During Jared Goff’s time in Los Angeles, Sean McVay always kept the dropback passing game behind “break in case of emergency” glass. When the Rams were behind and in need of points, or defenses were able to slow down their run game and play-action passes, they’d turn the offense over to Goff. That hardly ever turned out the way they wanted, which is why the Rams were willing to part ways with two first-round picks to swap Goff out for Matthew Stafford this past offseason. If McVay was going to get his team over the Super Bowl hump, he needed a quarterback who could function in obvious passing situations—a quarterback who could unlock the premium version of his offense.
Through the first eight weeks of the season, the premium version of McVay’s offense lived up to the preseason hype. The Rams were 7-1, leading the league in offensive DVOA, and Stafford was a favorite to win MVP. The offense was back to its 2018 form, but the play-calling that had carried Goff to Super Bowl LIII hardly resembled what we were seeing from the Stafford-led attack. The Rams’ shotgun rates spiked; their play-action usage and pre-snap motion plummeted.
The Rams 2021 Offense Looks Different
The dropback passing game was no longer plan B. It was the centerpiece of the offense. More importantly, when the Rams were getting caught in obvious passing situations, Stafford wasn’t just playing well … his performance was almost lapping the rest of the league.
There’s been a drastic downturn since the calendar turned over to November. The Rams have lost three consecutive games, and, over that span, they rank 30th in EPA per play, per RBSDM.com. Stafford’s blunders have been the driving factor behind this slump; since Week 9, he’s lost 47.7 expected points on sacks and interceptions, which leads the league by a healthy margin, per TruMedia. But the struggles of the Rams offense are about more than just a few mistakes. There’s rot beneath the surface here that should alarm McVay, Stafford, and every fan in Los Angeles. The team’s success rate, which wouldn’t be impacted by a high number of turnovers, is down by nearly 10 percentage points since Week 9. And, per TruMedia, Stafford’s EPA on completed passes has dropped from 1.17 per play, which led the league over the first eight weeks, down to 0.70 per play since Week 9, which ranks 19th over that span, according to TruMedia. In other words, the “good” plays haven’t been nearly as productive and the bad plays have been downright catastrophic.
So what gives? How did this passing game that was steamrolling defenses over the first two months devolve into this mess? And, more importantly, how can McVay and Stafford pull the offense out of this lull in time for the playoffs? Let’s try to answer those questions.
The obvious answer to that second question is Stafford’s health. He rolled his ankle in the Week 9 loss to Tennessee, and has reportedly been dealing with chronic back pain that dates back to an injury he suffered in Detroit. That sounds like enough to affect one’s ability to throw a football, and Stafford has thrown his fair share of egregious misses over the last month. So there it is: The Rams just need to get Stafford healthy and everything will be back to normal.
Mystery solved! We’ve fixed the Rams. We can all go home now.
There’s just one problem with this theory: Stafford said Sunday that his play hasn’t been affected by the injuries, which I would ordinarily write off as tough-guy athlete speak if his accuracy rate hadn’t actually increased over the last month, per Sports Info Solutions. Or if he hadn’t made some unreal throws since suffering the ankle injury against the Titans, including this one late in that loss:
There are maybe three quarterbacks who can make that throw when healthy. Stafford’s health obviously isn’t perfect, but he seems to be doing just fine physically. The inconsistency in his play is simply emblematic of the quarterback we saw toiling in Detroit for the last decade. The Rams of course knew about Stafford’s imperfections heading into this, and the idea was that McVay’s tutelage would turn this talented-but-flawed quarterback into a top passer in the same way it turned a mediocre quarterback like Goff into a Pro Bowl level player.
So maybe it’s McVay who isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen his offense go careening off a cliff after a strong first half. It’s becoming a yearly tradition at this point.
rams offense under sean mcvay:— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) November 19, 2021
weeks 1-8: 0.11 (2nd)
weeks 9-17: 0.00 (19th)
seems to be a yearly issue where the offense regresses in the second-half of the season that is getting more attention this year because of the QB swap
Former Eagles analytics staffer Ryan Paganetti offered up his theory on why this happens seemingly every season.
