The Rams are on a roll. While there have been a couple bumps along the way, they just convincingly beat the defending Super Bowl champions. What’s more, Sean McVay changed a lot of his system to be able to do it.
Usually when watching McVay and the Rams, there’s a steady build and linear fashion to the play-calling. He starts with outside zone and under center work before graduating to boot action and screens off of all the backfield motion. That’s exactly how both their games against the Bears and Colts started. McVay is great at layering and building off previously established concepts to put the defense into conflict.
However, against Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and the rest of the Tampa front seven, that can be hard to do. They’re stout enough up front to plug things in the run game, have linebackers that can cover and chase, and a secondary that typically sits in a two-high shell to prevent the deep shots off of play-action. All those things are problems for the Rams offensive system that’s now using Sony Michel as their lead back. That’s why McVay and LA shifted to running out of shotgun, sprinkling in RPOs, and used a ton of drop back passing instead of pounding their heads against the proverbial Tampa Bay wall. In fact, the Rams didn’t run a single boot action with the Sail concept attached to it in the entire game. That concept is one of their most used bread and butter plays.
Instead of using their normal play progression, the Rams used tempo, drop back passes, and some spread and empty formations. While Stafford missed some big throws early, it got Tampa Bay to stay in their two-safety shell for most of the game.
To slow down the run defense of the Bucs, the Rams used RPOs and continued to use pre-snap motion. Here, the Rams use Cooper Kupp motioning out to the bubble while they run outside zone the opposite direction. If the outside linebacker to the bubble side bumps out, Stafford hands the ball off. When facing heavier boxes, this is a way to skew numbers back in favor of the offense.
While those RPO looks didn’t gash Tampa, they were enough to get them to slow down a little – both in pass rush and in run defense.
The Rams used some RPO and drop back passing, but they also got to a number of screens. That helped to slow down the rush and aggressiveness of the Tampa Bay defense. McVay usually works those screens off of boot action and throwbacks, but he found ways to create the same looks out of shotgun without run fakes.
Two separate times they used some push motion in the backfield to draw eyes to the running back before throwing back to the tight end who was either in a nub or split out wide. Both times, that motion pulls defenders away from the screen and creates better angles for the offensive linemen to wash guys out.
Same principles, different methods
These are all pretty basic tenets of the Sean McVay offense. Horizontal stretch and flow created by motion, blocking scheme, and formation. Instead of the jet sweeps and run fakes, he used the push motion from the running backs, screens, and empty formations. If the defense flows or over-adjusts, he comes back the other way. If they don’t, Stafford can throw to the numbers and find easy yardage. Operating from the shotgun just creates more space, more clear reads, and gives Stafford a better view of the field.
The Rams use of empty formations created isolated situations with the Rams receivers on the Tampa Bay defense. When Tampa kept their two-high safeties versus those empty formations, that offered a lot of room to operate underneath. McVay did a great job of combining concepts out of empty formations to give Stafford as many options as possible to combat whatever shell and defense the Buccaneers got into.
By working this out of quads, the Rams are putting the Tampa defense in a bind. LA is running both the Sail and Mills concept in one play. Mills has a post and dig to the same side and Sail uses three routes on the same side of the field to create a vertical stretch on defenders. The #1 receiver, Van Jefferson is running the post. The post occupies the corner who has to attach to that receiver if they go vertical. That route alone now isolates the flat defender. That defender has to cover the running back who is chipping before releasing to the flats and the deep sail route by Cooper Kupp. Meanwhile, the safety is keying Cooper Kupp, the #2 receiver, in case he also goes vertical. However, he also can’t hang his corner out to dry by immediately crashing on the sail route. That corner is playing with outside leverage and if the safety vacates, there’s a window for the post.
The window to the post is even more present because the backside safety is keying on #3 who is running the deep dig and creating the Mills concept. If that play-side safety takes the cheese on either the sail route or dig, the post is open for a deep shot. However, both those safeties play disciplined to both protect the post and pick up the dig. That means, as mentioned before, that the flat defender is the one left in conflict between the flat route and the sail. As soon as that deep safety turns their hips to protect the inside of the post route by Jefferson, Stafford begins his throwing motion to hit the sail.
McVay ran the exact same idea, but instead of using the Mills concept, he put in Mesh. Now, the #3 receiver to the quads side and the receiver at the top are creating a rub. Those routes spring DeSean Jackson for a big gain underneath. The Rams caught the Bucs in man coverage on 3rd down. The safety tries to jump the opposing underneath drag route to prevent the first down. However, that vacates the entire top side of the field for Jackson and it’s a big gain with the corner trailing him being rubbed by the linebacker.
None of this was the prototypical McVay offense, but that’s the extra element that Stafford brings to the Rams. He can beat you on pure drop back passes while also being able to run the outside zone and boot game that McVay is known for. Los Angeles is incredibly balanced. If McVay and Stafford are adaptable enough to revamp their offense from week-to-week, they’re going to be tough to stop.