Solving the McVay Offense (SB LIII)

MQ looks back to one the most dominant Super Bowl performances ever & explains why it killed the McVay system.

Three points. That is all the Patriots’ defense allowed the high-octane Rams to score in last season’s Super Bowl. Historically it was only the second time a team allowed only three points (’71 Dallas over Miami 24-3) and no one has yet pitched a shutout in a Super Bowl. During the regular season, the Rams were averaging right under 33 points per game. Only the Chiefs and their 565 points were higher than the Rams 527. In terms of margin of victory, the Rams were third at 8.9 (Saints 9.4 and the Chiefs 9.0).

According to Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) which ranks defenses according to efficiency (explanation), the Patriots were smack in the middle of the league at 16th. More glaringly, the run defense was 19th overall in that efficiency stat during the 2018 season. Before the Super Bowl, the Patriots had given up 28 points to the Chargers and won a 37-31 shoot out with the Chiefs. The 13-3 Super Bowl result was a stark difference for the perceived results (the over/under was set at 57!).

LA coming into the game having the #2 offense DVOA and the #1 rushing attack in the league. According to ESPN’s analysis, the 13 points scored by the Patriots in the Super Bowl would have netted the Patriots a 1-17 record against the Rams during the 2018 season. For many, this Super Bowl would rely heavily on the Patriots’ ability to stop the run. After the game, Belichick confirmed what everyone agreed on. In a post-game interview with Steve Young Belichick stated the obvious:

“We had to put together something that would neutralize the running game and their big play-action passes on early downs… We felt like if we could make them drive it and earn it… we would have a chance to get them off the field on third down.”

Belichick devised a simple, yet ingenious idea to counter the Rams offense. Sean McVay bases his offense out of an 11 pers. look. His use of the different zones is well documented and uses formations, shifts, and quick motions to gain leverage on opponents. As shown in his quote, Belichick knew he had to slow down the run game. To do this, Belichick used a goal-line defense in the middle of the field. In a quote for ESPN, LA Rams’ LT Andrew Whitworth explains:

They played six on the line all day, which kind of limited the space to get the runs in there… They played an open-field 6-2 almost, but with one guy in the middle… And they played a lot more zone than they played all season, so that kind of shook it up a little bit.

Belichick basically rolled out a 6-1 two-high shell and defended one of the NFL’s hottest offense. The scheme was very basic and the execution was flawless. The front the Patriots ran basically choked out the Rams’ zone run game, especially the Wide Zone that had killed many opponents before. RB Todd Gurly would end the night with 10 carries and 35 yards with a long of 16. CJ Anderson would end the day with 7 carries and 22 yards. Needless to say, the Patriots forced the Rams QB Jared Goff to win the game. As I noted this summer doing research for my podcast interview with The Ringer NFL Show, Belichick dared the Rams to pass and they did with little success.

By halftime, the Super Bowl was over. Once vaunted, the Rams offense looked out of sorts and stagnant. The Patriots’ plan to force Goff to beat them through the air worked to perfection. As the stats support, the Rams offense had 2 first downs in the 1st half, held the ball for a third of the time, and accumulated 57 total yards. Though the score was 3-0, it felt like a daunting hill to climb for the Rams.

zz 1H Stats

Goff would end the night 19/38 for 229 yards 0 TDs and 1 INT. The Patriots would sack Goff 4 times and the longest pass being completed for 29 yards. The first eight possessions netted eight punts and the longest drive would be a 5 play/23 yarder that only take 2:39 off the clock. The Rams’ first eight possessions are shown below.

zzz 1st 8 Poss

What the Patriots did was design a defense that forced the ball into Goff’s hands. McVay had little to go off of pre-snap because the Patriots lined up in a static front and a two-high shell on most of the downs. Motion did very little because the PAtriots sat in zone the entire game. With overhangs on either end, the secondary didn’t have to bother with the Jet Motions McVay used to out leverage defenses.

