For four consecutive years, Rams head coach and offensive wizard Sean McVay has been challenging defenses around the NFL with an innovative approach to offensive football that has sparked significant change around the league. McVay’s offense, which has transformed over the years to once again be one of the league’s more intricate units after struggling a year ago, is poised to be a significant challenge for the Bucs defense on Monday Night Football.
“The thing is, as you look at them, they run what I would call NFL 101 plays, but the way and the speed and the tempo of which they utilize it opens up the run game,” Bucs defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said. “Then the run game gets their play-action going with the bootlegs and play-action (passes). That’s why when you watch them and say, ‘how are these people getting wide open?’, it’s because they really harp on everything looking the same, the speed and tempo being the same.”
Widely regarded as one of the best-coached and more detail-oriented teams in the NFL, the Rams remain one of the most play-action heavy offenses in the league, ranking second in the league off of play-action attempts. McVay fully understands that the run doesn’t need to be established for play-action to work, as defenders still must respect their run assignments and post-snap keys regardless of how the most recent rushing attempt turned out.
The result has been an offense that ranks 12th in passing yards per game and eighth in rushing yards per game, a balanced approach that has really only sputtered when quarterback Jared Goff has struggled. When he’s kept clean and has time to process and throw in the pocket, Goff can be a deadly assassin capable of making every throw, a significant concern for a Bucs pass defense that has had more downs than ups in recent weeks.
When pressured, Goff can unravel quickly, which is why the Rams offense is so predicated on play-action passing that slows the upfield pursuit of defensive linemen and gives their fifth-year quarterback more defined reads from the pocket. He’s also an excellent thrower outside of the pocket, so the Bucs being able to contain the Rams boot game and create A-gap pressure with Devin White blitzes will be crucial on Monday Night. Goff has only been sacked 13 times this season.
The Rams boast a strong rushing attack, with a healthy dose of three ball carriers – Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers – doing the work. All three average over four yards per carry, a testament to the Rams scheme and the way their offensive linemen fit to that scheme perfectly. Los Angeles operates an outside zone-heavy rushing attack that uses pre-snap motion at one of the highest rates in the league, both to force defenses to communicate shifts and assignment changes quickly, and to fool teams with the misdirection that motion occasionally creates post-snap.
The Rams offense may not be as individually talented as the Bucs, but collectively there are few teams that get more out of every player in every facet of their scheme.
“Another thing people don’t realize is the way they utilize their wide receivers in blocking,” Rodgers said. “They get the support players involved. ‘Oh, just put the safety down in the box, don’t worry about it’. Well, they got the safety blocked. Then they mess with the linebackers. ‘This guy just motioned here, this guy ran a reverse fake, but then they handed it off inside’. The misdirection and the timing is just unbelievable.
“Then you’ve got a quarterback there who can make all the throws. So they just pose a lot of problems. When you talk about a team that really utilizes personnel, or their personnel match their scheme, put this team down. Their linemen are fast and quick, the backs hit downfield and can find the cuts, the quarterback does a heck of a job on play-action and the bootlegs and then you got a guy like Cooper Kupp. He comes in and he’s blocking and he’s getting open, then he’s running a takeoff. Then you gotta deal with Woods going across (the middle). They just pose a heck of a problem. They’re probably one of the toughest offenses to face in the league.”
The Rams are paced by Kupp’s 53 catches for 577 yards and two scores in the passing game, but also get significant contributions from Robert Woods (42-469-4) and Josh Reynolds (30-416-2). Both Kupp and Woods could contribute in the running game as well, with the latter being the more likely ball carrier based on his 17 carries for 111 yards and two rushing touchdowns this season.
Los Angeles is also one of the rare teams to challenge the Bucs’ depth at tight end, boasting two talented pass-catchers in Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee. Both will play in-line or flexed, but Higbee is the far superior all-around player, and could be one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL if the Rams targeted him more. He’ll be a challenge for the Bucs to defend based on his ability to get open against all match-ups and from multiple alignments.
“Oh yes, he is really a jack-of-all-trades for them,”Rodgers said. “He is the type of person where you have to know where he is at all times. So he’s problematic from a game-planning situation, you always gotta account for him. And then the more and more you keep watching [the Rams], the things they do, how they use people, this and that…this team poses a lot of problems.”
Defensively, the Bucs will need to be aggressive with their blitz packages, challenging Goff to make throws while under pressure. Last year they had success forcing the Rams quarterback into mistakes, as Goff turned the ball over four times while being sacked twice and hit nine other times. The Bucs couldn’t cover anyone and gave up almost 550 yards of offense, but this is a better secondary than the Rams faced a year ago.
Todd Bowles’ unit has been sliding in recent weeks, but if the Bucs are going to win this football game, their defense will need to solve the riddle that is the Rams offense and make some big-time splash plays to set their offense up for success against a Los Angeles defense that may be the best in the league.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft