NFL Film Breakdown: How Rams DC Brandon Staley Has the LA Defense Playing at a Championship Level

The LA Rams have a new defensive coordinator in Brandon Staley and have been shutting down the run game while maintaining a two-high look, adapting to their opponents, and pairing excellent play from defensive front and their secondary. They’ll use Jalen Ramsay to lock down receivers in man which opens up their safeties for run fits and more aggressive play and have mastered using Eagle and hybrid fronts to bring pressure and simultaneously have the 5th best run defense in the league. Staley worked with the outside linebackers under Vic Fangio his whole NFL career up until his defensive coordinator job with the Rams and a lot of the Fangio tenets have appeared with the Rams but Staley has done an incredible job of adapting his personnel and front to react in-game to what offenses are doing as evidenced by allowing just three or fewer points in the second half in eight out of the nine games the Rams have played in so far.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Rams’ Samson Ebukam #50 and Aaron Donald #99 sack Giants quarterback Daniel Jones] #8 during their NFL game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA., Sunday, October 4, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Where Staley has really begun to blaze his own path with the Rams is how he has used the Eagle front to great effect this season. There’s a lot of subtle naming differences when looking at fronts so to keep things simple, I’ll refer to any front with three players aligned in a nose or nose shade and tackles lined up as a 4 or 4i technique as an Eagle front. What that means is that the nose tackle is either directly over the center or shaded to one shoulder of the center and that the tackles are lined up directly over the offensive tackles or on their inside shoulders. The Rams will also then bring their outside linebackers down into wide 9 techniques which places them outside of the tight end and allows the Rams defensive front to flow into and out of different front alignments like more generic 3-4 and 4-3 looks. With the interior linemen in 4 or 4i techniques, this makes blocking and climbing incredibly difficult for offensive linemen. It almost mandates double teams across the board and if a guard leaves on a power or hard stretch, it’s very easy for that 4i technique to attach at the hip and follow down the line of scrimmage. That’s what the Eagle is really designed to do. Create free runners at the linebacker position and help defensive linemen penetrate.

We’ll start with how the Eagle front works in the run game. You can see how each defender fits in their run gaps with the nose tackle two-gapping and reading which direction the play is going and run support coming from the safeties. The tackles are responsible for the B gap and the Nose has the play-side A gap which forces him to two-gap as he’s feeling the movement of the center and attacking that direction. The linebacker then has the weak A gap but can flow over the top with split zone looks, fullbacks, or any other movement to help with cutback contain. The outside linebackers have the C or D gap with the strong side outside linebacker typically being the rush end and the weak side outside linebacker dropping into coverage. If that weak outside linebacker does have to run in coverage, the safety now replaces him as the C gap player. Bonus Clip for Patreon

Here, the Bears are running stretch split zone to the outside with a crunch block from the H-back. Since the line is stretching hard to the left, that allows the 4i defensive tackle to go to work. That slight alignment to the inside of the offensive tackle makes it hard for the offensive line to reach him. With the guard vacating to try and help double the nose before climbing to the linebacker, that leaves the tackle all alone to try and cut off Michael Brockers. With Aaron Donald winning his B gap and the nose tackle demanding a double team, that keeps the linebackers completely clean and forces the running back to work to the backside.
That’s where #90, Michael Brockers has beaten his man to the inside B gap because of his alignment and is waiting there for Montgomery to cut back into him. It’s great team defense. The running back has nowhere to go and has to stay play-side because Brockers beat his man, Donald is able to shed his block, and #59 Micah Kiser is also there to help fill.

If you have good tackles and a nose that can demand blocks like the Rams do, you really don’t even need exceptional athletes at the linebacker position. If they play decisively and can read the flow of the offense, they’ll be just fine since they won’t often have to shed blocks when the Rams use their Eagle front.

