Matthew Stafford’s presence has transformed LA offense
Sean McVay was itching for a different quarterback all through the 2020 season. The tension between Jared Goff and his head coach was palpable at season’s end. After the Los Angeles Rams fell to the Green Bay Packers in last season’s divisional round, there was reportedly no contact between Goff and the Rams organization until the team traded for Matthew Stafford.
The Rams have a brilliant offense led by McVay – a wunderkind on moving the football and creating explosive plays while sustaining an effective wide zone rushing attack. The addition of Stafford allows McVay to not have to be precise with every play call.
With Goff, McVay had to ensure his scheme, route combinations, and play calling was always correct – there was little margin for error. It’s a different story with Stafford. The former Detroit Lion has the ability to not only make every throw but quickly get through progressions and find openings in the defense that may not have been probable at the time of the play call.
If the frontside dig is unavailable, he can quickly transition to the second and third read while keeping his eyes downfield and maintaining a calm demeanor under pressure. Goff is an NFL-caliber quarterback, but he struggled with pressure and didn’t offer the same margin for error that Stafford possesses.
Under Goff last season, the Rams ranked 22nd in points scored (23.3 points per game), 17th in yards per game (367.2), and 17th in passing yards per game (240.6). Through five games in 2021, Stafford and McVay rank eighth in points per game (28.2), ninth in yards per game (408.2), and second in passing yards per game (310.2).
One of the more significant concerns with Stafford joining McVay’s offense was surrounded Stafford’s ability to play while moving based off wide zone play action. McVay frequently runs roll-outs and bootlegs, and these concerns were squashed in Week 1 when Stafford ran this concept and hit Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown pass. He can move around in the pocket despite his past injuries and him being 33 years old. Here’s a breakdown of the offensive personnel.
Stafford has 1,587 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions through five games. He has connected on 68 percent of his passes and continued to look solid in last week’s 26-17 Thursday Night Football win in Seattle, despite playing through a hurt hand. Stafford isn’t entering this game at 100 percent, but the hand injury didn’t prevent Stafford from carving through Seattle secondary to a tune of 365 yards on 25 completions. Stafford’s hand will have had more time to heal with 10 days off, and the Giants will be entering the game as one of the most beat-up teams in the NFL.
The genius behind McVay’s offense is built around his wide zone rushing approach. It’s an extension of Mike Shanahan, Alex Gibbs, and many other pioneers in football. Second-year running back Cam Akers tore his Achilles in training camp. Akers was primed for a huge season, but his injury allowed Darrell Henderson to step into a huge workload.
Henderson has dealt with several injuries throughout his career with the Rams. McVay and general manager Les Snead selected Henderson in the third round out of Memphis. The 24-year-old back is dealing with a rib injury that forced him to miss the Buccaneers game two weeks ago. He dressed against Seattle and rushed for 82 yards on 17 rushes and scored a touchdown.
When healthy, Henderson can set up and read his blocks. He has very good explosiveness and solid thickness at 5-foot-8, 208 pounds. He can also do a good job catching the ball out of the backfield – Henderson has ten catches for 90-yards on the season. He has rushed for 294-yards on 60 carries – a 4.9-yards per carry mark – with three touchdowns on the season.
Snead pursued the Patriots’ former first-round pick, Sony Michel, towards the end of the preseason. Michel is a solid passing-down back who has experience running between the tackles. He’s also very good in blitz pickup for McVay and will use him on third down occasionally. He has 163-yards on 45 carries this season – an average of 3.9-yards. Henderson is the primary back, but Michel has a role and will be used in McVay’s game plan.
The Rams have one of the most versatile and deep wide receiving corps in the NFL. The coffee narrative is strong between Stafford and Cooper Kupp – the slot receiver dominating opposing defenses all season so far. Kupp has 523-yards on 37 receptions (54 targets) and five touchdowns. He ranks third in the NFL in receptions behind the Packers’ Davante Adams and the 49ers Deebo Samuel.
Robert Woods was the forgotten wide receiver heading into Week 5, but Sean McVay declared that he “had to get Woods more involved.” McVay did just that against Seattle as Woods went for 150 yards on 12 receptions (14 targets). Similar to Kupp, Woods is a master at creating space through precise route running and nuance. He’s one of the better receivers over the middle of the field on deep dig concepts, and the one/two punch of Kupp and Woods is difficult to defend.
When the Rams align in 11-personnel, it’s typically Van Jefferson who is on the field. Jefferson sometimes steals some of Woods snaps as well – it’s obvious the Rams love the second-year, second-round selection out of Florida. Jefferson is yet another great route runner with a good 6-2, 197-pound frame. He’s seen 21 targets this year and caught 14 of them for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
McVay’s declaration on Woods’ involvement wasn’t the first time his words came to fruition in terms of production on the field. DeSean Jackson wasn’t much of a factor through two weeks, and McVay stated that he had to find ways to get Jackson involved. Well, Jackson had 120 yards on three catches (four targets) in week three against the Buccaneers. Jackson still has impressive speed and is used on deep shot plays off play action – something that James Bradberry has struggled to defend the last two weeks. The Giants secondary must be aware of Jackson’s speed whenever he is on the field. He averages 17.5 snaps per game (not including Week 2 against the Colts, where he played only three snaps because of a hurt ankle).
Snead also spent a 2021 second-round pick on a 5-9, 165-pound receiver out of Louisville named Tutu Atwell. He’s only played two offensive snaps so far this season but is a weapon on special teams. Atwell has incredible speed and is a danger whenever he has the football in his hands.
McVay also uses his wide receivers as aggressive blockers. He motions them tight and tasks them to seal the edge or lead block at times. These are responsibilities mainly for Kupp and Woods. Both receivers give 100 percent in these scenarios, and I expect to often see this in Week 6.
Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, Sean McVay’s first draft selection as head coach, formed a dynamic duo at tight end for several years. The two split snaps, but now Everett is a Seahawk, and Higbee plays almost 100 percent of the snaps. He has 17 catches on 20 targets this season for 164-yards and two touchdowns.
Higbee is a big-bodied receiver who is quick in and out of his breaks for a player that is 6-6, 255 pounds. The Rams align him inline, in the slot, and he plays 26 percent of his snaps split out wide in 3×1 sets to the backside most of the time. Higbee is dangerous in contested catch situations, and he uses his body very well to box out safeties.
Johnny Mundt is a good blocking tight end who brings a physical nature to the line in 12 personnel. He played 28 snaps against the Seahawks last week. Mundt only has one catch on the season, but he has played 98 snaps.
The Giants have struggled to defend tight ends this year. They gave up touchdowns to Albert Okwuegbunam, Ricky Seals-Jones, Lee Smith, Juwan Johnson, and Dalton Schultz dropped a wide-open touchdown last week. Higbee scored against Seattle and could look to capitalize again vs. this struggling Giants’ defense.
Many have pointed to the Rams’ offensive line as a weak point for an otherwise scary offense. The line may not have star power names other than veteran Andrew Whitworth, but they’ve been effective this season. The Rams average just under 100 rushing yards on the season, but Stafford has only been sacked once (on true pass sets). According to Pro Football Focus, he’s only been pressured 26 times this year and hit six times.
On the season, the unit has allowed four sacks and 45 pressures. For reference, the Giants have allowed four sacks and 44 pressures on true pass sets and five sacks and 64 pressures overall. The Rams have provided Stafford time to throw the ball, and the scheme itself also assists the offensive line.
The Giants haven’t generated consistent pressure this season, and it’s been an issue. Whitworth is a sage at the tackle position – a savvy veteran who excels with knowledge and technique rather than athletic ability. Azeez Ojulari may be able to win with pure athletic ability, but I don’t envision it as a consistent problem for someone as experienced and capable as Whitworth.
Rob Havenstein is the right tackle. He’s 6-8, 330 pounds with incredible length. He has allowed eight pressures on the season and has been a consistent player for the Rams since they drafted him in the second round out of Wisconsin in 2015.
The guards are David Edwards and Austin Corbett. The former is a third-year fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin who is tall for a guard. His long strides make him a good fit when tasked to climb in this zone system that bases its runs laterally quite often. Corbett was an early second-round pick by the Browns in 2018, and he was traded to the Rams in 2020. He needs some work with his technique, but he’s a quick, athletic guard that fits in well with the Rams.
Brian Allen, a 25-year-old 2018 fourth-rounder out of Michigan State, is the center for the Rams. He’s a solid enough center but is one of the weaker links on the offensive line. These wide zone teams are based on a cohesive offensive line that plays as one unit, not individually. Whitworth, Havenstein, Edwards, Corbett, and Allen have played in every game this season.