When the Rams traded for Matthew Stafford, it was a clear sign that head coach and offensive shot-caller Sean McVay wanted to redefine his offense with a quarterback who has the physical tools to do just about anything within the design of the offense. McVay had come to terms with Jared Goff’s limitations, and he wanted more.
“More” in this case amounted to a sea change in McVay’s overall philosophy. Gone were the heavy personnel packages, especially in the backfield. Gone was the Rams’ reliance on play-action and pre-snap motion. Gone were backfield personnel to a large degree. This season, the Rams have thrown the ball more out of empty formations than any other team, and it isn’t really close. Stafford has 119 dropbacks out of empty this season, and through the end of Week 11, Joe Burrow ranks second with 89.
Through the first eight weeks of the season, it certainly worked out for Stafford and the Rams. In those eight games, per Sports Info Solutions, Stafford completed 61 out of 86 passes in empty for 794 yards, 497 air yards, eight touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 125.8. The Rams were 7-1 in those games. But in the Rams’ last two games, blowout losses to the Titans and 49ers, Stafford completed 11 of 24 passes out of empty formations for 87 yards, 56 air yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 55.4. Passer rating is far from a perfect metric, but any time your passer rating drops that far situationally, that’s not good — and it’s time to dive into the reasons why.
Why have the Rams lost their spark with a concept that they used to dominate the league? As happens frequently with concepts of any stripe, the Rams are in the unfortunate position of having defenses figure out how to deal with what you like to do, and knowing how to attack it.
Defenses are attacking the Rams’ empty packages with aggressive coverage.
(AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
The NFL has become a quick-passing base league to a larger degree in recent years. The idea now is to get the ball out, get it distributed, and have your receivers go from there. One reason offensive coaches like the quick passing game, out of empty or not, is that no matter how good enemy edge rushers are, it’s tough for them to get home if the quarterback’s drop is 1-3 steps.
There are two ways to counter this. Get interior pressure in a hurry with talent and scheme (we’ll get to that in a minute), and do everything you can to disrupt the timing of the receivers’ routes with tight, aggressive coverage. The 49ers were all about this in Week 10. On this incomplete pass to running back Darrell Henderson [No. 27], the idea was for Henderson to move inside on the slant/wheel combo to present an easy opening to Stafford on the quick pass. You can see that San Francisco’s defense was plastering the Rams’ receivers across the formation, and the only guy playing off — safety Talanoa Hufanga [No. 29] — was doing so because his job was to read the slate, come down hard, and blow Henderson up the second the ball came to him.
Protection has been a problem.
(George Walker IV / Tennessean.com-USA TODAY NETWORK)
In 90 empty dropbacks from Weeks 1-8, Stafford was sacked twice, with 22 pressures. But in 29 empty dropbacks in Weeks 9 and 10, Stafford suffered four sacks and six pressures. Stafford completed 12 of 20 passes under pressure out of empty in Weeks 1-8 for 181 yards, 146 air yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 85.6. Pretty good under pressure no matter the formation. But in his last two games in empty under pressure, Stafford attempted two passes, completing none.
This is a serious problem, and the Titans were ready to exploit it in Week 9 with their front talent, and their ability to get pressure without blitzing. If you can’t protect in empty, and there is no help for your front five from anybody else on the field, your passing game is going to implode pretty quickly.
Tennessee’s front four was on Stafford from the start — there was a two-sack sequence starting with 12:35 left in the first quarter, and these sacks showed a lot about how the Titans are able to do what they do up front. Denico Autry (No. 96] had the first sack, and he just exploded through the line with an outstanding stunt.
Autry almost had the second sack as well — it really bears mentioning how much he’s added to this defense as a free-agent acquisition — but he overran Stafford, and tackle Jeffery Simmons [No. 98] was right there to pick it up when Stafford stepped up in the pocket to avoid Autry’s furious rush.
“There was a couple times where they did a good job being able to win some ISOs (isolations),” McVay said. “There were a couple where some late movements ended up coming free. Again, I think it goes back to the feel, the flow for a game, being able to allow our players to get into a rhythm and establish that, and really I don’t think I did nearly a good enough job of helping us do that.”
Losing Robert Woods is a massive blow.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
On the same day Odell Beckham Jr. arrived at the Rams’ complex, it was announced that receiver Robert Woods would be lost for the season with a torn ACL. Woods was the team’s primary motion receiver, the best blocker in the receiver room, and the primary receiver taking the ball on rushing attempts (eight attempts for 46 yards and a touchdown this season).
Woods was also the team’s second-most prolific receiver out of empty packages behind Cooper Kupp (who has 30 catches on 42 targets for 420 yards, 298 air yards, and five touchdowns out of empty this season) — Woods had 13 catches out of empty on 20 targets for 190 yards, 110 air yards, and a touchdown. Kupp caught just five of seven targets in Weeks 9-10 for 24 yards, and 13 air yards. Before he was hurt against the Titans’ formidable defense in Week 9, Woods [No. 2] caught three of Stafford’s six targets to him in empty for 44 yards, and on this 22-yard catch, he showed the kind of ability to get open in short spaces and make people miss downfield that’s hard to replicate.
More motion and formation diversity would help.
(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
McVay has always been a strong proponent of pre-snap motion, but it hasn’t been as much of a thing for the Rams this season. That probably has a lot to do with Stafford’s preferences — some quarterbacks prefer their offenses to be static pre-snap so that they can orchestrate post-snap with the look they register before they get the ball — but it’s not happened that much at all in empty. The Rams have run pre-snap motion on just three of Stafford’s dropbacks in empty, and while that makes sense if you’re getting a quick passing game together out of it, it also prevents Stafford from seeing matchups he can exploit.
You also don’t see a lot of potential defender displacement from bunch formations, with the route concepts you can get out of bunch. McVay’s empty packages aren’t really advanced spread — they’re more basic, and after a while, defenses will figure you out if you’re not throwing new and different complexities at them. No matter how great your personnel is.
Make empty a side, not a staple.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
The problem with building the entire plane out of the black box, so to speak, is that you need more components than the black box has. Even teams that are more effective in no-huddle tend to shy away from running it all the time because if you’re not getting consistent drive efficiency, those drives are going to end very quickly, and the result will be a very tired and frustrated defense. That’s true of any “magic elixir” coaches may come up with.
In the case of the Rams, there are still opportunities to be had out of empty. And Odell Beckham Jr., who caught five passes on six targets in empty for the Browns this season for 84 yards, 65 air yards, and a touchdown, can certainly be part of that when he’s up to speed on his new responsibilities.
But at its core, the Rams’ offense is a multi-dimensional beast when it’s working the right way. And now, it’s time for McVay and Stafford to agree on a way forward that has empty formations as a part of the offense, but not the guiding light in the passing game. Because that light has been decidedly dimmed, which means that McVay has to do what all great coaches do:
Adjust to the new normal when the NFL has your number.