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. 

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Suscribe to our YouTube page for our video breakdowns. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

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: Why Jared Goff and the Rams Will Be Just Fine

Jared Goff and the Rams’ 2019 season didn’t go as planned. Interception numbers went up, touchdown throws went down, and the Rams missed the playoffs after playing in the Super Bowl in 2018. While the scrutiny has been on Jared Goff after signing his $134 million contract, the Rams’ offensive line went from being ranked 5th in the NFL in 2018 to dropping all the way to 31st in 2019 according to PFF (Linsey, 2019). getting rid of the ball faster and running more play-action in 2019, Goff and the Rams still experienced pressure at a rate of 4% higher than 2018 (Linsey, 2019). While he has some issues locking onto receivers, getting follow through with his back leg, and dipping his shoulders at times, it’s hard to be mad at a guy who’s experiencing pressure by the time he’s at the top of his drop. Throw in the fact that pressure is the absolute worst thing that can happen in a McVay offense with lots of longer developing routes on shallow crosses and deep shots downfield off play-action and you’ve got recipe for a disappointing season.

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

That being said, when Goff has a clean pocket, he is rated as the 6th best QB in the league over the last three years and that’s exactly what the film showed. Goff’s mechanics are some of the best in the league. He is incredibly consistent in his base, footwork, and throwing motion. His feet stay wide, he moves with subtly and quickness in the pocket, can stand strong and take hits, and shows good mobility throwing on the run. Part of Goff’s tendency to lock on or struggle was that he just flat out didn’t have time to read anything other than the first thing he saw because pressure was there so fast.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Despite a lackluster 2019, Goff can 100% get the job done and be worth the huge contract he signed. Let’s take a look at what exactly Goff is bringing to the table and what went wrong for the Rams in 2019.

As mentioned before, Goff is one of the best in the league in a clean pocket. He shows excellent mechanics, throws with anticipation, and is worth every penny of $134 million. Here on play-action he keeps a perfect base with his feet just outside of shoulders, throws with anticipation before the receiver is even out of their break, brings his leg all the way through, and delivers a dart 25 yards downfield and on the sideline.

Here again he shows great anticipation and mechanics as he begins his throwing motion before the receiver has cleared the linebacker. He understands where the hole in the zone will be, keeps a good base on his hitch steps and brings his leg through on the throw. The Rams are exploiting the weaknesses of cover 2 here and McVay schemes it up so that the middle linebacker is pulled up on the spot route by Gurley leaving the window open on the second level for Cooper Kupp. The opposite slot is running a post behind it so if that is covered and the safety comes down on Kupp, you now have a ton of field to work with on the flat post behind it.

Goff can dice defenses up out of a clean pocket. His arm talent and ball placement is exceptional when he has nobody is at his feet. You can see him earhole a defender that’s trailing in coverage in the first gif and fit the ball into the window between the corner and safety in the next one.

He moves subtly in the pocket to keep his feet and base underneath him while avoiding pressure, constantly keeps his eyes downfield, and looks like a top tier quarterback.

On play-action and rollouts he shows touch and accuracy – dropping it over linebackers and in front of safeties or driving the ball on crossers. His eyes stay downfield, he’s mobile, and understands the flow and position of defenses.

The issue is that sometimes this pressure is so quick and immediate out of his drop or run fake on play-action, Goff only has time to read one thing. This can lead to some rushed mechanics where he doesn’t follow through, has shoulder lean, or can lead to poor decision making where he doesn’t have time to verify where defenders are – resulting in miscommunication with receivers, bad interceptions, or inaccurate balls.

It can be hard to blame him when his back is turned to the defense on a run fake and when he turns around he has pressure in his face and immediately has to locate and diagnose a defense. This is why McVay’s system is so reliant on an offensive line. It’s not just the building off of outside zone that helps it go, they also need to give extended time to the quarterback on play-action since his back is turned to the defense for the first second of the play. A lot of times Goff simply doesn’t have time to execute the scheme which is why you saw his numbers dip and the success of the Rams go with it.

That being said there are clearly times where he isn’t seeing the field the same way his receivers are even in clean pockets. He can expect a back-shoulder, throw a ball skinny when the receiver is running flat, or throw to a window the receiver isn’t ready for. These aren’t mechanical inaccuracies, they’re conceptual and scheme issues where he and the receiver aren’t on the same page.

Goff’s mechanics are largely clean but he can have issues with shoulder lean when he drives balls. Ideally, when completing the throwing motion, you want your hips and shoulders parallel with the ground. When you tilt or lean it can cause balls to sail on you because you’re now releasing at a higher apex point and you’re less consistent from throw to throw.

The same thing happens when he leaves his leg on the follow through. It prevents full hip rotation and reduces the power of the throw which makes his throws less accurate and in some cases prevents scoring plays. In the play here if this ball is a little further out with more air, it’s a walk-in touchdown. Instead, Goff leaves his back leg and doesn’t complete his follow through on the throwing motion and the ball is short. This issue crops up from time to time and generally just reduces his power and velocity on the throw causing balls to be late or inaccurate and disallowing potential yards after the catch.

Despite the occasional issues with his follow through and shoulder lean, Goff is one of the most mechanically clean quarterbacks that I’ve seen. His base is always solid, he has an efficient throwing motion, generally good hip rotation, can put touch on the ball, and understands defensive vulnerabilities. His mobility in the pocket is also a huge strength of his. Almost any quarterback would struggle with the 31st ranked offensive line in the league and Goff is no exception. The Rams offense is predicated on running the ball and having time to let routes develop on play-action. Without those two things, things are going to be a struggle. It’s clear to me that Goff is not the problem in LA. If that offensive line can just get back to average, the Rams will look like a completely different team. With an NFC West division that is now chock full of talent and elite teams, the Rams will need that line to step up. If they do, there’s no reason that Goff and those skill positions can’t make another run at a Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on YouTube for video breakdowns and Instagram@weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

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References

Linsey, B. (2019, December 31). Ranking all 32 NFL offensive lines following the 2019 regular season. Retrieved from Pro Football Focus: https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-offensive-line-rankings-following-2019-regular-season