The New England Patriots have faced some enormously talented offenses in the playoffs, and beaten them both. In the divisional round, the Patriots were able to slow down the Los Angeles Chargers and limit them to 28 points — most of which coming in garbage time. One week later, New England shut out the highest scoring offense in the league at the half. And even though the Kansas City Chiefs fought back, it was enough to keep the Patriots in a position to win.
Now, the team’s defense has to go up against its next challenge — and it won’t be much easier: a Los Angeles Rams offense that ranked third in the regular season in points scored with 30.9. To further get to know the unit, we spoke with Turf Show Times managing editor Joe McAtee about what makes it so dangerous a unit, and what New England has to look out for on Sunday coming from head coach Sean McVay.
“There are three big keys to what he’s done so far with the Rams offense: formation consistency, play action and jet motion,” said Joe about McVay, who also serves as the Rams’ offensive play caller. For the Patriots, the course of action is clear: they need to be ready for all three of them and react accordingly no matter how Los Angeles opts to use them in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“The Rams run their offense almost exclusively out of 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end and thus three wide receivers,” said Joe. “Because of that, there’s not a ton that defenses can glean in terms of what’s coming. Many teams use different formations that let the defense key on a run-pass decision. Empty backfield? Obviously a pass. And many formations around the NFL are largely run-heavy. The Rams just don’t use much outside of their base 11 personnel look which doesn’t tip their hand one way or the other.”
Los Angeles is almost exclusively an 11 personnel team. The favorite package run out of this package was used on 264 of a possible 1,248 snaps this season (21.2%) and brought onto the field no matter the situation. What makes it so hard to draw any definitive conclusions from personnel alone, however, is the versatility of the packages: out of its most-used group, L.A. attempted 134 passes compared to 130 runs.
This, of course, sets up play action opportunities for the offense and its quarterback Jared Goff. “The Rams used it in 2018 more than any other team,” said Joe about the misdirection concept. “They’re afforded that opportunity because of strong offensive line play that both protects Goff long enough to run it without pressure but also because they set up the run that helps sell the play action fake so well.”
The play action game is not the only use of misdirection, though, as Joe points out. “There’s the lateral motion,” he said. “Last year, it was just the standard usage for wide receiver Tavon Austin. After the Rams traded him to the Dallas Cowboys, many people thought the lateral action would move on with him. Instead, it’s been more productive since it hasn’t been tied to any one player let alone one who is so limited in his skill set.”
“The Rams have used the jet motion with every single position: running back, wide receiver, and even tight end,” continued Joe about a concept that the Patriots also regularly use with their wideouts Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson. “It’s mostly used with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, and I’d expect them to be the recipient of the motion on Sunday. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a shock target in motion on Sunday.”
The ground game, no matter if used through motion plays like the jet sweep, has generally been effective for L.A. this year. The team ranked as the best in the league when measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic — one that measures the success of a play compared to how other teams fared in equal situations. In 2018, the Rams had a run game DVOA of +22.1%. For comparison, New England’s defense came in at -7.0% mark (19th) versus the run during the regular season.
What makes the Los Angeles ground game so efficient? According to Joe, it’s simple: “Commitment first of all,” he said. “The Rams have been pretty good at employing the run early and often in games; when they haven’t and McVay has gotten too pass-happy, he’s been vocal about not wanting to repeat that.” Sticking to the ground game, however, is one thing — executing the run calls is something different.
“The offensive line has been stellar in the playoffs and really since week 16 has done well in opening things on the ground,” said Joe about the blocking up front. “While most would obviously immediately think of Todd Gurley here, it’s actually been C.J. Anderson who has been the primary recipient. With Gurley sitting out the final two regular season games with an inflamed knee, Anderson has been a revelation since the Rams added him to the roster after week 15.”
“Against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round, the Rams’ offensive line absolutely plowed the Cowboys’ defensive front,” Joe continued when breaking down the Los Angeles rushing attack in the postseason so far. “While Gurley impressed with 115 yards on 16 carries, it was Anderson’s 23 carries for 123 yards that really dominated the proceedings. A week later, the difference was even more pronounced.”
Gurley saw a career-low four carries against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game and finished with a mere 10 yards and one goal-line touchdown. “He was clearly not playing his best football,” said Joe. “How much of that was specifically the injured knee and how much was more the mental weight of trying to play with the injured knee is hard to tell, but the combination was undeniable. Gurley himself said he was playing horribly.”
“So in terms of what to expect [on Sunday], there’s a bit of an unknown,” he continued. “How close to 100% will Gurley be? Will he be able to run away from linebackers with his speed or is his third gear just gone until he has surgery to clean the knee out? How will affect him mentally? How does McVay balance Gurley’s availability with Anderson and his straightforward Mr. Plow-style running?”
“We’ve only had the two together for two games. With Gurley’s injury factor, it’s just impossible to really know what we’re going to get until we see it on Sunday,” said Joe. In case Gurley will not be able to go fully — even though he was not listed on the injury report this week — or limited in any other way, the Rams will use more of Anderson to attack the Patriots defense. However, they might also put more pressure on quarterback Jared Goff.
Goff is an interesting case. As we have pointed out before, his production has taken a step back over the second half of the season but he is still a player capable of lifting the entire offense up. The NFC Championship Game two weeks ago was the latest example of that: the third-year man may have had a rather pedestrian stat line but he led his team back from a 13-0 first quarter deficit to an overtime victory.
For the Rams writer, the reason for Goff’s statistical decline is two-fold. “First, the loss of wide receiver Cooper Kupp,” Joe said. “He tore his ACL in week 10, and I’m not sure the Rams had a full replacement on the books. That’s not a slight to the Rams; if anything, it’s a credit to Kupp and what he provided to Goff. He’s been a security blanket especially on short third down situations that is just hard to replace.”
“The Rams have elevated Josh Reynolds up the depth chart ladder while increasing the workload for the tight ends in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, but there was a reason Kupp had his role above them in the first place,” continued Joe about the personnel around Goff. The loss of Kupp, who averaged 5 catches and 70.8 yards during his eight games on the active roster, is not the only reason for the statistical decline, though.
“As for the second point, I’d preface it by noting that Goff is heavily reliant (and not anywhere near alone in this regard) on his offensive line play,” Joe said. “And with that being said, the offensive line’s pass blocking dipped precipitously coming out of the bye week in week 12. So while Goff’s production and play overall took a dip after the bye, I’d point to those factors first before laying them at Goff’s feet first.”
Joe then went on to take a look at the former first overall draft pick himself, and some of his weaknesses. “It’s clear what his biggest difficulty is at this point in his career in this system with this supporting cast: it’s just about protection,” he said. “When he’s afforded time, he can make throws that only the best quarterbacks in the league can make. And as some late plays against the New Orleans Saints showed, he can do that very quickly under duress.”
“But when he’s not, things can break down calamitously, and that speaks to his skill set,” continued Joe about a passer that has thrown 13 interceptions this season (compared to 34 touchdowns) and fumbled the football 16 times through 18 games. “He’s not a Russell Wilson/Aaron Rodgers/Patrick Mahomes type that can see things destruct and make something out of nothing.”
“But he can make the most something out of something. And that’s been good enough to get the Rams to this point.” For the Patriots, the plan therefore must involve making Goff feel uncomfortable. That is, of course, easier said than done but as New England’s performances against the Chargers and Chiefs — at least in the first halves — have shown, the defense certainly is capable of doing just that.