Since the linebackers are kept clean and are able to be free runners, the Rams often don’t put extra men in the box and maintain a two-high safety look. To combat some of the issue of having lighter boxes, they align their safeties close to the line of scrimmage at 10-12 yards. This allows them to be quicker contributors in the run game and protect gaps on the backside. These safeties are essentially just deep linebackers. Here, with the Dolphins set up with their strength to the left, Micah Kiser is shaded over the tackle to help seal the C gap inside the tight end, with the outside linebacker #54 Leonard Floyd there to seal the D gap outside. So that means Taylor Rapp, the safety #24 is now responsible for that weak side A gap. With the motion though, you can see the gaps shift over for the Rams defense. The slot corner over the receiver bumps down to take the C gap from Micah Kiser, Kiser bumps to take the weak A gap that was held by Taylor Rapp, and Rapp bumps over with the motion. On the snap, the H-back now also crunches across the formation which yet again shifts the gaps. There’s now no longer a D gap, so Leonard Floyd is responsible for the C gap which allows #22 to bump over and take the weak A now and Kiser takes the C gap outside where the crunch is headed to. That’s a lot of adjustment but the three down linemen still have their same assignments and even if the linebackers and secondary get out of position, the front again forces double teams and keeps the linebackers clean. Notice that none of the linemen are initially able to move up to the second level because they are forced by alignment to be solo on blocks or double team Aaron Donald. The Rams are one of the most sound defenses when it comes to playing with gap integrity. Each man does their job and they have the horses upfront to hold blocks and allow their linebackers to fill and fly around.

The run fits and gap assignments upfront make the whole defense go and while the Rams don’t blitz often, they will use their Eagle front in interesting ways to confuse offenses by walking up linebackers in the same alignments as they usually have their down linemen in. You still have someone aligned in a 0 over the center and two guys lined up in a 4i while you now have Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald with their hand in the dirt to rush the tackles. This can cause protection issues and force solo blocks on some of their best pass rushers. Offenses don’t know who will drop out by alignment and the Rams are stressing every gap. This forces the Bears into sliding to the left to take care of three potential rushers to that side. This however leaves a two on two to Donald’s side with an additional corner blitz. They’ve isolated their best pass rusher one-on-one and overloaded one side with a corner blitz all because of the front. The best thing is that they’ve manufactured this pressure while only rushing four guys so the structure of their coverage isn’t compromised.

They’ll give teams multiple blitz and pressure looks from that same stand up Eagle look with their linebackers. In the second quarter against the Seahawks, the Rams gave them that look and brought Kiser on the blitz while also running a stunt with him and the defensive tackle to try and bait them into opening a lane. Brandon Staley just wants to find any way possible to get his guys into one-on-one situations because he knows over the course of the game, they’re going to win more of those than they’ll lose.

Now that they established that look, late in the 4th quarter the Rams showed the exact same thing. This time, Kiser doesn’t come on the blitz but the center pauses and waits for the rush from Kiser before realizing he isn’t coming and going to help the guard late. That small pause and hesitation of not knowing if Kiser will come gives the rest of the defensive line chances to win their one-on-one matchups and that’s exactly what Michael Brockers does. With no inside help, he works the guard upfield before swimming underneath him to the inside and getting a direct line on Russell Wilson for the sack.

The Rams love this look with additional pressure and if the offense does run it, they still have everyone in their base gaps and assignments. Even though it may look like the Rams are bringing a lot of pressure, they’ll often rush just four but you have no idea where its coming from. Even if they aren’t getting home all the time, they almost always create significant pressure out of these stand-up Eagle looks.

What helps even more with pressures, the run game, and coverage is that they’ll often run Ramsey on lock calls which means he is man-on-man with the receiver. This then allows the safeties to fit their run gaps faster and support the linebackers more quickly because they don’t have to worry about getting over the top to help Ramsey.

You can see an example of this here with Ramsey locked to the top of the screen and the safety Taylor Rapp, doesn’t have to worry about helping him or getting over the top of his receiver. Instead, he can now help bracket and rob routes and crossers in the middle of the field which the 49ers love to run. Ramsey’s ability as a pure man corner frees up the secondary everywhere else and allows them to play aggressive and fast and gain players in other areas of the field.

Having a corner in Jalen Ramsey who can hold a top tier receiver like DK Metcalf to 2 catches for 28 yards and not a single target until the last minute of the 3rd quarter can do incredible things for your defense. It just condenses the field for the offense with more players in less space. Nobody has to get under his route or over the top and keeps defenders closer to the formation.