they don’t run many plays on O and don’t seem to self scout tendencies as the season goes on. We beat them twice later in season when we had a really good idea of exactly what they were going to do #Rams https://t.co/cK9FbNLfsP— Ryan Paganetti (@PaganettiRyan) November 19, 2021
Given what we know about McVay’s offensive philosophy, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. The 35-year-old coach says his scheme has “the illusion of complexity.” The Rams do a lot before the snap—different formations and pre-snap motions—to hide the fact that they’re pretty simple after it. As Paganetti says, they just don’t have a large volume of staple concepts. But McVay does have a handful of counters that are designed to look exactly the same right up until it’s too late for the defense to adjust. Here’s former Rams assistant Jedd Fisch explaining the idea:
Arizona HC Jedd Fisch talking about his time with the Rams and how they married their run game to the pass. Should be interesting at Arizona, sounds like he's going to be running the McVay scheme in college football. https://t.co/t2zTVnGTJq pic.twitter.com/AtsI3V3ghJ— James Light (@JamesALight) June 11, 2021
This is where you ask, “Isn’t this why the Rams traded for Stafford? So McVay could open up the playbook and not have to rely on diversionary tactics?” It’s a great question, but one that has a complicated answer. In short: Yes, that’s why they traded for him. McVay needed a quarterback he could trust when defenses caught on to his tricks, but the plays Stafford now allows him to call—the dropback passing game from the gun—don’t necessarily mesh well with the “illusion of complexity” that helped McVay earn his reputation as a play-calling savant. McVay’s offense can be split into two: There’s the under-center offense with the condensed formations and the jet motions and all the play-action passes. Then there’s the shotgun offense, which is far more stagnant before the snap and far more straightforward after it. In the past, defenses have caught on to the more QB-friendly, under-center portion of the offense as the season progressed. This season, they’re catching on to the concepts Stafford’s arrival had unlocked.
This shows up in the numbers. During the losing streak, there has been only a slight dip in production for the Rams’ under-center offense. The drop-off is far more pronounced for their shotgun offense.
The Rams’ Struggle in the Gun
If we go even deeper, we find that defenses have pretty much taken away the deep shots that had made up a majority of Stafford’s explosive passes over the first two months. As The Ringer’s Ben Solak found after the 49ers loss, defenses had stopped blitzing Stafford, opting instead to drop into deeper zone coverages and forcing him to take shorter options underneath. As a result, Stafford’s average depth of target on shotgun passes has cratered even while his average time to throw has increased.
Stafford’s Shorter Passes From the Gun
|Time to throw
|Time to throw
It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing around the league. The Chiefs and Bills are the most notable examples, but those teams are seeing more two-high zone coverages as a counter to their deep passing concepts. Interestingly, defenses are taking the opposite approach with the Rams and dropping only one safety deep in the middle of the field and getting more bodies in the intermediate areas. That’s where Stafford was destroying defenses in September and October. He’s had no such luck in November, as you can see in his passing maps, via TruMedia:
Now, those second-level defenders are dropping deeper to get in the way of those throw windows, even if it means conceding the underneath throws. Stafford’s completions against single-high coverages have gotten shorter by the month:
Here’s how it looks on film. This first play is from the Rams’ Week 5 game in Seattle. They’re in a bunch formation, with two players running staggered crossing routes and the third running a stop route meant to draw a defender out of the intermediate area. Bobby Wagner takes the cheese:
Fast-forward to the Week 10 loss against San Francisco. McVay dials up the same exact play, only this time, 49ers linebacker Fred Warner leaves the stop route uncovered and lingers in the throwing window Stafford was hoping to hit:
It’s a lot easier to get defenders into throwing windows when you know what plays are coming. And that’s where the predictability of McVay’s play-calling has been an issue over the last few weeks. Sure, Stafford has been more reckless with the ball, and the offensive line isn’t blocking as well, but during this losing streak defenses have been all over the Rams’ plays. Even when the offensive line does its job, receivers aren’t getting open nearly as much as they had been. On some of these plays, it’s as if the defenses know what’s coming and even have Stafford’s primary option bracketed with two zone defenders. That’s not a coincidence.
Before we get to possible solutions, I just want to make one thing clear: I know very little about football compared to NFL coaches, and I don’t spend nearly as much time studying film and tendencies as they do. But if I, in just a couple of hours, can notice that when it’s third-and-medium and the Rams have the ball near their own 30-yard line, there’s a good chance McVay will call one particular play…
… it’s not surprising that the Packers coaching staff had their players prepared for it:
McVay deserves just as much blame for that pick-six as Stafford does.
I’m not qualified to prescribe a fix for what’s ailing the Rams offense right now, but McVay doing a better job of disguising his shotgun passing concepts might help Stafford get back to the level he was playing at a month ago. That “illusion of complexity” that has given teams fits when Los Angeles is under center might have a similar effect if McVay can replicate it in the gun. That’s obviously a lot harder to pull off in the heat of a playoff race, so we might have to wait until 2022 to see such changes implemented. In the meantime, McVay could always revert back to his pre-Stafford approach. I’m not saying he should put the dropback passing game back in that glass box, but dialing back its usage and finding a nice middle ground in between the 2021 offense and the 2017-2020 offense could be a temporary measure that gets this team back on track.
Given the recent track record of this offense, and the problems it’s had in the second half of seasons, this isn’t an unfamiliar spot for McVay to find himself in. But in past years, the Rams were still viewed as an up-and-coming team that had a few years to figure things out (or to find a better quarterback). That is no longer the case. Not after acquiring Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., who are both slated to hit free agency next March. The sense of urgency has never been greater for this regime, and another postseason failure might lead to some awkward questions for McVay. Namely: Was Goff the only person preventing this talented roster from realizing its potential?