The defense put a hurting on a bad offense last week, but faces almost the polar opposite this week. The Rams throw many different things at a defense — pretty much exclusively out of the same 11 personnel. That means coordinators aren’t able to key on specific players or personnel, and with the Rams showing so many looks from so few alignments, defensive coordinators have their work cut out for them.
Because of the number of ways Sean McVay’s offense can attack the opposition, this week’s post will be light on the personnel coverage, and heavy on the schematic side.
So let’s talk a little personnel and get to the meat and potatoes of this week’s matchup against the Rams offense!
The Rams offense
Quarterback Jared Goff — now in his thrid season — leads the Rams offense. He’s already over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. He takes good care of the ball, too — having thrown just six interceptions so far. He’s an accurate quarterback that likes to throw the deep ball, and he typically avoids risky throws.
At running back, the Rams get to line up the best running back in the league: Todd Gurley. In his second year under McVay, Gurley is on pace for another year of over 2000 total yards and 19+ touchdowns. He’s fast, he’s strong and he’s agile. He’s just 100 percent ridiculous.
At wide receiver, the Rams just took a bit of a hit when they lost Cooper Kupp for the season. Despite missing some time, he had accounted for 20 percent of the Rams’ passing targets this season. He’ll be a huge loss. The Rams will try to replace with Josh Reynolds. Brandin Cooks is a good route runner and deep threat, and Robert Woods is a very good possession receiver that’s great with the ball in his hands. Tight end is the only position where the Rams regularly swap out personnel, with both Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett getting plenty of looks in the offense.
The Rams offensive line is quite good, ranking first in the league in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards formula. The interior of Roger Saffold, John Sullivan and Austin Blythe has paved the way to a league-best 5.5 ALY up the middle. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is one of the best in the league, and the Rams rank first in runs to the left side of the line. Meanwhile, right tackle Rob Havenstein — along with the Chiefs’ very own Mitchell Schwartz — is among the best in the league. Havenstein hasn’t been penalized even once this season.
How to defend
Routes against single-high safety coverages
Rams read man due to pre-snap motion. NO shifts late to C1, and Cooks is able to fight through the jam. At 10 yards, he opens his hips to sell a post route to the safety, then cuts to the corner route. The safety can't get to the numbers to defend the pass. pic.twitter.com/AiVZ6n36u5— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 15, 2018
The Chiefs defense runs single high safety looks — Cover 1 or Cover 3 — roughly 72 percent of the time they see 11 personnel in the passing game. That includes end-of-the-game prevent defenses and soft zones on long down and distance situations. Unless Bob Sutton throws a change-up this week — similar to the Cincinnati Bengals game — we should expect to see a lot of single high again this week.
While the Rams are good attacking any coverage shell, they do an excellent job with finding space against middle of the field closed looks. In this play, the Rams motion across the formation and find that the defense is in man coverage. Off the snap, the boundary safety spins down as a robber and the defense is in a Cover 1 shell.
Cooks does well to beat the press routing him inside, and as he approaches the 10-yard mark in his route, he opens his hips like he’s running a post route across the face of the deep safety. That holds the deep safety inside, and Cooks makes a cut to the corner route. The opening is there for a deep throw to the corner, and Goff is able to hit it.
Great route combinations to beat C3, with a beautiful out and up by Kupp out of empty. The Strong #1 runs a 9 to clear the deep zoen, and the tight end runs an out to occupy the underneath defender. Coverage scheme can't account for Kupp's route, and it's easy yardage. pic.twitter.com/Ad83AjO0A4— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 15, 2018
This is just a fantastic call against Cover 3. The strong side number one runs a 9 route, which occupies the cornerback in his deep-third zone. The tight end chips the rush, then runs an out route, which occupies the underneath zone defender. Kupp runs an up-and-out, and due to the route distribution, doesn’t have anyone covering him.
If the apex defender underneath had gotten more depth to track Kupp’s route and the hook had tracked the tight end’s out route, the weak-side number one coming across the formation would have come open with room to run. Even though Kupp is out, this is a play that any member of the Rams receiving corps can — and will — run.
If the Chiefs want to stay in their single high looks this week, running Sutton’s Cover 3 match concepts might prove effective. Bailing to the deep third helps protect against the Cover 1 corner route shown above, and the match ability underneath would be able to track those route distributions that would otherwise find space in the Cover 3 seams. Sutton has done that often enough this season that we just might see a heavy dosage of it this week.
Rub routes/pick plays
The Rams will run pick plays out of pretty much every alignment. Kupp lines up as an H-Back\, and LA has him run a flat. The defense is in man, and the slot WR runs a slant to pick Kupp's defender. The outside WR runs a clearout and Kupp turns on the jets to the endzone. pic.twitter.com/jDPcxwwoyj— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 16, 2018
One of the benefits of running condensed formations and bunches is the ability to create traffic that produce natural screens with route distributions. The Rams do it often — and to great effect — out of their tight bunches. Since the receivers are lined up so tight to the tackle box, crossing routes through the middle of the field against man coverage result in defenders having to fight through hook defenders while trying to track the Rams’ explosive receiving corps.
But it’s not just out of trips that the Rams run these pick routes. As shown here, they throw them out of just about every alignment they can. With Kupp lined up as an H-back, the Rams kick him out into the flat against Cover 1. As the defense is in man, Cooks runs a deep clear-out, and Woods runs a slant to pick the defensive back covering Kupp. Kupp is into space with the ball in his hands, and all he has to do is turn on the jets to get to the end zone.
It is absolutely paramount that the Chiefs switch or banjo this week. Even though the Chiefs implemented it regularly last year, Sutton hasn’t shown much of it this year. We saw last week that the Chiefs’ inability to switch cost them a touchdown against David Johnson and the Cardinals. That will cost them yardage and touchdowns if they’re unable to make that adjustment this week.
McVay is an absolute wizard at getting players open and making easier reads for Goff — regardless of who the receiver is on the other end. If the Chiefs aren’t able to switch and transition coverage out of these rub routes, they’ll be playing right into the Rams game plan.
The Rams love to run jet sweeps out of condensed formations. Motioning to the short side of the field, Cooks is able to take advantage of a compressed defense and good blocking by the wide receivers, using his speed to get to the edge for a TD. pic.twitter.com/YNDUTGvLr3— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 16, 2018
McVay loves to run jet sweeps. Expect five or six handoffs to Rams receivers throughout the course of Monday night’s game. What makes them more dangerous is that they run them out of condensed formations, which keeps the defense compressed.
On this play, Cooks motions to the short side of the field, making it a 2x2 alignment. The defense is in a 3-3 formation and has a single high safety with a box safety over the tight end on Cooks’ side of the field. Cooks runs the sweep and clears the play side edge, and he’s got the entire field to use his speed and get to the pylon before the two defensive backs can get off their blocks to pursue the ball carrier.
The Rams run so many jet sweeps that defenses have to respect every jet motion. And they run jet sweeps to just about every wide receiver on the roster. With a back like Gurley, it’s hard to commit to defending the jet sweep, as the Rams will absolutely prey on hesitation by the linebackers — especially if the defense is in the Chiefs’ preferred single high formations. Here, McVay took advantage of a tendency to play a box safety over the tight end — like the Chiefs do regularly — to shift the balance of the run defense away from the jet sweep.
The Chiefs are going to have to commit to stopping Gurley, so the force defenders out of these alignments are going to have to step up to make the stop, or prevent the receivers from using their speed in the open field. The Chiefs defensive backs and edge rushers will have to be very conscious of their keys and close quickly to turn these run plays back inside or make the stop.
Misdirection out of similar alignments
Part of what makes the Rams so difficult to defend is their ability to run so many looks out of the same alignment. Here, the 1st play gains 9 on Gurley running over the bunch with Woods on the end around. The 2nd is a toss sweep w/ the same alignment on a toss on the end around. pic.twitter.com/kgVIsUvWSa— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 16, 2018
The reason why the Rams offense is so difficult to defend is that they run largely similar alignments for the majority of the game, but will show a great many looks out of those alignments. For a defense, identifying a tendency pre-snap from McVay’s offense is nearly impossible.
