Matthew Stafford has unlocked the most advanced version of the Rams offense yet

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

In January 2021, less than two years after torching the NFL with one of the best offenses in recent memory, the Los Angeles Rams hit a crossroad with their offense, head coach and starting quarterback. The Rams offense — which so recently felt fresh and dynamic, with its full commitment to three-wide-receiver looks, varying tempos and heavy use of motion on every snap — had started to feel tight, stagnant and claustrophobic.

The zone-heavy run started to get stonewalled by adjusting defensive coordinators running special game-planned fronts to nullify the Rams’ ground game. The passing game that featured Jared Goff faking runs before firing deep route after deep route to Brandin Cooks or another ball across the middle to Cooper Kupp or Robert Woods was starting to be solved by safeties who started to see the passing concepts more frequently.

But a divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 2020 season, as well as several stretches of a plateauing offense, led to a hard pivot from the Rams. They searched for a way to lift their offense when the run game hit a wall because of mediocre line or running back play. They needed a way to bail the offense out when defenses did anticipate the play.

This search for an answer led to a blockbuster trade between the Rams and Detroit Lions, who joined the party by swapping former No. 1 overall draft picks in a league-wide turning point that turned into launching points for two eras for their respective franchises. The Lions under head coach Dan Campbell began a rebuild with Goff as their steady hand to guide the offense, while Matthew Stafford was the final something to put the Rams over the top when defenses clamped down on their preferred play-action-heavy passing attack under head coach Sean McVay.

The Rams won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2021 season, essentially one full year from when they pulled the trigger on the Goff-Stafford (and picks) swap. Meanwhile, the Lions began their ascent into one of the NFL’s best turnaround stories in quite some time with Campbell and Goff at the helm. It culminated this season with the Lions’ first division title in three decades and a dozen wins on their way to earning the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

Inglewood, CA - December 03:  Quarterback Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams talks with head coach Sean McVay # of the Los Angeles Rams in the second half of a NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Sunday, December 3, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

The Rams offense has evolved since Sean McVay’s early days as head coach, and it has everything to do with the 2021 blockbuster trade that brought quarterback Matthew Stafford to town. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

And because the sports gods have a sense of humor, in the first home Lions playoff game in 30 years, that very same Stafford-led Rams team happens to be the wild-card opponent, as the teams meet Sunday night at Ford Field. In this week’s edition of The Overhang, we’ll look at how the Rams built their offense around Stafford and why it’s working so well.

The Lions offense with Goff, which is one of the league’s best under offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, is led by a strong run game spearheaded by a strong offensive line that includes All-Pro candidates in center Frank Ragnow and right tackle Penei Sewell and a classic thunder-and-lightning running back pairing in David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. They also feature an explosive pass-catching group that has a similar thunder-and-lightning feel, with the speedy Jameson Williams and hyper-efficient Amon-Ra St. Brown in their wide receiver room, as well as the world’s most psychedelic (and hopefully healthy) security blanket, rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, winning seemingly everywhere across the formation.

The Lions’ offensive formula, perhaps fittingly, is much like those Goff-led Rams teams: constantly peppering the run game and hitting defenses over the top off of play-action concepts and shot plays, with Goff firing over the middle like he’s still a Cal Golden Bear.

In a twist on the past, the Lions entered this season seen as an actual contender, flipping the script of expectations with the Rams. The Lions’ offensive success this year feels almost expected — they ranked in the top five in yards per play, success rate, EPA per play and weighted offensive DVOA in 2022, returned all their major players and, sure enough, rank in the top seven in all of the same categories this season — and Johnson is seen as one of the top head-coaching candidates as we enter the silly season. Campbell could win NFL Coach of the Year. Three Lions offensive players were named to the Pro Bowl, and another five were named alternates.

Those former champion Rams? Still with Stafford, Kupp, Aaron Donald and McVay, they seemed like an afterthought in 2023. They were a former heavyweight that ended their contendership era with a flourish and now must deal with the reality of those missing draft picks and life in the salary-cap margins.

With sports books projecting a total of 6.5 wins in a division featuring a Super Bowl favorite and another playoff hopeful, the Rams were seen more as a curiosity than a playoff contender. They were a sideshow attraction featuring throws from an aging gunslinger and a couple of cool play designs from a coach with one eye on the announcer’s booth and the other eye on his collection of rookies and former Day 3 draft picks littered throughout the Rams roster.

But that very same Rams offense also features:

  • A revamped offensive line that starts two former undrafted free agents and no former first-round selections among its ranks.

