A new challenge awaits the New York Giants this week as they look to avoid a 1-5 start and potentially fall four games back in the NFC East. They take on a familiar foe in the Los Angeles Rams, a team the Giants lost to last season by a final score of 17-9 in Week 4. The Giants had opportunities to win that game, but a late interception thrown by Daniel Jones sealed New York’s fate.
The biggest difference this time, however, is the quarterback on the other side of the field.
While it was Jared Goff a year ago, this week the Giants have to contend with Matthew Stafford, acquired by the Rams this past off-season in a big trade that saw the Rams give up a pair of first-round selections to acquire the veteran passer.
Why did the Rams make this deal? In part, it was to acquire a quarterback much more decisive than Goff, who could unlock portions of the Sean McVay playbook. As I wrote at the time:
But looking at both Goff and the newest member of the roster, it is quite clear what the Los Angeles Rams see in Matthew Stafford.
Hesitation and indecision has been a staple of Goff’s tenure with the Los Angeles Rams. You can take it back to the run-up to Super Bowl LIII, and the game itself. In this piece from that season I dove into great length about Goff’s hesitation, and that was a factor on the biggest play of the game, when Goff waited to throw a deep route to Brandin Cooks, allowing time for Jason McCourty to recover and break up what could have been a game-changing touchdown.
If you need to see what that looks like on the field, you can dive into this breakdown:
But beyond the indecisivness from Goff during his time in Los Angeles, there was another reason for the Rams to make this move.
It allowed McVay to be more than a “quarterback puppeteer,” a lovely phrase crafted by Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus.
When you think of the Rams offense under Goff, you think of the ways in which the coach propped up his quarterback. Doing things like getting to the line of scrimmage early in the play clock, so he could continue to communicate with Goff via the helmet radio. Or the play-action designs that McVay dialed up to give his quarterback easier reads on three-level concepts. Like this from last season:
This design was a staple of the Rams’ offense during the Goff Era. Get the quarterback to the outside and give him half of the field to read, with three options: A vertical stretch deep down the field, a shallow option as a potential checkdown, and then the intermediate stretch between the two, usually a crossing route working from the backside.
Here is another example, from the Rams’ blowout win over the New England Patriots last season:
This is another example of how McVay looked to make things easier for Goff, by getting him outside, and giving him that three-level stretch to choose from on one side of the field.
The numbers are in place to back up this idea. According to charting data from PFF, last year Goff attempted 184 passes off of play-action, which was third-most in the league. McVay relied on play-action to put Goff in a position to be successful. Which worked for a time, but limited what the Rams could do in the passing game.
Now, with Stafford in place and McVay not having to serve as that “QB puppeteer,” the offense looks different.
Through five weeks of the NFL season, Stafford has attempted 36 passes off of play-action.
That ranks the Rams quarterback 24th in the league among qualified passers.
Why the difference? Because McVay finally has a quarterback who he trusts, and can just rip throws from the pocket. Instead of relying upon these boot-action designs to give the quarterback half of the field to read, Stafford gives McVay the ability to call concepts that stress the defense from sideline-to-sideline.
Take this example from Week 1 against the Chicago Bears:
This long touchdown to Cooper Kupp, which had the Football Twitter World buzzing, is an example of how this Rams offense operates now with Stafford.
The Rams align in empty with Stafford in the shotgun — something else they are doing more of this season with Stafford, rather than starting with Goff under center — and the QB first looks to the left side of the field to read a curl/flat concept. But he then flips his eyes to the middle of the field, picking up a post route from Kupp that has gotten behind the defense. McVay trusts his quarterback to read out these concepts and take advantage downfield, whereas in years past the quarterback might have thrown the curl route. A good throw and one that likely moves the chains, but not the kind of explosive play that you need to hit on that wins games in the modern NFL.
Or take this deep touchdown to DeSean Jackson from a few weeks ago, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
This play, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the differences between the Goff version of the Rams offense, and what the offense looks now in the hands of Stafford. The play begins with the quarterback in the shotgun, again a huge departure from last season when Goff had 197 passing attempts from under center, which ranked him third-most in the league. Last year Goff had just 355 passing attempts from shotgun according to Sports Info Solutions, which placed him 20th in the league.
Right now, Stafford already has 141 attempts from shotgun, through just five weeks of the season. His 31 passing attempts from under center, however, rank him 16th in the league. Right in the middle of the pack.
Beyond the alignment, however, look at the concept. The Rams indeed have that three-level stretch to the left side of the field, but Stafford is not rolling that way after a play-action fake. He is simply reading out the concept. He opens to that side, perhaps to influence the safety, as DeSean Jackson runs a double-move on the right. Stafford, after looking to the left, flips his feet and his eyes and drops in the vertical shot to Jackson for the touchdown.
Again, this is a much different offense. Or perhaps more accurately, a version of McVay’s offense on steroids.
Of course, it does not hurt when your new quarterback can rip throws like this dig route to Robert Woods:
But last week against the Seahawks, when the Rams needed a big play, it was again Stafford in the shotgun, reading out a curl/flat concept to his left before hitting Kupp deep on the backside post route:
With Stafford at the helm of his offense, McVay now has a quarterback he trusts to read out concepts from the pocket and make aggressive decisions in the downfield passing game. He has shed the role of QB Puppeteer” and is back to simply calling designs that can stress a defense to all levels, thanks to a quarterback who can make those aggressive reads and throws to all levels.
In a way, this transition mirrors the shift in Kansas City from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes. Portions of the playbook are now unlocked, and the offense can be more aggressive in the vertical passing game, and to both sides of the field on the same down. That makes it difficult for a defense, when you have to defend every blade of grass, and not just half the field.
That is the task that awaits Patrick Graham and his charges this Sunday. Having to defend every blade of grass.