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Despite QB Flaws, Sean McVay's Rams Can Be NFL Playoff Nightmare

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 11, 2020

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (23), left, sprints with the ball during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

A quiet shift occurred in the NFL without many noticing. Everyone knows football at the highest level is a pass-first league. However, some of the team's most consistent winners this fall run the ball well and are built to control games. 

The Los Angeles Rams' 24-3 effort over the New England Patriots on Thursday is a prime example of how a team can evolve, starting with its head coach. 

Two seasons ago, nearly every franchise wanted to emulate the Rams' success.

McVay was the wunderkind coach who opened doors for every other young and promising offensive mind that showed a modicum of competency. The Rams made it all the way to Super Bowl LIII, where they met the Patriots, who won by being the more physical team. 

Despite the buzz about the Rams' high-flying offense and almost exclusive use of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), the team's offensive success really derived from a consistent offensive front and the scheme's base play, the inside zone run. 

The offense has never really been about Jared Goff despite his status as the 2016 No. 1 overall pick or his four-year, $134 million contract extension. The quarterback's role is relatively simple in McVay's scheme: Be a facilitator while playing efficient football. 

Statistically, Goff entered Thursday's contest with top-10 production in completion percentage (68.4) and passing yards (3,372). He's also tied for the league lead since the start of the 2019 campaign with 36 total turnovers

"We're not taking good enough care of the football, and that's something that's got to change," McVay told reporters after the Rams' 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the end of November. "Otherwise, I'm going to continue to sit up here and say this week in and week out. It just can't continue to happen."

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The little things lead to big plays or mistakes, which is exactly where Goff fails the Rams at times.

"It might be keeping two hands on the ball. It might be understanding that if somebody is swarming around you that you can't just throw it away when you don't see where you're going, being able to trust your guys to separate," McVay said. "He's capable of it."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Goff can be a streaky passer. When he's working in-rhythm as part of the offensive structure, he can be deadly, as seen last week with 351 passing yards against the Arizona Cardinals. But nine of the quarterback's 14 turnovers this season came in the Rams' four losses. 

The continued evolution found within the scheme better represents the talent on the roster and the best way for the Rams to win contests, capture a division crown and possibly make their way back to the Super Bowl. 

Los Angeles is a run-first team reliant on the play-action passing game. That's what separates it from most other squads. 

Few squads run the ball as effectively. The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints ranked ahead of Los Angeles in rushing offense prior to Thursday's contest, and they're all playing at a high level. The Patriots and Arizona Cardinals were also ahead of L.A., but in head-to-head matchups with the Rams over the last five days, they lost the rushing battle. 

Running the ball effectively, especially at the highest level, isn't simply about a commitment to the ground game or a willingness to bury an opponent. Scheme matters. For example, the Browns and Vikings impose their will through impressive outside zone attacks. 

The Rams have changed their approach over the years. They're still a heavy zone team, but the personnel on the field is different today. McVay's crew has morphed into a 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) monster. Two years ago, the team utilized 12 personnel on only 8 percent of its snaps, according to Sharp Football's Warren Sharp. That number grew to 21 percent a season ago.

Los Angeles entered Thursday's contest at a 24 percent usage rate and blew that number out of the water against the Patriots. McVay called 43 out of 61 plays out of 12 personnel, per the telecast. In fact, the Rams have far and away the highest percentage of using two-tight sets since Week 13 started, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Against the Patriots, they were more efficient working from that formation, too. 

Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are a capable duo and should be on the field together. Everett knew before the season began he'd see more snaps this year because of the new approach. 

"I feel like we serve as more than just safety blankets, especially on this offensive team," the fourth-year pro told reporters in September. "We block, we run, whatever we're asked to do, we're going to do it to our best capabilities, and we definitely take pride in that aspect, but just being at wherever we need to be for the team."

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

There's a different level of flexibility with more than one tight end on the field. They can play inline, spread out wide, move along the formation and give the defense all kinds of different looks. Both Higbee and Everett are capable receivers. They also help create opportunities for L.A.'s running backs, and rookie Cam Akers emerged as a potential bell cow after his latest performance. 

This year's 52nd overall pick set a season high for first-year backs with 171 rushing yardswhich is the most New England ever surrendered to a rookie ball-carrier. He's particularly adept at running the outside zone since he's gained twice as many yards outside the tackles than between them, per Next Gen Stats

Fantasy Points' Scott Barrett noted Akers' usage continues to grow, as he played 89 percent of the snaps Thursday. While Akers is deserving of more touches as the season progresses, Los Angeles is deep at the position with Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown.

A fresh set of legs continually running behind a solid offensive front—which could get veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth back by the end of the season despite suffering damage to an MCL and PCL three-and-a-half weeks ago—and wide receivers willing to sell out and block all day for their teammates make the Rams a tough matchup. 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

With a dominant defense as well, the Rams can be deadly. The Patriots managed only 220 yards. Los Angeles sacked New England quarterbacks six times and added 10 more hits. Linebacker Kenny Young scored on a pick-six as well. 

Difference-makers can be found at all three levels of the Rams defense. Aaron Donald is a complete game-wrecker, of course. His greatness can't be overstated. Edge defender Leonard Floyd has come into his own this season to provide Donald with a running mate. Young made plays all night. Jalen Ramsey can shut down opponents' top receivers. This unit came into the contest as the NFL's second-best defense for multiple reasons, all of which were on display Thursday.

"This year feels different," Young told reporters after the game. 

The Rams saw firsthand exactly what it takes to raise a Lombardi Trophy when the Patriots laid forth the template for a Super Bowl-winning team. A tried-and-true method is exactly how McVay and Co. can continue to claim victories through the rest of the regular season and be one of the most difficult teams to face in the postseason. 

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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