Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:
1. The divisional round’s results explain why teams around the NFL are hiring offensive-minded, play-calling head coaches. As Matt LaFleur and Kliff Kingsbury have taken top jobs, and Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor has become the no. 1 candidate for Cincinnati’s open coaching position, it’s been said that franchises are looking for their own version of Sean McVay. But the trend goes further than that. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Saints coach Sean Payton also double as their teams’ play callers, and that structure is clearly producing results. The four teams left in the playoffs had the four highest-scoring offenses in the league this season, and as long as those elite units continue to succeed in the postseason, teams are going to model themselves around that formula.
In several ways, Reid’s and Payton’s sustained successes present a stronger argument in favor of offensive-minded head coaches than McVay’s relatively short tenure in Los Angeles. Since Payton was hired as the Saints’ head coach in 2006, New Orleans has finished outside the top 10 in scoring offense just two times, and it’s never finished lower than 12th. Having a future Hall of Fame quarterback for that entire run certainly helps, but Payton has held the team together despite roster changes and alterations to the coaching staff.
A similar foundation has been tested in Kansas City each of the past few seasons, as Reid’s coaching staff has been raided repeatedly. In 2016, then–Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson was hired away to be the Eagles head coach. Last January, Matt Nagy, was hired as the Bears’ head coach. Kansas City responded by scoring a league-leading 35.3 points per game in 2018.
McVay has been forced to overcome the same challenge during his first two seasons in L.A. Last year, he lost offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to the Titans. This season, Taylor will likely leave to take over as the Bengals’ head coach. Yet no matter how much turnover the Rams experience, the most important pillar of their franchise remains. Some teams that follow this model will inevitably fail, as unqualified position coaches are elevated to jobs they aren’t equipped for. Taylor, for example, last called plays in 2015 as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. That season, Miami finished 27th in scoring offense at 19.4 points per game. Three years later, Taylor is skipping straight from position coach to head coach in large part because of his proximity to McVay. But no matter the risks, coaches like Taylor are going to get opportunities in the modern NFL, and this weekend’s results are the reason why.
2. To understand why these offensive coaches are considered the best minds in the league, let’s take a closer look at some of the concepts they used effectively this weekend, starting with McVay. By playoff time, it’s crucial for offenses to break some of the tendencies they’ve developed over the course of the season. In Saturday’s 30-22 win over the Cowboys, McVay did an excellent job tweaking the Rams’ familiar patterns to create problems for Dallas’s defense. On a second-and-10 with 11:44 left in the first quarter, the Rams lined up in their standard 11 personnel look, with running back C.J. Anderson next to quarterback Jared Goff in a shotgun formation. Just before the snap, wide receiver Robert Woods went in jet motion from left to right—another staple of the Rams offense. But instead of dropping back to pass, Goff handed the ball to Anderson, who ran it up the middle for a 12-yard gain. This season, the Rams only ran the ball from shotgun 32 times, according to Sharp Football Stats, the lowest total in the league. They did it twice in the first half against Dallas, and Anderson gained 23 yards on those two carries.
Another small but meaningful alteration came in the type of motion the Rams used to create misdirection. McVay’s team led the NFL in jet-motion percentage during the season (with L.A. using it on 17 percent of its plays), but on Saturday, rather than motioning the receiver straight across, the Rams repeatedly sent a wideout behind Goff in a ghost/orb motion look. In order to give that player credence as a runner, the Rams handed the ball off to wide receiver Josh Reynolds from that position on their second drive. For the rest of the game, the Cowboys defense had that play in the back of their minds, and that influence slowed down the Dallas linebackers on other types of runs.
3. Few teams effectively scheme ways to get their offensive linemen to the second level like the Rams, and the big guys dominated Dallas all game. On Todd Gurley’s 35-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter, the Rams lined up in 11 personnel with tight end Tyler Higbee and two receivers clustered to the right. At the snap, Higbee came across the formation to execute a wham block on defensive end Randy Gregory. That produced a cascading effect: By bringing Higbee across, Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth could focus all of his attention on the defensive tackle; with the tackle taken care of, left guard Rodger Saffold could easily climb to the second level. As Saffold cleared out Leighton Vander Esch, Whitworth picked off a safety and paved Gurley’s way into the end zone. You won’t see a more complete performance than the one the Rams’ offensive line had this weekend.
4. Play-action throws have long been a staple of the Brady-Belichick era in New England, and the Patriots used them to carve up the Chargers defense on Sunday. For the second straight week, the Chargers employed a defensive scheme that featured safeties playing linebacker. It seemed like the Pats would attack that strategy using the running game, which they did to an extent—Sony Michel finished with 24 carries for 129 yards—but New England also used the threat of the run to set up some of Tom Brady’s biggest passing plays. By forcing the linebackers to vacate the middle of the field as they addressed the run fake, Brady was able to pick apart the Chargers in the underneath areas of the defense. He finished the game 9-of-12 for 132 yards on play-action throws, according to Pro Football Focus. Every part of the Patriots offense is linked, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did an excellent job of marrying a run-heavy game plan with plenty of play-action counters.
5. The Chiefs’ screen game is a work of art. On a second-and-15 with 13:55 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 31-13 win over the Colts, Kansas City lined up in 11 personnel with tight end Travis Kelce and two receivers aligned in trips to the left. As the play began, Kelce came across the formation as a blocker and wide receiver Tyreek Hill sprinted by Patrick Mahomes II to feign an end around. Those actions accomplished two things: First, they sold the run fake to Damien Williams; second, they sent two Colts defenders drifting to the offense’s right. With fewer defenders to deal with at the second level, the Chiefs created a void that Williams attacked as he took the screen off the left side. Reid designed that look to make each member of the offense’s job easier, and no offensive coach in the league is better at dialing up those kinds of plays.
