There was no way that the Rams-Chiefs clash could ever live up to the billing. The clamor for Monday night’s superfight was unlike anything the NFL has seen for a regular-season game in a long time. Two 9–1 teams, with the league’s most dynamic offenses, squaring off for the right to be dubbed the Super Bowl favorite, with the entire country watching. But the game didn’t quite match the pregame theatrics. It surpassed them.
The 54–51 spectacle in Los Angeles was a glimpse into what professional football could be, and it’s only natural to get caught up in the hysteria of what might be the greatest regular-season football game ever played. But between the haymaker touchdown tosses and 60-yard bombs and strip-sack scores, there are several lessons the rest of the NFL can learn from what the Rams and Chiefs have done.
It might seem counterintuitive, given that the classic we just took in featured a combined 105 points and more than 1,000 total yards, but one of those key takeaways involves the right way to construct a defense in this era. All the flags in the first half led to an uproar about the “all-star” crew the NFL brought in to officiate, but if folks would pipe down about the quality of the refs, they might realize there’s something worthwhile to be gleaned from how that game was called. Clete Blakeman and his crew were quick to toss flags on any form of contact in the secondary. Whether it be illegal use of hands, defensive holding, or pass interference, the officials weren’t shy about doling out penalties in the defensive backfield.
It’s more difficult to play defensive back than ever. The rules have made it nearly impossible for corners and safeties to start each play on even footing with their receiving counterparts, and that new reality leads to the type of shootout on display Monday night (and at other points this season). As the degree of difficulty for playing defense increases, teams may have to adjust their understanding of what a quality D really is. Of the 30 total drives in this game, 13 went for at least 40 yards. In total, there were seven punts. By the 11:07 mark in the fourth quarter, there had been nearly as many defensive touchdowns (three) as there had been punts (four). And as franchises attempt to adjust to the current structure of the NFL, it’s worth looking at the role those turnovers and defensive scores might play.
The parameters of the league in 2018 almost completely nullify a defense’s ability to slow down an offense over an extended period of time. But they don’t necessarily limit the possibility of game-swinging plays. Takeaways and defensive touchdowns are typically the result of a dominant front four, and while playing defensive back may be tougher than ever, affecting the game as a pass rusher has never been easier. As the quality of offensive line play around the league drops and the sheer number of pass-rushing opportunities rises thanks to the passing boom, a player like Aaron Donald or Dee Ford has more chances to alter a game than ever before. Without Donald’s two strip sacks, the Rams likely would have lost in a rout on Monday. The only time the Chiefs managed to slow down Jared Goff and Co. is when they chased him off his spot. After the game, Goff told ESPN that all season he’s focused on his depth in the pocket. That’s because he understands that in this era, one of the quarterback’s main priorities is just hanging on to the ball. If these passers can avoid turning it over, many of their offenses are good enough to never be stopped. (See Drew Brees and the Saints. On the year, Brees has lost zero fumbles and thrown just a single interception; New Orleans is averaging a league-leading 37.8 points per game.)
There’s a chance that as the effectiveness gap between pass rushers and defensive backs starts to grow, the chasm between their contracts will widen even more than it already has. The 10 highest-paid defensive players in the league are defensive linemen or edge rushers. Donald and Chicago’s Khalil Mack have already set a new standard with average annual values surpassing $22 million per season, and with a player of Ford’s caliber set to hit free agency next spring, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that trend continue while the demand for cornerbacks begins to fall. The Chiefs were happy to deal Marcus Peters and a sixth-round pick to the Rams for second- and fourth-rounders this offseason, and at this point, they’ve won the trade in a landslide.
The reason that teams may have to rethink their entire philosophy about defensive roster construction is that these offenses have become more effective than anyone could have imagined. Both the Chiefs and Rams have provided a blueprint for how to build your offense into football’s version of the Death Star, and along with finding supreme quarterback talents like Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes II, that process also consists of exhausting every resource to surround that QB on a rookie contract with the best personnel available. It’s not a coincidence that Sammy Watkins went from the Rams to the Chiefs. A year after the Rams dealt a second-round pick for Watkins, Kansas City was more than happy to hand him a three-year, $48 million contract (with $30 million guaranteed) in free agency. Both of these teams have turned over every rock in their search to create the perfect collection of pass catchers to pair with their young QBs. And when Watkins did leave L.A. for Kansas City, the Rams believed it was worth doling out a first-round pick — and a contract extension — to bring in Brandin Cooks from New England as a replacement.
In losing Watkins, Rams general manager Les Snead saw a glaring hole in the offensive machine that head coach Sean McVay had started building in his first season, and he was willing to do whatever it took to keep that apparatus intact. Both of these teams view their pass-catching groups as parts of a whole rather than individually talented pieces. Snead told me before the season that the Rams were thrilled about the progress of Josh Reynolds, and after Reynolds hauled in six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on Monday, it’s easy to see why. Reynolds was able to seamlessly step in for the injured Cooper Kupp, and the Rams offense didn’t miss a beat. The goal is to keep the system churning, and both of these teams have accrued the right nuts and bolts to make that possible.
Along with having the right players, the details of those respective systems also set both these teams apart, and the tenets of those schemes were on full display Monday night. Trotting out gifted pass catchers like Cooks, Robert Woods, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce is a luxury, but without the right infrastructure, even the most talented receivers will eventually plateau. Thankfully, both of these offenses are tailored to bring out the best in their playmakers.
The windows that McVay manufactures for Goff via play-action define the Rams offense. Goff leads the league with a 38 percent play-action rate on his dropbacks (according to Pro Football Focus). Play-action passing is the backbone of McVay’s approach, which is one reason Todd Gurley’s value can’t be understood solely by his box score totals. By leaning on play-action the way that he does, McVay is able to scheme his receivers into space and let relatively simple chunk plays materialize. Combined with McVay’s understanding of route distribution against specific coverages that he’ll see as a result of particular formations in certain down-and-distance situations, the Rams’ use of the play-action game leads to a consistent barrage of huge gains. Take this long completion to Woods in the first quarter. By sending Cooks on a deep corner route and using Gurley to hold the cornerback in the flat, McVay opens an ocean of grass for Woods to exploit for an easy pitch and catch. (It’s also not an accident that among quarterbacks who’ve played at least half their team’s snaps, Mahomes ranks second in play-action rate at 30 percent.)
Along with route design, McVay and Reid both use their own personnel to dictate and decipher opposing defenses, which in turn lightens the load of their quarterbacks. The Rams line up in 11 personnel on a staggering 98 percent of their plays. For most teams, that frequency would be an indication of stagnant design, but McVay flips that notion on its head. He uses that consistency to toy with defenses and glean information about what they’ll do on any given snap. The array of players might be the same, but their alignment reveals a defense’s intent and streamlines Goff’s decision-making. On the game-winning touchdown, the Rams lined up in 11 personnel, but rather than being snug to the line, tight end Gerald Everett was situated as a split receiver to the right. When safety Daniel Sorensen followed Everett outside, Goff discerned that the Chiefs were in man coverage, and knowing that the other safety was responsible for the middle of the field, he instantly pulled the trigger on a go route for Everett that resulted in the decisive score.
Those tactics aren’t limited to McVay. Reid has plenty of the same tricks, which often include using running back Kareem Hunt as a wide receiver or motioning him to and from the backfield to help fish for useful information. In many ways, McVay and Reid couldn’t be more different. One is a 32-year-old celebrity head coach with a perfectly trimmed beard, a sharp jawline, and a commercial deal with Bose. The other is a 60-year-old lifer with a mustache that’s probably collected plenty of burnt ends from Kansas City barbecue joints. At their core, though, both coaches are more similar than they are different. Whether it be through motion, formation diversity, or some other method, they’re willing to seek out any schematic advantage from any source, no matter how unlikely. And it’s helped turn their offenses into two of the most high-flying units the NFL has ever seen.
The other trait they share — maybe the most important one — is that both are head coaches who call plays. Over time, teams have experienced plenty of success on offense with excellent coordinators who work under defensive-minded head coaches, but the dominance that the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints have shown with a head coach dictating the offense almost certainly will (and probably should) influence teams moving forward.
When Reid was the head coach in Philadelphia, he ceded day-to-day control of the offense to coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Reid’s role in personnel decisions limited the input he could have, and installation meetings and other operations were left for Mornhinweg to manage. After taking the job in Kansas City, Reid resumed his duties as the team’s main offensive decision-maker. He handles every install meeting. He is the central voice. The same goes for McVay, who keeps a constant dialogue with just about every member of the offense. The stress each team puts on offensive football seeps into the DNA of the entire franchise. Even with stars like Donald, Ford, and others on defense, a head coach who doubles as the de facto offensive coordinator inevitably leads to the team developing an offense-first identity. In a league now ruled by offense, that’s starting to feel like the more prudent approach.
We’ve already seen that trend begin to emerge around the NFL with recent hires such as Doug Pederson in Philadelphia, Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Matt Nagy in Chicago, and Frank Reich in Indianapolis. And if the Chiefs and Rams continue on their current path, it would only make sense if the run didn’t stop there. As owners around the league watched both teams put on a display Monday night in Los Angeles, many of them were probably wondering how they could try to replicate that thrilling brand of football. The most entertaining regular-season game in years also showed us the ideal version of the sport, and if the rest of the league isn’t careful, it may just pass them by.