The Passing Chronicles: Attacking the Rams

Dusty looks at the Rams defense and shows how the Packers could attack them in the passing game

Not only did this past weekend feature 6 playoff games spread across two days, but Packers fans could watch all of them relatively stress-free. With the Packers having the week off, we got to kick back and just enjoy the proceedings. It was delightful.

With no new Packers film to look at, I wanted to do something a little different this week. So today, we'll be talking a bit about the Rams defense and how I believe the Packers could attack them. My original thought was to come up with a 15 play script and talk about what those concepts could set up down the line, but I ran out of time. Such is life.

So let's start with an overview of the Rams defense. They are led by 38 year-old Brandon Staley. As he was coming up, he fell in love with the two-high safety defenses of Vic Fangio, and designed his defenses after those looks. He eventually became OLB coach for Fangio in Chicago and Denver, where he essentially got his Masters degree in that defense. Being able to talk with Fangio about the concepts gave Staley a better picture of thy why behind it. The "why" of it all is a crucial component of any scheme. Without understanding that portion, you're just running what someone else ran. But with it, you know why all the pieces move the way they do. That allows a coach to be more malleable with the scheme.

Because he has taken the Fangio defense and made it his own, the Rams line up in two-high coverage the most in the league. A two-high pre-snap looks lends itself to more light boxes, since you're not rolling down a safety to play in the box. Staley has taken that to the extreme. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Rams lined up with a light box on 85% of snaps, the highest rate in the league. Fangio's Broncos were #2 at 78%, and no other team was above 72%.

That all makes sense when you look at Staley's central philosophy: limit big plays in the passing game. When you really boil it down, that's what Staley is trying to do. But limiting big plays doesn't mean a conservative or static approach, and lining up in two-high pre-snap doesn't mean they only play Cover 2 or Quarters. They like to rotate the safeties after the snap to muddy the picture for the quarterback. That rotation is meant to counter the rise in play action across the league. They want to give one look pre-snap, then rotate a beat after the snap. A QB will turn his back to the defense while faking the run, so the idea is to give the quarterback an idea of what he'll be looking at, then spin into a different look while his back is turned. It can force the quarterback to spend an extra beat processing, and the Rams can use that hesitation to their advantage.

I think that's a long enough intro. Let's see how the defense looks in action, and what some offenses have done against it.

Quick Game

One of the more shocking upsets of the year was seeing the 0-13 Jets roll into Los Angeles and take down the Rams by a score of 23-20. A lot of factors played into that final score, but I specifically wanted to see what the Jets did in the passing game. 

It's not like Sam Darnold set the world on fire. The gameplan seemed fairly simple: get rid of the ball quickly and take what the defense gives you. Specifically, he was reading the initial releases of the linebackers and attacking the edges. Again, he didn't set the world on fire, but Darnold was 22/31 (71%) for 207 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 TD and 0 INTs. He threw in 5 rushes for 18 yards as a bonus. Here is what his throw chart looked like (from NFL Next Gen Stats):

Only 3 attempts further than 12 yards down the field.

Darnold's sole touchdown should look familiar to you. The Jets roll out Mesh, with a flat route from the backfield. They have a late shift in the backfield, which causes some miscommunication in the middle of the field.

With the safety looking to the interior and the boundary defender following the drag route, the running back simply releases behind it to the flat. Darnold knows he has it immediately, so he gets rid of the ball & the running back does the rest.

Here is how the NFL Next Gen "dots" looked on that. You can see the entire defense drift away from the boundary, making for an easy read and throw.

Here's another play that, while it's not Mesh, it is working off the same idea: clear the boundary and attack the boundary.

The Rams line up in a two-deep look, but they rotate to a single-high look post-snap. The Jets are running routes attacking the middle from the trips side, then release the running back to the flat. The Rams are in man coverage, which Darnold can tell immediately when he checks the coverage releases to the trips side.

Darnold checks the coverage to trips, then comes back to check the linebacker. With the running back on his right and releasing to the left, that's a lot of ground for a linebacker to cover in man coverage. When Darnold checks, he sees the linebacker streaking across the line, so he turns and throws in space.

Again, take what the defense gives you. If you know you have the flat open and a running back in space on the inital read, get the ball out quickly.

Here's another look at attacking them quickly. The Rams come out showing a two-high look that spins into a Tampa 2 look post-snap. Tampa 2 means one of the ILBs will be dropping into that deep middle coverage, leaving a void underneath.

Darnold keeps his head up, sees the rotation and immediately hits his receiver releasing under the retreating zone.

Let's close out this section with another nice, easy read. The Rams are tilting their defense toward the strong side of the formation, leaving the backside devoid of a boundary defender. Jets roll out jet motion and the Rams don't really react. The jet man throttles down as he crosses the middle of the line, then accelerates to the boundary.

With the defense tilted and the receiver to that side running a little whip route, the boundary is wide open. Get the ball out quickly in space.