6. Mahomes is a master at making second-window throws, and he’s become a nightmare against zone defenses in the process. A lot of folks (rightfully) lost their minds when Mahomes completed a ridiculous sidearm flick to tight end Travis Kelce for a 15-yard gain in the third quarter of Saturday’s game, but that completion was notable for a lot more than just the throw. Kelce initially settled into a middle-of-the-field void between zone defenders, and when Mahomes started moving in the pocket, Kelce drifted to his right to create a new throwing window. In his first full year as a starter, Mahomes has been excellent at finding those secondary windows, both by extending plays with his feet and simply waiting a beat for a cleaner lane to pop open. We normally see this trait in quarterbacks who’ve been in the league for a decade—not in second-year passers with 18 total starts to their name. Kelce also makes these plays possible by seeking out the soft spaces within a zone defense—something he did multiple times against the Colts. Kelce and Mahomes were made for each other.
7. Sean Payton has always had a special knack for designing route distribution, and he dialed up some real winners in Sunday. The Saints hit on several deep throws to Michael Thomas during their 20-14 win over the Eagles, and those plays were made possible by Payton’s ingenuity. My favorite design probably came on a third-and-10 with 2:18 remaining in the first quarter. The Saints line up in shotgun with 11 personnel, with Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. stacked on the right side. New Orleans sends five receivers out on routes during this play, and each of them works in concert to create a massive ocean of grass in the middle of the field. Ginn runs a go route that he bends inside, taking the safety with him. Tight end Josh Hill runs a shorter crossing route that pulls safety Malcolm Jenkins with him. And as running back Mark Ingram releases in the left flat, linebacker Nigel Bradham follows. All of that action parts the defense and gives Thomas the space to haul in a 21-yard reception. Take a look at where each receiver is when that ball is thrown. The spacing couldn’t be any better, and that’s a regular sight with this offense:
8. The Eagles’ unlikely playoff run is over, and the team now faces a decision about what to do with Nick Foles and Carson Wentz. When Wentz returns from injury next season, he will unquestionably get his job back as Philly’s starting quarterback. Even as Foles continued his playoff heroics from last season in a wild-card round win over the Bears, Wentz was always going to be the Eagles’ franchise quarterback moving forward. Wentz is 26 years old, with a 2019 cap hit of $8.5 million dollars. Foles is set to make $20.6 million against the cap next season, but he can buy his way out of that option for just $2 million. Unless the Eagles use the franchise tag on him (which isn’t going to happen), Foles will almost certainly become a free agent this spring. And he’s going to be in demand. Plenty of teams watched Foles over the past month and thought, “This would be our best option at QB.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise when a franchise hands the 30-year-old a deal with an average annual value north of $20 million.
Their season may not have ended how the defending champs would have liked, but Philly has to be encouraged about what it saw from this core down the season’s final stretch. The roster is still one of the most complete in football, and even though the Eagles weren’t able to overcome their rash of injuries in the secondary, they weathered them much better than most teams would have. Philly’s roster is set to return largely intact next season, with a couple notable exceptions. Defensive end Brandon Graham is a free agent, as is cornerback Ronald Darby, running back Jay Ajayi, and linebacker Jordan Hicks. Losing short-term rental Golden Tate to free agency was always a given, but the other guys have played significant roles for the Eagles over the past couple seasons.
Philly is set to have eight different players making at least $10.6 million next season, and that doesn’t include Foles. Having that many established, expensive stars is a good problem to have, but the bill eventually comes due, even as the NFL’s salary cap continues to explode. Personnel chief Howie Roseman can’t afford to keep everyone. Philly will likely be the favorite to win the NFC East in 2019, but maintaining a loaded team is never easy.
9. The Colts have no such cap concerns. General manager Chris Ballard’s team will have nearly $120 million in cap space this spring, along with an additional second-round draft pick from the Jets. With two selections in the top 35 and a small fortune to spend, no team is better positioned to improve its personnel this offseason. That’s a horrifying proposition for the rest of the AFC, considering the Colts already managed to make the playoffs (and win a wild-card game) with its current roster construction.
One of the Colts’ first priorities will be improving their pass-catching group. Journeyman receiver Dontrelle Inman took over as the team’s no. 2 wideout after being acquired in the middle of the season. That’s a sign that you might need an upgrade. (Personally, I can’t stop picturing Golden Tate as the underneath option in that offense as T.Y. Hilton roasts defenders over the top.) The Colts could also use an injection of talent to the defense. Cornerback Pierre Desir is a free agent, but even beyond possible departures, the secondary needs some improvements. Pass-rushing help is also a necessity, and luckily for the Colts, it’s a historically great year to need an edge rusher: Dee Ford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Brandon Graham, and Jadeveon Clowney are all set to hit the open market. Ballard just watched Ford eat his offensive alive this weekend. If the Chiefs choose not to give him the franchise tag, he could look good in white and blue next season.
10. This week’s lineplay moment that made me hit rewind: Speaking of Dee Ford: He was a terror on Saturday, finishing the game with just one sack but generating multiple pressures on quarterback Andrew Luck. Ford’s biggest play of the day came on a second-and-10 with under a minute remaining in the third quarter. After the snap, Ford flew around the edge past right tackle Braden Smith before getting his hand on the ball and forcing a game-winning fumble. There was nothing fancy about Ford’s approach. It was a straight speed rush finished off with a textbook rip move to get under Smith and bend back to the quarterback. It’s the sort of burst that made the undersize Ford a first-round pick, and it’s going to get him a pile of cash this spring.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Patrick Mahomes is not of this world.