Shown above are two plays from two consecutive drives by the Rams offense. In both, the Rams are lined up in a tight 3x1 alignment. The first shows Woods on an end around action, but the Rams hand the ball off to Gurley for a gain of nine while running at the bunch. The back-side linebacker is frozen due to the end around action, and he’s unable to attack Gurley. On the second play, the Rams run a toss end around, with Gurley and Woods overlapping at the toss angle. This freezes the strong side linebackers, and it puts Woods in space on the run with a linebacker to beat.
The Rams will build on these concepts — out of the same alignments and motions — throughout the course of the game. It’s up to the defense to stay sound in their assignments, and try to limit the damage when the Rams do implement misdirection. The defense will have opportunities to bring down the ball carrier in space if they stay true to their assignments against these misdirections — they just have to make sure they tackle securely to bring down the player and limit the yardage.
Goff under pressure
As good as Goff is when he's in rhythm, he panics when he's off his spot. This Rams OL doesn't allow much pressure, but Whitworth gets beat inside after oversetting. Goff panics, turns his back to the field, and runs into more pressure. He chucks an underhand pass to space. pic.twitter.com/AkcEoStYDs— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 16, 2018
One of the few weaknesses of the Rams offense is Goff’s inability to be effective outside the pocket. While that’s true of any quarterback, Goff is especially poor when he’s pushed off his spot and his rhythm is broken.
The Rams offensive line is very good, but Whitworth was still beaten inside a couple of times last week against the Seattle Seahawks. On this play, he oversets, and the rusher is able to cut back underneath the defender with an inside rip. Goff hasn’t even hit the top of his drop before the rush flashes across his face. He panics and turns his back to the field, running into more pressure by the defensive tackle. As he’s being brought down, he spins and chucks an underhand pass into space.
As shown in these examples, the Rams implement lots of five- and seven-step drops to allow longer-developing routes to get open. Goff needs time to see these routes develop and to be able to hit the windows they create. While the Rams will chip the Chiefs’ pass rushers with their tight ends, running backs and slot receivers, Dee Ford and Justin Houston should be able to find some minimal success with a good plan that sets up outside rushes with power counters. If Chris Jones can continue his high rate of play, Goff will abandon the play and make very ill-advised decisions.
The bottom line
We’re 2,000 words into this week’s post, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what the Rams do on offense. Hell, I’ve barely mentioned all-world running back Todd Gurley when going over the things McVay does schematically.
Gurley is going to get his, there’s no doubt. The Chiefs struggle to stop the run even without the window dressing that McVay puts on the run game — never mind the quality blocking that he’ll receive from a very good offensive line. I fully expect Gurley to have a day similar to or better than the one that David Johnson had last weekend against the Chiefs. He’s just too good to be held to less than that by this Chiefs defense.
The real question is if the Chiefs can keep the rest of the weapons on this defense in check. Leaning on their match coverages and switching out of picks and rubs will help nullify a lot of the Rams short passing game, as well as help protect against those routes attacking the Chiefs single-high looks. That extra split second that Goff may have to hold onto the ball might be the difference between Cooks with the ball in space and Goff running panicked out of the pocket.
We can’t pretend that Sutton is going to scheme a low-scoring game this week based on what we’ve seen in the 2018 season. The Rams are too explosive, dynamic, and well coached to really shut them down. However, if Sutton can get his players to stay assignment-sound on early downs against the Rams run game, the Chiefs might be able to force a few third-and-longs on Monday night — a spot where the Chiefs defense is having a nearly 70 percent success rate.
This game has a high likelihood of being a shootout, so getting a small handful of stops may be all that’s needed to win against one of the best offenses in the NFL. If Sutton throws a couple of wrenches in the mix against this Rams team, we might see just that.
And if this Chiefs defense holds the Rams under 28 points this week? We’re throwing a party in Bob Sutton’s honor.