  • A 194-pound, former fifth-round selection at running back who entered the season with 35 carries to his name.

  • A rookie wide receiver who was also a fifth-round selection and barely cracked a 4.6 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

  • Another wide receiver who looks more like an MLS winger than an NFL player.

  • Cooper Kupp out for the first chunk of the season due to a hamstring injury.

Yes, that group finished among the upper echelon of NFL offenses in 2023. The Rams’ 5.6 yards per play was tied for sixth with the Dallas Cowboys. Their 43.4% offensive success rate was eighth, a few good plays behind the Lions. They ranked fourth in weighted offensive DVOA, three spots ahead of the Lions offense.

Those former fifth-round selections, second-year running back Kyren Williams and rookie receiver Puka Nacua? Both ended up being named to this year’s Pro Bowl, with both having cases to make this season’s All-Pro team. They are two of the main characters of this Rams renaissance. Their versatile play, especially when grouped with the Rams’ original skeleton key, Kupp, has led to a devastating offensive assault in Los Angeles.

On the 386 plays for which Stafford, Kupp, Nacua and Williams have been on the field together this season, the Rams go from a “very good” offense to the top offense in the NFL — and one that operates at an all-time clip. On those 386 plays, the Rams average .18 EPA per play, which easily ranks first this season and would be tied for the ninth-highest mark since the 2000 season. Yes, it’s less than half of the plays that a typical NFL offense would run in a given year, but it’s still a chunky sample size, and the offenses the Rams would be tied with are notable! There’s the 2010 and 2011 Patriots, the 2016 Falcons, the 2006 Colts and an offense I have a personal affection for, the 2004 Vikings.

The beauty of this year’s Rams offense is that it’s a merger between the first year of Stafford in Los Angeles and the run-first game plans that were the crux of the offense the Rams used during the years with Goff and Todd Gurley. A slight tweak in the run game formula is the final sprinkling.

The Rams in 2021 featured an empty backfield-laden attack that spread the formation out and allowed Stafford to operate as essentially an Air Raid-type quarterback, spreading and shredding defenses for chunks at a time:

The Rams still love to spread defenses out and let Stafford go to work when there are looks for it. In fact, they have leaned away from using as much play-action and instead let Stafford scan the defense and determine his best course of action (which usually involves lots and lots of no-look trick shots). In fact, 71.4% of Stafford’s dropbacks this year were non-screens or did not feature play-action, fourth-highest among qualifying quarterbacks and a notable uptick from 2021’s rate of 65.4%. It’s also in a different stratosphere than Goff’s last season with the Rams in 2020: 56.3%, which would rank 31st when compared to 2023 rates. (Disclaimer: All stats from here on out are filtered with either Goff or Stafford at quarterback for the Rams in their respective seasons.)

This isn’t just quick game, either. The Rams use Stafford on deep dropbacks with full-field concepts that give the veteran answers against all possible coverages:

The Rams have used five- or seven-step dropback footwork (with no play-action) on 139 dropbacks this season, which ranks sixth. In Goff’s 2020 season, the Rams used five- or seven-step dropback footwork on a whopping 36 dropbacks, 29th in the league that year.

Stafford pushes the ball on these concepts, too. To wit, 11.3% of his pass attempts this season traveled 20 more yards in the air, a higher mark than in any Goff season.

Here is Stafford’a heat map this season when Williams, Kupp and Nacua are all on the field:

Matthew Stafford heat map.

Source: TruMedia

It’s not that the Rams don’t use play-action concepts anymore; there just has been a deemphasis on using them. They’ve instead started using straight dropback concepts, especially ones that attack farther down the field, like on true five- and seven-step dropbacks (the depth of the dropback is correlated to the depth of the route concepts and also, understandably, the type of protection used). These plays are especially great for the Rams for a couple of reasons: One, they highlight Stafford’s strengths at the quarterback position, which is to find and fire throws wherever needed with his arm talent and ability to operate from the pocket.

And two, they’re one of the best (but also most difficult to consistently do, hence, Stafford) ways to attack defenses, especially modern defenses that like to run just about every type of coverage under the sun. These plays can pick up yards in a hurry, which means first downs in a hurry, which means points in a hurry. Give a quarterback such as Stafford an answer to get to, even if it isn’t the easiest, and good things will happen.

The difference between that Texas Tech-like offense from the Rams’ Super Bowl year to now is that the Rams’ run game has been reinvigorated to match the aerial assault.

The Rams ran the ball on 40.3% of their first- and second-down snaps with Stafford at quarterback in 2021, a figure that ranked 25th in the NFL that season and a dip from the 43% rate in previous Rams seasons with Goff at quarterback.