The Rams rank second in yards per game and are allowing just 18.7 points a game. They’re shutting down teams on the ground and through the air and Brandon Staley has used the pieces that the Rams have to perfection. He has found ways to get his guys in a position to succeed while being aggressive and balancing that with maintaining integrity to prevent big plays behind it with his two-high safety looks. Talent has met scheme in LA and it’s the Rams defense that has them thinking that they just might recapture that 2018 magic and make it back to the Super Bowl. 

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NFL Film Breakdown: How Sean McVay Put Together a Masterful Game Plan vs. the Cowboys

The Rams opened up their season in a new uniform, a new stadium, and as home underdogs. Going against a Dallas defense that has one of the best fronts in the league with Everson Griffen joining DeMarcus Lawrence, Dontari Poe, and Aldon Smith, the Rams and McVay had a tall task in front of them considering their offensive line ranked 31st in 2019 according to PFF. McVay put on a game planning clinic that attacked the Cowboys’ aggressive and talented front with his use of outside zone, pre-snap motion, and screen game. The Rams were able to rack up 422 yards of total offense including 153 on the ground.

If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of the article.

Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

The McVay offense struggled at times last year with the issues on the offensive line and became a little one-dimensional with the use of 11 personnel 72.7% of the time. While it seemed like the McVay offense had stagnated and perhaps been “figured out”, the Rams showed that was far from the case in week 1 as McVay used layered plays that built on each other through drives and through the game. What can make McVay’s offense so difficult to defend against is that everything looks incredibly similar.

McVay started off the game with exactly that premise in mind. A big misconception is that you have to run the ball well and run the ball often to set up play-action. Data shows that that just isn’t the case. Play-action is impactful and effective regardless of your ability to run the ball. So, known for being an outside zone team, McVay started off the game with a naked bootleg off of that outside zone look. You may notice right off the bat that the Rams are in 12 personnel with two tight ends which is already a departure from their base 11 personnel from 2019.

Almost all of the play-action off of the outside zone that McVay runs ultimately looks the same. All he’s doing is creating a flood concept to one side of the field. That just means that there are three receivers at three different levels. One in the flats, one intermediate, and one deep which usually acts as a clear out and opens up space for the crossers and flats underneath it. The quarterback reads from one in the flats, to two as the crosser, and then 3 or an alert for the deep ball. If there’s someone in the quarterback’s face, it’s usually the flat defender, so they’re taught to immediately dump it off to the flats because that means there is nobody there to cover.

The Cowboys are in match cover 4 here which at its core originated with Belichick and Saban back in Cleveland. The corner is matching the #1 receiver and carrying them if they go vertical. If the receiver, goes inside under 5 yards, he lets him go and they’re picked up by an inside linebacker. With the motion, that means that #27 is matching vertical with the tight end, who is running the clear out. With that corner matching vertically, the safety to the play-side then has to locate any crossing routes or the number three receiver from the backside coming to his area of the field, which in this case is the tight end.

To the top of the screen, the #1 receiver who is covered by the corner and who has the same vertical match responsibility, is crunching across to sell a block in outside zone. That qualifies as being under five yards – which means he would pass it off the linebackers to pick it up – namely Jaylon Smith. However, with Smith and all the linebackers flowing incredibly hard to the run action, nobody is left to cover Robert Woods in the flats. Woods is wide open and easily picks up a nice gain with nobody there to pick him up in coverage. And all this happens without ever establishing the run first. This is the first play of the game and is setting the table for what McVay wants to accomplish during the game.

To follow that up, McVay runs the exact same formation, with the exact same pre-snap motion, but it’s now to the same side as the outside zone. This is to create as much horizontal flow as possible in the defense. If you look at these two plays synched up, they look exactly the same at the time that Goff is extending his arm for the handoff. So as a defense, you’re put in an incredibly difficult spot. The Rams just ran this same look and got 20 yards on a boot action but if you stay home or over flow to the jet motion and potential play-action, you’re leaving open gaps in the run game for their outside zone. That’s what the whole system is based on. Have your bread and butter play, then work counters, then work counters to your counters.

The outside zone stresses the defense and their ability to run sideline to sideline. The running back is aiming for the outside leg of the play-side tight end and reading the down linemen from the outside in. Backs are taught to take five steps and then they have to get vertical. If the outside end seals off, the running back shifts his vision inside sequentially until there is an opening. Even if you’re not getting a ton of yards off of it, you’re forcing the defense to flow and react which then builds into McVay’s next play-call. A screen to the jet motion.

