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Sean McVay’s Super Bowl Blueprint Failed. The Rams Won Once He Finally Abandoned It.

The Rams offense was out of answers late in Super Bowl LVI. But McVay, Matthew Stafford, and Co. learned how to adapt in the nick of time.

AP/Ringer illustration

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. During Sunday’s Super Bowl, all of us football writers spent time thinking about how the outcome of the game would shape upcoming narratives. How could we not? Instead of waiting to see what would happen after the Rams or the Bengals won, we tossed the prompt to ourselves: If Team X finds a way to pull this out, that will mean [insert take here].

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Rams’ eventual 23-20 victory, that meant focusing on Sean McVay takes. The Los Angeles head coach was the story. L.A. was trailing 20-16, and its offense had just stumbled to its third consecutive three-and-out—two of which had started just shy of the 50-yard line. McVay’s Rams were on the cusp of a second Super Bowl faceplant. This wasn’t as bad as L.A. scoring three total points against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, but scoring three second-half points against the Bengals was still pretty bad.

The Rams’ offensive woes in the second half had an easy explanation: injury. Star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had been the Rams’ most productive target in the first half, hurt his knee late in the second quarter and never returned. His absence, coupled with the absence of starting tight end Tyler Higbee, left the Rams with four active wide receivers and two active tight ends—and then backup tight end Kendall Blanton went down with a shoulder injury in the third quarter, leaving only third-stringer Brycen Hopkins to play the position. The team’s first three drives without Blanton? All three-and-outs.

With Beckham and Blanton both sidelined, the Rams were slim on pass catchers. But the passing game was the only way they could move the ball. After that third three-and-out ended with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Rams had recorded 11 drives in the game. They had carried the ball 18 times—and not a single run had generated positive EPA. Put another way: Every single Rams rushing attempt made the Bengals more likely to win the game. Surprisingly, this was not the first game in which a team had failed to net a positive running play. But it was the first in which a coach did not stop dialing up running plays in the face of that poor performance.

Perhaps McVay felt it was necessary to run the ball, given the injuries to the pass catchers. Perhaps he felt that the runs—even the ineffective ones—would set up play-action shots to come. Either way, McVay was wrong. The Rams’ running game was only helping the Bengals.

We can see this by looking at Cincinnati’s response to the L.A. rushing attack. The Rams wanted to run out of condensed formations, which ask receivers to get in tight to the offensive line to provide another blocker. The Rams have rarely played in anything but 11 personnel (a grouping with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) this season. For that strategy to be viable, L.A.’s wide receivers must contribute as blockers in the running game.

The problem Sunday was twofold. First, without Higbee and Blanton, the Rams had no blocking tight end. Hopkins, who was forced into playing time, is more of a supersized wide receiver at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Neither he nor Blanton saw a ton of snaps in the regular season, and both struggled with recognition, communication, and synergy when working with the rest of the Rams offense to block the Bengals’ fronts.

And second, the Bengals intentionally changed the picture that they presented to the Rams’ line. By reducing the front (moving defensive linemen closer to the middle of the formation) or sending blitzers right at the snap, the Bengals created confusion and advantageous angles for their linebackers and safeties. For L.A., executing double-teams or coordinating combination blocks suddenly became a lot more difficult.

While the Rams found success in the play-action passing game out of condensed sets early—quarterback Matthew Stafford was 4-of-5 passing for 54 yards with a touchdown on under-center, play-action dropbacks in the first half—the Bengals countered by using late shifts to disguise pressure packages and rob Stafford of the time necessary to set up deep shots. As the Rams sat in their condensed sets, the Bengals were able to bring tons of bodies into the formation, thereby making it difficult for even a veteran like Stafford to identify which player was blitzing. The clips below show how this worked: On the first snap in this cut, the slot defender comes after Stafford and creates a hurry and a quick checkdown. On the second snap in this cut, the slot defender stops, confuses the running back in protection, and fills the checkdown window.

The Rams’ running game wasn’t working. The Rams’ play-action passing game had stopped working too. L.A. had no subs at wide receiver or tight end. And star wideout Cooper Kupp—who was recently named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year—had somehow become a nonfactor; he didn’t see a target in any of the Rams’ fourth-quarter three-and-outs. McVay, one of the masterminds behind modern offense, was going to fall short once again, because the core tenets of his scheme (condensed sets, play-action passing) had been taken away. Sixteen points in 11 drives. The narrative was starting to settle.

Then the Rams’ 12th drive happened.