This season? That early down rate has bumped up to 45.5%, which would rank 12th in the NFL. That 45.5% rate is higher than every season under McVay besides one (2017, his first year and the season following Goff’s infamous rookie campaign). It’s not just the volume that has made this offense feel more like McVay’s initial Rams teams. They have been running over people on the ground again. They not only have an above-average run rate when those same four Rams players are on the field; they are also an all-time force on the ground. With a .16 EPA per designed rush, that group is tied for first among all NFL offensive seasons since 2000. First! And one of the offenses it would be tied with is the 2011 Carolina Panthers, featuring rookie Cam Newton. Stafford isn’t quite the same threat as a young Newton with his legs.

Even without that ideal personnel, this Rams run game averages .06 EPA per designed run, the highest mark by a Rams offense since that iconic 2018 season.

Why that personnel is so important is because of how McVay deploys Nacua and Kupp. Out of similar formations on every snap, both can motion to and from their tight formation alignments. Both can be used as receivers, rushers or blockers, with the presentation looking exactly the same for defenders. This rushing attack was highlighted on the opening drive against the fantastic Ravens defense in Week 14. Make sure to watch Nacua (No. 17) and Kupp (No. 10) before and after each snap and how similar each formation ends up looking:

The use of motion in the run game has always been a thing for Rams offenses under McVay. While others pioneered the use of jet motion (shoutout to the Rodgers brothers and their Oregon State teams under Mike Riley), those Rams offenses under McVay fully leaned into it and featured a bevy of wide receivers in motion to confuse defenses at the snap of the ball.

They still put their wide receivers in motion, but this year’s Rams have been on the forefront of using their tight end in motion to help spring the run game (and other plays), which other offenses throughout the league are also starting to use.

There’s the use of motion and the skill set of the Rams players, but McVay has also started to make his former fastball, the zone run concept, into more of a secondary pitch. Moving away from his trademark zone-heavy run scheme, he has evolved into one that is balanced among several concepts.

In 2023, the duo run concept, a former auxiliary run play for the Rams, has become a main player. In both the above tweet featuring runs against the Ravens and the one below against the Cardinals, you can see the Rams alternating between these zone and duo run concepts:

A trademark of this offense has been to make their main plays look as similar as possible, making each snap a game of rock, paper, scissors for defenses to try to figure out. By going from zone to duo as the main crux of this run game, and to keep this analogy going, the Rams have started to throw rock more and more.

Duo is a vertical run concept that attempts to create as many double-teams as possible. Nacua (and Kupp, and previously Woods) help unlock this play with their respective blocking abilities. Because of the Rams’ preference for using three wide receivers, one of those receivers has to be willing to scrap in the run game to help open up the menu of possible plays to run. The duo run concept in particular often features that wide receiver at the point of attack blocking a defensive back. The intelligence of the Rams offense is how they add motion tweaks to help their players and create more advantageous looks.

For instance, against the Cardinals, the Rams put Nacua on a motion to insert on his block from the opposite side of the formation:

Rams vs. Cardinals.

The Rams use receivers such as Puka Nacua in motion to create advantageous blocking angles.

Then, when compared to the zone plays on that same drive, you can see how the formation and motion look the same to the defense, but the angles of attack change for the Rams:

Rams vs. Cardinals.

A similar formation features a completely different run play.

The Rams ran zone run concepts nearly 25 times per game in 2018 and 21 times per game in 2020, ranking first and second in their respective seasons (and averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per clip in 2018).

In 2023, that number dropped to about 11 zone run concepts per game, 28th in the NFL. They’re still efficient when they do run zone concepts (see the videos above), but the volume has dropped by more than half. Other run concepts have filled the void, but the duo run concept has seen an uptick in usage, from 30 times in the 2020 season to 100 in 2023. And they bludgeon defenses on this concept, with a rushing success rate of 56% (for comparison, the league average rushing success rate on all run concepts in 2023 is around 35%).

The increase in duo use ties in perfectly as the yang to the zone run’s yin. Zone runs want to start horizontally for the running back to then plant his foot and attack vertically, while duo runs want to start vertically for the running back to then attack horizontally (or more vertically, if it’s possible). Duo runs, much like those deeper passing concepts I talked about before, also have answers to a wide variety of defensive looks. Some are better than others, but they’re still answers. Zone plays can have weaknesses against certain defenses and be rendered unblockable, either from a bad number count in the box or bad angles for double-teams.