Take Your Shots

I mentioned at the top that Staley's core philosophy is to limit big plays in the passing game, and they do a very good job of it. The Rams defense has allowed only 4 TDs on throws that travel 10+ yards down the field all season. When throwing deep, they have held quarterbacks to a QB Rating of 29.2 (for context, every throw off a quarterback's hand could be incomplete and he would still have a QB Rating of 39.6). Still, just because they do a good job limiting deep passes doesn't mean you shouldn't attempt them, and it also doesn't mean that you can't beat them. I wanted to take a look at a few ways to take those shots here.

We'll start off by talking about one of the things the Rams do a lot: locking the backside CB in 3X1 sets. Let's talk about what that means for a second. When the Rams are in zone coverage and the offense comes out in a 3X1 set (3 receivers to one side, 1 receiver on the other), the CB on the 1 receiver side will play man-to-man coverage. This is not unique to the Rams, but they do it a lot.

The way to attack that from a conceptual basis is pretty simple. Have the isolated wide receiver run an in-cutting route to create a zone void to that isolated side, then run a crossing route from the three receiver side into that void. With the rest of the defense in zone, you'll either have a wide receiver running free to that voided zone, or he'll be picked up and carried by a LB through the middle. So you get a free WR or a WR matched-up on a LB picking him up in the middle. Either way, that's a good mismatch.

With the backside of the zone defense locked and the defense rotating, the Cardinals are able to get a deep crosser through the middle and wide open. Easy enough, right?

The trick is the pass rush. Aaron Donald is, in my mind, the best defensive player in football. Having him on the line means you know he can pressure you, but his presence can also open open up rushing opportunities for others. It's hard to wait for the crossers to work across the field when the line is coming to destroy you.

With Donald at less than 100%, look for the Packers to take a shot on something like this. Davante Adams on the iso side, Marquez Valdes-Scanting on a route attacking the middle, and Allen Lazard or Equanimeous St. Brown on the crosser.

Next up, I wanted to take a look at a concept that has sprung an open receiver on a couple of occasions. As such, it's something the Packers might want to look at. It's also a look we've seen from them before, so I'm assuming it'll make an appearance. It's the good ol' post/wheel, with the wheel coming off the end of the line.

This first play is from the Jets game. The Rams show a three-high look initially, then rotate into a two-high shell after the snap. The lone receiver on the left runs a post, the tight end runs a wheel off the line and the running back runs a flat from the backfield.

With the boundary cleared by the post and the flat defender held in place by the running back, the boundary is open for the wheel.

It's not the only time we saw that wheel spring open on that concept, either. It also happens on this next example, though the results aren't nearly as good.

This comes from the Week 10 game against the Seahawks. The Rams aren't disguising anything here: they line up in two-high and they run two-high. Again, the outside receiver runs a post and clears the boundary, while the flat defender is held by the running back. That leaves the TE open on the wheel. 

The TE springs open as Wilson hits the top of his drop. Wilson has a clean pocket. If he lets that sucker fly, it's a touchdown. Instead, he breaks contain to the right, then tries to come back to the wheel late.

It goes...poorly.

This is definitely a case of good process, poor results. When looking at this, I always try to keep that in mind. Throw the result out the window: how was the thought process? Can it be replicated? Would it be successful with better execution? In this case, I can say that the process was good, even if the results were bad.

My last example comes from the Rams/Seahawks Wild Card game from this past weekend. It's a Transition Go, which all of should be very familiar with.

Wilson is basing this on his pre-snap look. He has a receiver isolated on the left, with the defender playing straight-up. Rams are in a single-high look. Based on their defensive alignment, there's no way for them to cap the go route on the outside unless that safety immediately vacates the middle and screams over the top of the route when the ball is snapped.

Wilson trusts his man to win on the outside, so he knows he's taking that shot. He just needs to make sure the safety isn't going to cap that route. The safety holds the middle post-snap, then Wilson turns and lofts a ball to the outside.

Wilson knows he's going to the left, but he does a really nice job of looking right for a beat then snapping back to the left. 

To close us out, I want to bring up a concept we've seen from the Packers a lot this year: Mirrored Smash Fade. I like it because it's a nice way to set up a potential shot against either single-high or two-high. Against single-high, the slot fade is running away from the safety in the middle, so you have a potential one-on-one up the boundary with no safety.

Against two-high, you have a chance to split the safeties with the vertical route up the middle.

Rodgers doesn't hit that route in the middle on this play because he's taking the quick read on the curl, but you can see the vertical route springing open. With it being two-high, the safeties are fanning out to play over the fade routes, leaving the middle open.

Smash Fade is one of those concepts we've seen the Packers use heavily in game plans when they feel it would work. With the way the Packers run it and the flexibility it provides against multiple back-end looks, I believe Smash Fade may be a concept the Packers will run a handful of times in search of a big shot.

Albums listened to: Mercury Rev - The Secret Migration; Wand - 1000 Days; Elliott - Song in the Air; Gleemer - Down Through; Title Fight - Hyperview; Prince - Purple Rain
(Big up to commenter PeteK for recommending Wand. Only listened to one album so far but it ruled.)


Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or email at [email protected].

7 points

Comments (11)

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ShooterMcGee's picture

January 13, 2021 at 04:06 pm

Dusty great work as always. 1st thing I did was watch the Jets-Rams highlights when the Rams were our known opponent. What stood out to me was how the Jets rbs especially Ty Johnson, caught many balls and gained a lot of yards. Also Darnold was getting the ball out quickly. I foresee Aaron Jones being a huge factor in this game from a pass catching perspective.
Both offenses run the "fake run, boot opposite way with a TE drag " play (sorry forgot what its called but know it when I see it). Nearly every time we run it the play is wide open, good for 15+ yards. The Rams ran it 4 or 5 times against the Seahawks. Really the only guaranteed completions for Goff, otherwise he looks shaky. I wonder how well our defense can defend this play. They must practice against it regularly. Stop this play, contain the run, and the Rams won't score more than 10 points.

3 points
Bearmeat's picture

January 13, 2021 at 05:34 pm

Beware using the worst game of a team's season... Us against the Bucs looks like a AAA ball club, but the Rams beat the Bucs... then lost to NYJ.

Thanks for the breakdowns Dusty!

It's funny to me. Everyone is justifiably talking about our O vs their D. But not many are talking about their O vs our D. Their O can run the ball and is otherwise very very bad. I think we keep them under 14 unless we give them a short field or two...

4 points
CoachDino's picture

January 15, 2021 at 06:01 am

Teams most often will win or lose depending on the performance of their strengths.

The Packers should be able to stifle this offense if the GB defensive players execute correctly.

Plus I like what this info showed as far as how to beat it, yes through creating mistakes in the Rams Def that have done the most damage in the past, hence probability in the future. AND how to beat it if it is executed correctly. GB is very good when it wants to be at using RB's in the flats and quick hitters on miss direction. Add in a strong run game and I'm feeling better about tomorrow.

0 points
tjmarquardt's picture

January 13, 2021 at 09:25 pm

Good stuff!

1 points
psu8284's picture

January 14, 2021 at 11:05 am

Beautiful work as always

0 points
Leatherhead's picture

January 14, 2021 at 11:39 am

These articles have become increasingly sophisticated in their breakdowns of the passing game. You've upped your game, Dusty.

I look at a Packer receiving corps that has a significant physical mismatch in the secondary. Their #2 and #3 CBs are quick, little guys about 5'10 and 190 lbs. That's a half a foot shorter than Lazard-MSV-ESB. Lazard, in particular, is about 40 lbs heavier than the poor bastard he gets to maul all game. It adds up.

I think this is by design, and I think you'll see it pay dividends this weekend. You can put Ramsey on Adams, but overcoming the physical mismatch every place else is going to be a real challenge. IF we run Adams out of the slot in a 3-1-1 with MSV and Lazard, we're going to be bigger at all three spots.

0 points
gbxby's picture

January 14, 2021 at 11:48 am

I agree with everything except the last breakdown. On that play, Aaron makes the right read. They're in Cover 3 Zone. Outside corners are both drifting with eyes on the cornerback. The free safety begins to rotate to his middle third. It isn't until Aaron makes his throw that the free safety breaks to the outside. If he had gone to either fade, or the deep middle, it probably would've been picked.

0 points
sohankhan's picture

January 15, 2021 at 12:06 am

The Green Bay Packers come out of their bye week and hit the road to visit the Los Angeles Rams, who are the lone undefeated team in the NFL at 7-0. Here's a look at this series - past, present and future.


0 points
CoachDino's picture

January 15, 2021 at 05:49 am

Are you kidding me? What a lesson!!!. It's like the perfect DIY instructions and cut list. Excellent on so many levels. Bottom line - I know I learned a great deal from it. Thanks for putting in the time to produce real and robust value content. Good for you cheeseheadTV. I hope you continue to include a heavy serving of detailed educational analysis.

0 points
CoachDino's picture

January 15, 2021 at 05:53 am

"Because he has taken the Fangio defense and made it his own, the Rams line up in two-high coverage the most in the league. A two-high pre-snap looks lends itself to more light boxes, since you're not rolling down a safety to play in the box. Staley has taken that to the extreme. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Rams lined up with a light box on 85% of snaps, the highest rate in the league. Fangio's Broncos were #2 at 78%, and no other team was above 72%".

"That all makes sense when you look at Staley's central philosophy: limit big plays in the passing game. When you really boil it down, that's what Staley is trying to do".

Sound familiar? Focus on pass, limit big plays, light box" Thou Packers may have guys in the box more I wonder if it's more DB than Lineman and LBs.

0 points
Thegreatreynoldo's picture

January 15, 2021 at 06:18 am

I agree. Note that playing a light box is easier when one's DL starts with Donald and Brockers and the talent doesn't end there. This is why one sees many comments suggesting Clark and Snacks playing a lot, though Brockers probably offers more pass rush than Harrison does at this stage of their respective careers. As good as Clark is, Donald offers more pass rush as well.

0 points