Post-snap the secondary would rotate to a single-high look to add layers to their zone coverage or stay in a simple Cover 4 that reacted to the vertical stretching routes in the middle of the field. This would take away the Rams’ crossing routes and inhibit the reduced formations from rubbing manned defenders. All year, the Patriots had played more man than zone but used the Detroit Lions’ template of a zone heavy scheme to counter the Rams offense in the Super Bowl. The results speak for themselves: a 13-3 victory, 260 yards of total offense for the Rams, and Belichick’s 6th Super Bowl win.


The Scheme

The Patriots ran a simple yet effective scheme that made the Rams left-handed. The 6-1 box against the Rams’ first play (above), illustrates how Belichick had devised a way to slow down the Rams daunting run game. The scheme essentially killed the Rams number one play and made it hard for them to attack the Patriots with play-action through the air.

In Belichick’s defense, this is referred to as TILT. The Tilt alignment is designed to kill the outside or wide zone that McVay favors in the run game. On each edge of the defense is a hybrid player that can set the edge and chase down the RB if it were to spill to their side. Finally, every gap in the box is accounted for and the Mike LB (#54) can flow with the RB.

01 SB 6-1 vs Zone (S)

The Patriots essentially built walls on either side of the box and forced McVay to be left-handed and without his favorite concept. Coverage wise, the Patriots would rotate from a Cover 4 to a Buzz concept that kept the Rams guessing in the passing game. Belichick also reshuffled the secondary to counter the over routes and play-action highlighted in the Rams’ attack.

Safety Patrick Chung (#23) moved to a LB/Ni spot and traveled with the TE. Stephen Gilmore (#24) and Jason McCourty (#30) held down their normal CB spots, but the real wrinkle came in the insertion of Jonathan Jones (#31), who normally plays Ni CB, as a Safety. Lastly, Devon McCourty (#32) held his typical spot at Saftey. The Patriots played with a Nickel scheme but used an “old school” front to dominate all night.

The addition of Jones into the middle of the field was purposeful and gave the Patriots a speedy DB that could match the Rams WRs running crossing routes through the middle. Jones would mirror the Chief’s Tyreek Hill in the prior round. Hill would finish the night with three targets and one catch for 42 yards. Hill would amass over 1,400 yards and 12 TDs during the regular season. Belichick’s use of personnel and scheme made it hard for the Rams to get any air all night. Coverage wise, the Patriots rotate from a 3 Buzz concept to a simple Cover 4 all night with Jones dropping down to the middle to be the trashman versus crossing routes (Tilt Buzz is shown below).

02 Tilt Buzz

The run fits for the front are relatively straight forward. The defense has a man in almost every gap. The Mike LB (#54) holds down the only open gap (weak side “B”) but can work with flow because he knows he has an overhang (#53) that can fold in with flow away. The weak side DE will chase down the line with flow away and close off the cutback. This front does two things to run plays: 1) makes it bounce and go east and west with overhangs outside that are hard for the offense to block; or 2) funnel the run back into an open gap were there is an unblocked LB (plus the added value of a DB or folding overhang).

03 Tilt 4 (Fits)

The second play of the game (shown below) was a highlight of the struggles the Rams would have all night. The Buzz coverage dropped Jones (#31) into the middle of the field. The front took care of the run game and allowed the secondary to focus on the WRs. This focus inhibited the Rams’ reliance on early-down play-action passes.

The play is a basic boot Flood concept. Kyle Van Noy takes out the Slip route by the WR creating a two-man route, even adding in on the pursuit. Jones, who is dropping into collect the crossing route easily handles the tempo of the WR and has underneath support from the Mike LB. The vertical push is literally triple covered. Goff had no other option than to throw the ball away.


Run Fits

In the clip below, the Patriots are running Tilt Buzz. This means the Safety to the top of the clip will buzz down for the crosser. You can see this as the ball is snapped. The Rams attack the Patriots with a single-back Power with Jet motion. The Jet motion brings the OLB to the two WR side down to the line of scrimmage. With the Rams having one-for-one blocking, the scheme looks like it will work. Instead, the Nose works to the frontside “A” gap and the Center misses his block. #55 also defeats his block and sandwiches the RB. Play over and a 3rd & Long situation for the Rams.