This time, McVay calls the same jet motion with an outside zone fake to the same side just like the previous play. He releases the playside receiver on a deep over route just like we saw from the tight end in the first play of the game. It’s common to drag that guy from the backside on these naked boot actions to force defenses to transfer zones as they go across the field. So McVay is giving every tell possible that he’s running that same bootleg that he ran to open the game. A small little nuance is that you can also see Goff short change the play-fake. He sticks out the ball but doesn’t nearly get to the stomach of the running back and pulls the ball away early. This is because he wants the defense to see that it’s a run fake and boot action. They’re showing the same deep over, they’re showing the same run  action, and they want the defense to flow the other way to that boot because now they’re going to screen to the jet motion that is sitting all alone in the flat.

Both the corner and the safety run with the deep over leaving nobody on the left side of the field. The center and two guards release and it’s all open field for Robert Woods. So again, now we’ve seen three different things from the Rams that all look almost exactly the same from a blocking scheme standpoint, from the running back track, and from the quarterback run action.

These same looks continue to build throughout the drive and throughout the game. They then run the same tight ace formation with three receivers and give the same run action and run the actual boot this time. Again you have someone deep, someone crossing from the backside, and someone in the flats. The quarterback reads flats to crosser to deep and since nobody is covering Woods in the flat, it’s an easy dump off. This is McVay’s system at work.

They cap their opening drive off a few plays later with a touchdown on an inside zone that works as one of their run game counters to get vertical movement instead of the normal horizontal flow of outside zone.

From there, the looks only build. Later in the first quarter, they run a similar screen that they did to the receiver on the jet motion but now they throw it to the running back off the same outside zone play-action look. Again, they run their receivers using the typical flood route concepts with one clear out, one intermediate, and one in the flats. Off the fake, Goff wheels around to throw the screen to the running back that he initially faked the outside zone too. The defense flows with the bootleg and leaves a whole lot of green grass for the screen.

In the 3rd quarter they also ran the same look but threw the screen to the sniffer who they also used throughout the game in pass protection, leaked out on boots, and used in run blocking. Everybody is fair game to get the ball and that stresses defenses to cover and stay home while simultaneously respecting the horizontal stretch and flow from the outside zone.

McVay protected his offensive line with quick pass game concepts out of empty and shotgun and then using play-actions and screens to slow down the rush. Throw in some hard counts and he was able to mitigate the impact of the Dallas front seven.

While the defensive line was its own issue, the Rams still had to deal with a really good linebacker in Jaylon Smith. They rarely end up giving the ball on jet sweeps and orbit motions, but once is really all it takes to force the defense to stay honest. As soon as a defender isn’t holding that edge or the linebackers aren’t respecting the motion, the Rams will give on the jet sweep or run those naked boots. It’s their way of keeping that unblocked defensive end in check and keeping the linebackers honest.

As soon as you show the give once, defenses are more willing to move with and respect that motion which opens up lanes and causes issues with gap integrity for linebackers. All that jet sweep is intending to do is pull one and a half guys. If a linebacker takes a step out of position, that gives the line a beat longer to be able to climb up and seal them off for big gains in the run game.

McVay’s offense builds. It looks very similar, gives false reads and window dressing, and forces defenses to stay disciplined. He came in with a plan against the Cowboys that stayed true to his philosophy while simultaneously adapting to his personnel, addressing issues with predictability in 2019, and attacking a strength of the Dallas defense. His use of 21 and 12 personnel grew, he protected a line that was a weakness in 2019, and he built layers to the offense and called them at the perfect time. If McVay continues to grow and adapt and that offensive line starts to gel, the NFC West better pump the brakes on crowning the Cardinals, Seahawks, or 49ers, because the Rams are coming for another Super Bowl run.

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NFL Film Breakdown: Robert Woods is the Most Versatile Weapon in the Rams Offense

Since signing with the Rams in 2017, Robert Woods has 3,134 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 232 receptions. Throw in 38 carries for 284 yards and he’s the absolute model of consistency and production. In 2019 he had six games where he was targeted over 11 times, and gained 50 or more yards in 9 of the 15 games he played in. He’s a bit of a jack of all trades but master of none. He has reliable hands, good speed, can snap off routes, is a willing blocker, and uses good route technique. He doesn’t dominate in any one category though and because of this he can sometimes struggle to create separation and can get a little too caught up in route stems and moves when they aren’t applicable.