Those bad angles are what happened to the Rams offense at the end 2018 season, which began the initial Goff-McVay friction. Vic Fangio, Bill Belichick and other defensive coordinators started aligning defenders across the line of scrimmage to hinder the Rams’ blocking angles, creating “6-1” fronts that took away the foundation on which the offense was built. It’s something that carried over to the following season:

Rams vs. Saints.

The Rams’ run game started to struggle a few years ago, when opponents began loading up defenders on the line of scrimmage.

Taking away the zone run and the bootleg and play-action concepts tied to it created a dropback-heavy world for the Rams that eventually led to the Goff-Stafford trade. The offense you see from the Rams today is basically McVay running the most defense-proof type of system. The scarring of what those veteran coordinators did to that high-flying offense created a run game with answers to any defensive front or box count and a pass game with answers to any type of defensive coverage or blitz. It’s made possible by a quarterback willing and able to rip the difficult throws needed to make that type of passing game viable while having the intelligence to get through the play menu McVay presents on a given snap.

One last little tweak the Rams have used this year is the pistol alignment, with Stafford four yards from the center and the running back aligned directly behind him. In McVay’s first six seasons as head coach, the Rams didn’t use a single snap of pistol. This year, they’ve used it 96 times on first and second down, the fifth-most snaps in the NFL. Sixty-nine of those 96 snaps (71.9%) came after the Rams’ Week 10 bye, making it something the Rams obviously wanted to start leaning into after they self-evaluated during their time off.

The pistol formation, the midway between shotgun and under center, is a perfect microcosm of the two worlds this Rams offense has merged. Stafford can align away from the center, with space to scan what’s going on, and the running back’s alignment can be hidden from the defense.

The benefit of being in a pistol alignment is that it aligns the running back into a “home” or “neutral” position directly behind the quarterback, as opposed to an offset position to either side of the quarterback. By not aligning to a particular side, the running back limits any potential tells or tendencies that an offense might have. There might be certain run concepts an offense employs with the running back toward or away from the tight end, which allows defenders to narrow their focus to what the offense is likely to do. A neutral-aligned running back does not give any of those formation “strength” indicators.

Or, against a particularly aggressive defensive coordinator, such as Wink Martindale, formerly of the New York Giants, the pistol hides the alignment of the running back for the defense to key their blitzes. It is harder to guess where an offensive line is working (since they are typically working in unison with the running back) for their protection slides, which gets the defenses guessing their best path of least resistance, as opposed to truly being in attack mode and overwhelming an offensive look.

Against the blitz-happy Martindale in Week 17, the Rams aligned in pistol 11 times on early downs, with nine resulting in efficient gains.

Pistol and motion are great ways to defang an aggressive defensive coordinator, which matters when going against a defense such as the Lions. Because the Lions defense made their own post-bye-week adjustment: Coordinator Aaron Glenn put on his blitzing cap. The Lions went from blitzing at the 17th-highest rate in the first half of the season to the fourth-highest rate and are currently blitzing at a 35.2% clip on third and fourth down, the second-highest behind only the aforementioned Giants.

The Lions defense will also be an interesting matchup for this Rams unit. Because while this Lions unit still ranks just 24th in combined explosive and successful play rate since their bye week, they rank ninth in success rate defending the run against three-wide-receiver personnel groupings. That’s what the Rams run almost exclusively (more than 95% of their snaps). But in the Rams’ favor, the Lions are pretty poor in defending the duo run concept, allowing the fourth-most EPA per play against it.

The Lions pass defense can still be up and down and is always susceptible to explosive plays because of the preference for playing man coverage or blitzing, which could play right into Stafford’s hands (no quarterback loves to gash blitzing defensive coordinators more than Stafford). But being simple is also a no-go against a thrower of Stafford’s caliber. It will be an interesting chess match to watch play out in the passing game, with the run game coming down to how quickly the inconsistent Lions linebackers can fill the run (or how Glenn can change the picture on the Rams offensive line). Luckily for the Lions, the one gigantic thorn in their side this year, having to defend out of their base defense with three linebackers, will likely not be a thing picked on by the Rams and their light personnel groupings.

But this is why Rams general manager Les Snead and McVay traded for Stafford and why the Rams have evolved their attack. The potential questions or roadblocks that might have faced this offense (and team) before not only have answers but now have definitive answers. They have the ability to not only pivot but also excel at whatever they want to pivot to. It has led the Rams to the playoffs with a real chance to make some noise.

It’s quite fitting that the Rams are about to showcase this new feature of themselves against the quarterback that led to this evolution in the first place.

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