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How the Cowboys Defense Tipped Its Hand and Let the Rams Run All Over It

By keying into how the Dallas defensive line set up, L.A. allowed C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley to run free—and punched its ticket to the conference championship game

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Sun Tzu wrote that “every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought.” The Rams proved that against the Cowboys on Saturday by out-preparing them last week.

L.A. beat Dallas 30-22 on Saturday with an unstoppable ground game. The Rams ran the ball 48 times for 273 yards (5.7 yards per carry), earning the fourth-most rushing yards in a game this season and the most the franchise has had in a game since 2001. Seventeen of L.A.’s 30 first downs came on the ground, which is the most rushing first downs in a playoff game since the number started being tracked in 1999. C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley each ran for more than 100 yards, the first time two running backs on the same team both crossed that mark in the same playoff game in more than 20 years.

How did L.A. put together such a dominant performance against a run defense that ranked fourth best in rush yards allowed per attempt (3.8) and fifth best in run defense DVOA this season? Anderson and Gurley deserve credit for the romp, but so too does L.A.’s underappreciated offensive line, which submitted one of the best blocking performances by any team this year. The Rams run-blocking has been great all year, and in this game they had a secret weapon: They knew what the Cowboys defense was going to do before the ball was snapped.

“They’re a defensive line that really likes to move a lot,” right guard Austin Blythe told The Ringer. “We had a pretty good tell when they were going to do that.”

The Cowboys don’t blitz often under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, so they rely on stunts with their four defensive linemen to disrupt the backfield. A stunt is when a defensive lineman (or usually multiple defensive linemen) attacks a different gap than the one he is lined up across from. The goal is to confuse opposing offensive linemen by having multiple defenders crash to a different spot than expected and then use the chaos to disrupt the backfield. But stunts depend on the element of surprise, and during Los Angeles’s film study in the week leading up to the game against Dallas, the Rams discovered that the Cowboys defensive line was tipping whether they were going to stunt based on how they aligned before the snap.

Depending on the alignment of the Cowboys defensive tackles, particularly whether Maliek Collins was shaded closer to the tackle instead of the guard, the Rams figured a stunt may be coming. If the Rams saw Collins lined up slightly wider than usual, they looked for a second tell. If a certain Cowboys lineman had a specific hand on the ground—right or left—or if a player was tilted one way or the other, it confirmed what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do.

“They have good players, but we just felt scheme-wise we were able to—we had a lot of tips and tells on what they were going to do in front of us,” said Rams center John Sullivan.

Blythe elaborated:

“Usually they like to play a 3-technique but if he got a little wider, and looked like he was going to play the [left or right] tackle, he was going to slant out and we were going to get another movement from the other side too,” Blythe said. “If [the defensive tackle] is going to come in, the tell is going to come in from the other side.”

I asked Blythe how often the tells accurately predicted the Cowboys play call.

“Plus-90 percent” Blythe said.

With the knowledge in hand, all the Rams had to do was execute, and they played almost flawlessly. Quarterback Jared Goff wasn’t sacked, and he was pressured on just one of his 28 dropbacks. That pressure rate (3.4 percent) was the second lowest for any quarterback who had 20 or more dropbacks in a game this season, according to the NFL. After Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence said last week that he wanted to take Jared Goff’s soul, it’s no wonder Rams cornerback Aqib Talib was so enthusiastic about the Rams’ protection of Goff on the postgame interview.

But the run game was where the true domination happened. L.A.’s first three drives went for a combined 36 plays for 214 yards, with the majority of that on the ground. Dallas was fortunate two of those drives stalled in the red zone, and the Rams had just a 13-7 lead midway through the second quarter. Anderson, a bowling ball of butcher knives who was a free agent until a month ago, ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Anderson is a talented back, and the Rams line was opening up holes in the Cowboys defense bigger than the plot holes in the second season of True Detective. Here’s Anderson, who ran a 4.6 second 40-yard dash at the 2013 combine, on second-and-10 from the Dallas 15 on L.A.’s third drive going up the middle of the field for 14 yards. He doesn’t get touched until he’s already past the first-down marker 10 yards downfield, and it’s not because he’s Barry Sanders.

On the next Rams drive, Gurley ran untouched for a 35-yard touchdown through the heart of the Cowboys defense to push L.A.’s lead to 20-7 with less than four minutes left in the second quarter.

Gurley wasn’t touched until he got to the goal line. He was sprung by excellent blocking, particularly from veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who blocks two defenders on the play.

“The red sea parted, and I ran, man,” Todd Gurley said at his postgame press conference after he was asked to Talk About the touchdown run. “Those guys did a great job, coach called a great play, everybody did their job. All I had to do was cut one time and just run.”

The blocking on Saturday was superb, but that run also succeeded because of how effective play-fakes, like the fake end around to receiver Josh Reynolds in the backfield after Gurley gets the ball on the above play, have been for the Rams. The team had the highest play-action rate in football by a large margin this season and used it on more than a third of their dropbacks, and against the Cowboys, the Rams cranked up play-fakes even by their lofty standards.

Sean McVay, now the youngest head coach to win a playoff game, constructed a masterful game plan that consistently got first downs on first and second down. The Rams gained 30 first downs on Saturday and faced third down just 11 times, converting five of them (45.5 percent, almost exactly their 45 percent third-down conversion rate in the regular season). On Saturday they showed that the best way to convert on third down is to avoid it altogether.

While McVay is often lauded for his schemes, Saturday he’ll be remembered for his aggressiveness. The Rams went for it on fourth-and-1 twice, including from their own 45 on their second drive of the game and fourth-and-goal from the Dallas 1 on their second-to-last drive of the game. The latter decision, which came with just over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Rams up 23-15, was the first time that a coach with the ability to turn a one-possession game into a two-possession game in the playoffs by kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 decided to go for it since play-by-play tracking data became available in 1994, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

The Rams weren’t flawless on Saturday. A way-too-early whistle on third-and-7 at the Rams’ 44-yard line ended a promising Cowboys drive that could have flipped the fortunes of the game, and the illegal contact that set up the Gurley touchdown was a brutal penalty. Despite the magnificent protection, Goff overthrew and underthrew a few open receivers at various points in the game. But the offense’s rare miscues were bailed out by an excellent defense that held running back Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 carries and Dak Prescott to just 266 passing yards.

When it came time to seal the victory, the Rams running game and play-action usage came together for a memorable run from … Goff. On the first play after the two-minute warning with the Rams up 30-23, L.A. faced a third-and-7 on its own 28. The Rams could get a first down to win the game, but throwing the ball would risk stopping the clock with an incompletion and give the ball back to Dallas with enough time to drive down the field and tie the game. Goff rolled out of a play-action bootleg and just kept running, completely fooling safety Jeff Heath for long enough to sneak around the edge and get 11 yards and the first down.

”We were confident,” Sullivan said. “We always talk about confidence in yourself because you have to know you can go out and do your job and confidence that the guys next to you are going to do their jobs.”

Adding to that confidence was knowing their opponent’s jobs, too. The battle was already won.