One thing this clip shows is the gap fits for the LBs. With motion and action to the TE, the Mike LB flows in that direction. The backside OLB folds back into the box with action away to replace the Mike. Finally, the Safety sinks in to cap the fit and be the plus one.


The Rams use a shift to get into “Nasty” set. Nasty refers to the WR to the bottom lined up in the “C” gap. To the top of the clip, the WRs are in a flexed set. Flexed refers to the WR in a TE’s spot, but not with his hand down. In most cases, a flexed WR will be no more than three yards away from the offensive tackle. #12 comes back through the formation on a Jet, but the Patriots already have the motion leveraged with both DBs. LA attacks the Patriots with a simple Split Zone and the flexed WR arcs out to widen the cutback and help the block for #81 by bringing the OLB with him.

The simple beauty of the scheme is illustrated again. The Split Zone is designed to cutback. In this particular play, #53 is supposed to expand with the arcing WR. By doing this, the gap widens and the block is easier for the WR coming back to block the OLB. Every gap is covered in the interior. As the RB looks to block back, the OLB turns back inside showing his numbers. This forces the RB to jump-cut back inside and drives for whatever he can. We can also not the great block destruction by #93 who destroys the play from inside.


Later in the game, the Rams come back to the same shift and motion. What looks to be the same play as shown before is really a Split Stretch play. In the previous clip, the Rams were running a simple Inside Split Zone. Below, LA runs a Wide Zone to attack the edge.

The Patriots stay in there same base defense and “buzz” the Safety to the Nasty side. The Jet motion is again leveraged. The key to this play is #71 coming off the Guards backside and flat down the line. Essentially destroying the play. #53 sets the edge with authority and forces the RB to cut it up into traffic.

The entire defensive scheme is designed to destroy all zone plays. Though the Rams tried to pull on several occasions, the defense also makes it hard to run gap plays because most of the O-line is covered. Finally, the Rams love Wide Zone, but the Patriots ensured that nothing leaked out. The use of the alignment and secondary to stack the outside forced the Rams to live in the box and mash it away. Something LA was not used to doing. Block destruction also played a key role in defeating the Rams. The Patriots’ D’line was camped in the backfield all night.


Pass Distribution

Below is a great example of a Deep Cross scheme used by most offenses in the NFL. The Patriots are sitting in their Cover 4 look. The CB to the bottom takes the Post route. It appears that Goff could have thrown the Post open, but the pressure forces him to throw the ball in the dirt. Both Safeties sit on the crosser and the route combination is easily picked up.

The Rams use a Dagger (Dig/Seam) scheme later in the game and add Jet Motion to the pre-snap look. The Safety to the bottom sees the Sail (deep Out) and turns back inside for the TE’s Seam. To the top, the Safety cuts the Dig and the Mike LB sandwiches the route. Goff tries to thread the needle, but the ball is almost picked.

In the final clip, the Patriots use their 3 Buzz coverage to defend the Rams. Notice the layering of the coverage. The Mike has the low hole in the middle of the field and will take any crosser under 5 yards. The OLB to the bottom cuts to the flat negating the Sail by the #2 WR. The Safety to the bottom of the screen sinks into the high hook area looking for any over routes. Goff struggles to get the ball off in time as the Patriots rush descends on him. Even if Goff’s throw was on time, the Patriots had most of the WRs tightly covered or were at least in the vicinity to force Goff to throw a perfect ball.

In the end, the Patriots’ simple secondary structure and the insertion of Jones into the middle of the field damaged the Rams’ ability to gain free access in front of Goff. The six-man front also put pressure on the Rams O-line and forced one-on-ones all night, which the Patriots won. In all these clips, there is no blitz being run. The Patriots would only turn to pressure packages on 3rd Down or near the end of each half. Simple execution, done at a high level.


Beyond the Super Bowl

There is nothing “special” about the scheme Belichick used to stop the LA Rams high powered offense. There was no line movement, stunts, pressures, or any other bells or whistles. Just sound fundamental football. The true champion of the day was the D-line that camped in the backfield and funneled the RBs into free hitting LBs. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

Secondary wise, a simple personnel adjustment kept the middle of the field closed to crossing routes. Simply moving speedy CB Jones back into a Safety position ensured the Patriots could handle any crossing route. Belichick simply ran a 3 Buzz or Quarters scheme to take care of the reduced sets and crossing routes. The natural layering that can occur in both schemes gave the Patriots exactly what they needed. By clogging every gap with the front seven, the secondary was able to sit back and react to what the Rams gave them. This meant that they could be patient and wait on the pass when play-action was run. Something the Rams thrived on all year.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the scheme has been duplicated by almost every opponent the Rams have faced. The NFL is a copy-cat league. This should come as no surprise. Starting with the Saints in week 2, the Rams have seen some variation of the 6-1 scheme created by Belichick in the Super Bowl. Have a look:

Week 2-

02 Saints

Week 3-

03 Browns.png

Week 4-

04 Bucs.png

Week 5-

05 Seattle.png

I think you get the picture and here is the data to prove it…


The Rams are currently 3-2, losing a shoot out with the Buccaneers and a one-point loss to Seattle in Washington in subsequent weeks. The offense isn’t humming on all cylinders like it was last year. Though the Rams aren’t floundering, their offensive production is down. Enough to take a pause. As Riley McAtee of The Ringer points out in a recent article on the Rams offensive decline, “… it’s enough to question whether it can once again contend for a championship.”

The Rams through five weeks have dipped to 12th in Offensive DVOA. Last year they were 2nd. One of the biggest contrasts from 2018 to this season is the lack of an explosive passing game. There just isn’t a WR on the roster blowing the top off of defenses and Goff isn’t throwing downfield. Below is a look at Goff’s throw chart from his week 5 matchup with the Seahawks from NFL’s Next Gen Stats. There are only three passes over 20+ yards and nothing over 30+, with a majority of the targets around or under the 10-yard mark. This is a trend throughout the early part of the season.

Goff vs Seattle.png

This lack of explosiveness in the passing game allows defenses to stack the box and use the same layering system the Patriots used in the Super Bowl to handle the crossing routes. This also compresses the field. That’s something the Rams don’t want as much as they are using play-action and the ground game to be successful. Though the run game is still churning out gains, it is important to note McVay has had to adjust in that aspect as well.

One of the adjustments McVay has had to make is the use of quick-hitting outside runs like the Crack-Toss. This negates the 6-1 box by many defenses and forces a coverage CB to make a tackle. Tackling at the CB spot is not necessarily a high priority. With only one LB tucked in the box, these quick-hitting runs strain the secondary. Seth Galina noted the trend towards the play after the Rams game with the Saints.

The Rams’ offense is still relatively the same with a heavy dose of 11 pers. In 2018 the Rams used 11 pers. on 89% of their snaps. 12 pers. was the second-place grouping at 8%. Fast-forward to week 6 and the Rams are basing from 11 pers. at an 80% rate and 12 pers. has trended upwards to 11%. The passing game has been a feature of 11 pers. as well. In 2019 the Rams are passing from the grouping 70% of the time. That’s up 10 percentage points from 2018 (60%). Most notably, the offensive success rate within 12 pers. has fallen from 61% in 2018 to 30% in 2019 according the Sharp Football.

What does this mean? The scheme that Belichick hatched to win the Super Bowl works. Outside of Carolina in week 1, the NFL has embraced the Patriots mold and it is showing in the analytics. Internally, one factor that can’t be overlooked is the remodeling of the O-line. 2018 Left Guard Rodger Saffold and Center John Sullivan weren’t brought back in 2019. Add the lack of a deep ball and you have a recipe for a decline in production. The use of the 6-1 front and the layer of the secondary has compressed the Rams offense into limited space and it is literally crushing the run game. Though it is relatively still successful (currently 7th in rushing DVOA), it isn’t slaughtering defenses like it did in 2018. Just another example of Belichick’s genius.

 

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