Cooper Kupp got hurt that year.
Last year that dropped to 73 percent of plays, which is still high, but not a massive outlier from the NFL norm. Perhaps coincidentally, the Rams also saw their offensive success dip and missed the playoffs in 2019.
So far in 2020 the Rams are once again among the league’s heaviest user of 11-personnel packages, calling them on 77 percent of their offensive plays so far. But while the Rams’ offense features heavy use of wide receivers, they are actually a run-heavy team.
Chiefs move up to No. 1 in early-down pass rate after last night, Seahawks No. 2 pic.twitter.com/yd6zHBSc4F— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 29, 2020
On early downs (first- and seconddown), outside of garbage time and two-minute drills, the Rams are the most run-heavy team in the NFL, despite consistently fielding three-recevier sets.
They’ve been successful running the ball. Darrell Henderson is currently averaging 5.7 yards per carry (35 carries, 201 yards, 2 touchdowns), while Malcolm Brown is averaging 4.0 yards per carry (36 carries, 145 yards, 2 touchdowns). While the Rams only have one run of more than 20 yards (a 40-yard run by Henderson), they are consistent in picking up yardage on the ground.
Part of that is the play of their offensive line, which has solid players who function very well as a unit. But another part of their success is their use of 11-personnel. Defenses might know that the Rams want to run the ball, but they have to field lighter, faster personnel packages to address the threat of the pass.
Despite being a DB-heavy defense, the Giants featured heavy usage of Devante Downs last week against the San Francisco 49ers. That isn’t a coincidence considering San Francisco is the NFL’s heaviest user — by far — of 21-personnel packages. Like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay uses his personnel groupings and alignments to force defenses into the looks he wants.
With that in mind, we should plan to see quite a bit of the Giants’ nickel packages Sunday afternoon (and evening). Depending on the health and availability of Jabrill Peppers — which is a question as of this writing — that could mean defensive snaps for Corey Ballentine or more Nate Ebner than we’d prefer to see on defense.
Speed to the edges
It isn’t exactly accurate to call the Rams’ offense a “Spread” offense, nor a “West Coast Offense.” Perhaps the most apt description is “Spread Coast,” as they use both Spread and WCO principles.
The one constant in the Rams’ offense is a desire to attack the edges of a defense with speed. Their running game is built on outside zone plays, which they supplement with slant routes, quick outs, and a robust screen game. Their goal is to get the defense flowing and running on every play, stressing it laterally and getting defenders out of position. The goal of the Rams, and every other offense in this style, is creating the conditions for running backs to find space to pick up chunk yardage and run-after-catch opportunities for their play-making receivers.
The Rams also make use of spacing in similar fashions to college offenses. The Rams use spread formations to create voids in the defense for easy receptions. They also attack diagonally out of tight formations to create natural traffic in the middle of the field, testing defenses’ discipline.
The Rams’ offense also has a way of exhausting defenses, forcing defensive lines to maintain gap integrity while running and linebackers to cover huge swaths of field. The Rams make sporadic use of no-huddle offense to this end. They don’t play at the break-neck speed of some offenses, but instead play with the pace of the game as much as the spacing.
The Rams will often use no-huddle to keep defenses in looks they want after a successful play, or to further fatigue defenses after big plays.
The Giants commonly play with Tite fronts on defense, taking advantage of their big defensive tackles to overwhelm — or at least control — the offensive interior.
Unfortunately, the Rams’ offense is well-equipped to be a problem for the Giants’ defense. Tite fronts are vulnerable to runs to the outside and split zone runs, and both plays figure heavily into the Rams’ offense.
Likewise, the Rams force defenders to cover a lot of ground, which could expose the Giants’ massive defensive tackles as the game wears on. The Giants have also proven vulnerable to runs off the edge as their run defense in space can be suspect.
Blake Martinez has been a significant upgrade over Alec Ogletree, but he is still only one guy. He has also taken some overly-aggressive angles against players who are able to change direction quickly, as well as proven susceptible to misdirection.
Being stout up the middle as well as disciplined at the second level will be key for the Giants in this game.
Follow the bouncing ball
Speaking of misdirection, Sean McVay is a master of integrating it into his offensive game plans.
The Rams’ offense makes heavy use of pre-snap motion, jet motion (a receiver running across the back of the offensive formation at the snap of the ball), play-action, and roll-outs. What’s more, many of the Rams’ plays feature all of these elements at the same time.
All of these elements serve to slow down and confuse defenses, as well as expand their field of vision as they try to sort out exactly what the Rams are attempting on any given play. But there’s also more than that.
It would be entirely too easy to chalk the Rams’ misdirection tactics up to “eye candy,” trick plays by an offense which lacks true dominant star talent capable of dominating defenses. That view misses the forest of McVay’s scheme for the trees of the individual plays.
Yes, each individual play makes it very difficult for defenses to track which offensive player has the ball. However the use of all of these elements allows McVay to sequence his plays, identify and exploit defensive tendencies, and train them to react how he wants.
This isn’t a film breakdown piece, but I want to show the first four plays from the Rams’ game against the Dallas Cowboys to illustrate the point.
Looking at the Rams’ offense as a whole, it becomes clear how they’re able to run a variety of plays out of the same (or similar) look and still keep defenses guessing as to where the ball is actually going. They’re also very good at taking defenders out of position, creating opportunities for big gains.
The Giants not only need to be as disciplined as they can be at every level of defense, they also need to take the most efficient angles as possible. The Rams’ speed to the edges makes the most of any defensive mistake. If the Rams’ are able to get in rhythm, McVay’s offense allows them to get the defense eating out of the palm of their hand. And if the Rams are allowed to control the flow of the game, the Giants would have their work cut out for themselves trying to wrestle it away from them.