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https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/rams-wide-receiver-robert-woods-returns-to-the-team-status-vs-ravens-in-week-12-remains-uncertain/

Be that as it may, the numbers don’t lie and McVay makes a very conscious effort to involve Woods in every game. They love running him on screens and he shows excellent vision and patience after the catch and can weave through blocks and defenders. McVay does a good job of window dressing a lot of his concepts but the end result is the same – get the ball to Woods in space and let him work and gain yards. It’s an easy throw and catch and is a good way to guarantee production from one of the best players on your team.

In almost every game, McVay also uses Woods in a tight Ace bunch formation and has him chip and block a defensive end. After showing this once, he’ll run the same formation and have Woods fake the block and release into the flats. It’s a simple concept that takes advantage of over-aggressive defenses, relies on Woods’ blocking ability, and shows effort to scheme Woods into the game and get him in space where he can go to work with room to maneuver.

This concept works because Woods is an aggressive and willing blocker. He’s definitely not shy of being physical or initiating contact and it allows McVay to utilize him in a lot of ways.

Woods shows really good understanding of route technique and applies them consistently to game scenarios. He does an excellent job of hand removal — especially when already into his route. It helps him create separation, prevents defenders from feeling him while having their eyes on the QB, and allows him to maintain his speed. It’s incredibly hard to get hands on him and playing press man would be a big ask for any DB that’s lined up on him.

He has just enough speed to keep defenders honest and can speed cut really well. He maintains speed and is really good at deep outs, pushing up on defenders, and cutting underneath them while losing very little speed.

While he incorporates all the right route running techniques into his routes, a minor nitpick is that he struggles pushing onto defender’s toes and making them respect those moves. The stems and moves at the top of your route are great but if the defender doesn’t feel threatened and you haven’t closed enough space, all they’re going to do is slow you down and defenders won’t bite or be moved. It’s subtle but you can see here how he gives a hard move and jab to the outside when the defender still has 4 yards of cushion on him. It doesn’t threaten him and the defensive back doesn’t bite on it.

When a receiver isn’t threatening the leverage of the defensive back quickly enough or the DB isn’t scared of their speed, it makes it really difficult to move them and get them out of position which you can see crop up with Woods at times.

Compare that now to similar moves when he’s on the defender’s toes and threatening them vertically. Once he’s hip to hip with the defender he looks over the wrong shoulder and gives a quick move to the inside. The defender has to respect this move because if he doesn’t, he has less cushion and time to recover. This gives him just enough separation off his cut to open a window for the ball. The difference is night and day when he can get up to defender’s toes and really threaten their spot and attack their leverage. 

He understands how to push defenders and the power of stemming and looking, he just doesn’t threaten DBs consistently enough for it to help him get separation all the time.

He can also struggle with directional releases. His desire to stem and push defenders one way to open up space can sometimes backfire. When releasing from the line of scrimmage, you want to give yourself the best leverage possible. It’s not an inflexible rule, but generally if you have an in-breaking route, you want to release inside of the defender, if you have an out-breaking route, you want to release outside. Woods doesn’t do this on a consistent basis. If you can work back on top of your defender or stem them to open up space, it’s great, but when you don’t win or threaten them, you’re running yourself into being covered. You can see on these how his releases are setting him up in disadvantageous situations and how he’s struggling to navigate through chips when he takes the wrong release.

Woods is definitely capable of applying all these techniques appropriately, he just needs some small tweaks to take his game to the next level.

All together, Robert Woods is a highly efficient receiver for the Rams. He doesn’t blow you away athletically, but he applies coaching really well, is heavily involved in the scheme that the Rams run, and is a smart and disciplined player. While he struggles to combine it all together on a snap-to-snap basis at times, for every poor release and route strategy, there’s an equally good one. He’s clearly a top target in that offense and while McVay’s system may rely on longer developing play-action, it also incorporates quick screens, jet sweeps, and additional touches for its receivers. While he isn’t poised for an even greater breakout and may be maximizing his productivity, if Woods can continue his growth in LA, there’s no indication his production will dip and he’ll help the Rams compete for a very tough NFC West crown.

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