There were high hopes for the 2019 Los Angeles Rams after they finished last season second in offensive DVOA. As good as the Rams were on offense last season, they showed signs of struggle later in the season as teams figured out how to stop their run game. Their year eventually ended with an ugly offensive performance in the Super Bowl that resulted in a loss to the Patriots.
The entire football world thought the low-impact end to the season was a wakeup call for the Rams and head coach Sean McVay would adjust his offense to fix some of the issues. The issues weren’t complicated, but they’re tough to fix because it required an identity change for the Rams.
How the offense excelled in McVay’s first two years — and how defenses started to counter
The Rams’ success on offense relies on play-action passes and running the football. More importantly, as we’ve seen this season and in the Super Bowl, the design of the offense is to keep it out of third-and-long. Jared Goff can throw a beautiful deep ball, and play-action passes allow him to launch passes and find open windows with wide receivers who can run after the catch. When Goff is put into third-and-long situations, the offense struggles — which makes early-down runs so important.
The Rams’ ground game is simple by design. It’s built off zone concepts with a ton of window dressing. The Rams had majored in all three zone schemes: inside, mid-zone. and outside. They used motions, fake jet sweeps, tight end slides, and various techniques to give linebackers plenty to look at as they handed the ball off to Todd Gurley. If the linebackers hesitated for a second, the hole was huge. The Rams often ran the ball out of 11 personnel to force defenses to use fewer defenders in the box.
The zone concept requires offensive linemen who are quick off the ball and excellent with their hands and hips. They often have one-on-one blocks and must move the defender at an angle so the running back has a clear picture of where to hit the hole. The reason for the quickness off the ball and immediate placement of the hands is that penetration by a defender can ruin a zone rushing concept.
Running backs during an inside zone play must press the line of scrimmage so they set up their blocking. When the blocking is in place, they make their move. For inside zone, the cut is typically behind the double-team block, often in the backside A gap:
On outside zone, it’s a “one cut” and go. I broke down an outside zone concept with this video here:
If there is penetration, the running back is forced to make his cut back early and the timing of the run is off. The line is then out of position and when the backside defensive end isn’t blocked on outside zone, he can run the play down from behind.
The Rams had matched their offensive linemen to their zone concept, but had to replace their left guard and center this season. As a result, the entire unit is struggling with run blocking.
Opposing teams started to counter with a “6-1” defense to stop the zone rushing attack. A 6-1 defense is essentially six defenders on the line of scrimmage, either at the snap or by design of the defense.
The reason this style of defense works so often against this kind of rushing attack is:
a) the defenders often start in a position of leverage over the offensive linemen, and
b) because of that leverage, they can get penetration up the field, which again causes the running back to cut back sooner than he wanted.
How the Rams have started to adjust their run scheme
For weeks, it seemed the Rams were not going to change their run game. Instead of going more sideways, or horizontal, the Rams needed to be going forward, or vertical. They needed to build in more double-teams so their linemen didn’t have as many one-on-one blocks. The answer for this is often gap scheme runs, or runs that appear to be blocked like a gap scheme (I’ll get to that later).
In Week 10 against the Steelers, the Rams started to run more duo. Duo is “power without a puller.” You find as many double-teams as possible and move up the field.
Here’s a look at duo:
After the trial run against the Steelers, the Rams went full gap scheme blocking against the Bears in Week 11 — and it worked! It was awesome to watch.
It started early with two run plays. They ran a zone wind back on the first play that looked awfully similar to duo blocking, but it wasn’t. They were building in double-teams on the front side of a run with no one-on-one blocking.
Look at these blocks — moving guys off the ball!
The very next drive, they went with duo and Gurley ripped off a huge run. It looked close to zone wind back, but it wasn’t. And again, they were building in double-teams.
That’s bullying the defense — creating big holes for the back to run downhill.
Lastly in this game, the Rams ran a lead draw. This must be the first time they’ve run a draw play since McVay has been in charge. They require a lead blocker, and the Rams don’t have a fullback on the roster. So they put a tight end in there to get the job done.
As you can see, these runs are all in the first quarter, and the Bears adjusted as the Rams attempted them over and over again.
As the Rams get more comfortable in adding these new run schemes to the game plan, I think they will start running the ball better. That will make the entire offense settle down and can lead to shorter third-down opportunities for the offense. Which, in turn, will bring back the dynamic LA offense of old — the one that got the Rams to the postseason each of the past two seasons.