The first thing L.A. did was expand. Per Keegan Abdoo of Next Gen Stats, the Rams’ average formation width on their 12th drive was 26.5 yards—a substantial jump from the 23.1 yards they averaged on the first 11. It was a reasonable, even obvious, change on the surface: The Rams no longer were going to threaten the run, as they got the ball with just over six minutes remaining and needed a touchdown to take the lead.

This was also an act of mimicry. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, a branch of the McVay coaching tree, quickly expanded his formations once he took the Bengals’ job. You can see Cincinnati’s leap in formation width after the team drafted Burrow.

Spread formations force the defense to spread with them, making it easier for smart quarterbacks like Burrow and Stafford to make presnap reads in identifying blitzers or diagnosing coverage shells. After going to these formations, the Rams expected to see zone coverage from the Bengals defense—and they got it. Again from Keegan Abdoo at Next Gen Stats: On their first 11 drives Sunday, the Rams were in 3x1 formations on 54 percent of their offensive snaps. That number dropped to 33 percent on the 12th drive. Those snaps were replaced by 2x2 formations with four receivers (three traditional wideouts and Hopkins, a flex tight end). L.A. used these formations on 16 percent of snaps on its first 11 drives, and a massive 40 percent of snaps on its 12th.

It wasn’t just the new formations that helped. It was also the tempo with which the Rams got into those looks. The Rams didn’t need to substitute new players, so they hustled to the line and forced the Bengals to make quick and simple defensive calls in order to keep defensive pace. Those defensive calls presented the Rams with zone coverage, which they could anticipate and exploit. “We were kind of in a hurry on that whole last drive,” Kupp said after the game. “Being able to keep them from setting some rushes but also keeping them in zone calls where you can put some pressure on them and get calls they just feel comfortable playing and zone some stuff off and allow Matthew and I to find some soft spots in there.”

Put aside the spread sets and four-wide formations for a moment. The tempo was the straw that stirred the drink. After the game, Stafford said the Bengals “played a bunch of man coverage, they were doubling Coop on every third down and, you know, we just missed on a few plays here and there that could’ve been big plays for us. And on that final drive, I thought Sean did an unbelievable job of letting us go out there and play with a bunch of tempo.”

Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said that the Rams “were going on the ball, they were going fast, and we weren’t really able to capitalize like how we always do.” Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard said that the Bengals were expecting the Rams to go to tempo at some point, but it wasn’t enough. “They did an amazing job of putting 15 plays or something together at the most critical time,” he said. “Matt Stafford is an incredible quarterback, so credit to them, they went down and won the game, and we had to stop them.”

All game long, the Bengals were defending a McVay offense—until suddenly they weren’t. They were defending a Taylorian offense in terms of formations and quick throws. Once McVay got the Bengals on their back foot with this approach, he never paused to let them recover. The Rams’ game-winning drive was far from perfect; L.A. had to convert a fourth-and-1 after a third-and-1 run from a condensed set failed to gain an inch. But it did the job: Easy, underneath throws became much more available.

This drive was fueled by Stafford above all else. This moment was a final, emphatic reminder of what he’s always been capable of, but was constantly overlooked when he was playing in meaningless regular-season games in Detroit. In Sunday’s decisive sequence, after carefully moving the Rams offense down the field, Stafford pulled Vonn Bell just far enough out of his zone window to zing a no-look strike to Kupp in stride, over the middle. It was a 22-yard gain—the only 20-plus-yard play the Rams had after Beckham left with his injury. It was the only one they needed.

The 12th drive was all about change for McVay. Not just change at quarterback, as the Rams’ trade to upgrade from Jared Goff to Stafford was the defining move of the last offseason. Not just change in personnel, as the Rams had to overcome myriad injuries both leading into and during the Super Bowl. It was also about in-game tactical changes that he failed to make in his first Super Bowl appearance. The opposing defense took away what he wanted to do, but unlike in that 13-3 loss to the Patriots, he adapted. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t immediate. It was still enough to change the narrative.

There are a lot of universes in which that 12th Rams drive never happens. Heck, there are a lot of universes in which the Rams don’t kick last-second field goals against the Buccaneers or 49ers, and in which the Bengals fall short against either the Titans or Chiefs. This was a chaotic playoffs, and from that chaos we will extract and distill many narratives. For all the focus on Stafford and the Rams’ all-in approach, though, the NFL season came down to one drive. McVay had both the talent and the wherewithal to adapt, and as a result the Rams are Super Bowl champions.