Sean McVay’s offense incites works like “innovative,” “progressive,” and even “genius,” not because his team resembles the Greatest Show on Turf, or runs some wild 2019 version of the Air Raid. In fact, the Los Angeles Rams run the ball as often as almost any other team in football. When his team squares off with the best coach of the modern era in Super Bowl LIII, they’ll attempt to score points with a passing game that only thrives because the run game creates such problems for opponents. This premise was lost on Mike McCarthy, but could come to Green Bay with Matt LaFleur.
What McVay does best isn’t just call a great game, or design interesting plays, he maximizes his advantages on every snap. According to a FiveThirtyEight study, one of the key advantages in the Rams run game was running against light boxes, plays when the defense has six or fewer defenders in the box. This tracks: give your offense a numbers advantage, hand it to a really good running back, flourish. It’s a simple process right?
It’s creating that advantage which takes some work. For too long the Packers run game, much like the passing game, relied solely on the hog mollies upfront winning their matchups, the running back picking the right hole and then making a guy or two miss. Luckily for the Packers, they have a very talented stable of backs and a quality offensive line despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over it.
In other words, the running game has been good (and it’s been very good despite McCarthy refusing to commit to it) but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better with a fresher approach.
Here’s how. This is a play from last season, a simple outside zone play. The Packers motion Jimmy Graham across the formation, then give to Jamaal Williams. It’s as simple as simple gets from a run play standpoint. It was going to work except that Bryan Bulaga and Marcedes Lewis, two of the most reliable blockers on the team, missed blocking the 49ers defensive end who chases Williams down from behind.
Simplicity isn’t the core problem; plenty of McVay’s plays are simple are their core. This play requires perfect execution to work because that’s all it is.
Go back to before this play starts. This is the front facing Green Bay: eight guys near the line of scrimmage with the Packers in a two-tight end formation.
It’s four guys to block four, including Corey Linsley who is already outflanked just by alignment of the defensive tackle. Plus, Jimmy Graham has to block someone, which he does relatively well on this play but isn’t ideal strategy overall. Again, this play would have worked had they sealed the backside (two guys can’t block no one), but there’s nothing easy here.
McVay established himself as the new king in the NFL at creating ease for his offense. Alignment, motion, numbers and tendency breaking help him achieve that end. This is a play we’ll almost certainly see in Green Bay as both Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay run it. There’s the pre-snap motion from the receiver to eyes and bodies moving to the right, then the handoff back to the left on what is otherwise a simple inside zone give, and the tight end peels across the formation to seal the edge.
After the ball is snapped, it’s actually a very straight forward run, but the motion, formation, and personnel gave the Rams an enormous advantage. Before the snap, the middle of the field is already wide open. Why? Formation and personnel.
With three receivers on the field, the Packers are in sub-package so not only do they have a lighter box here by number, the actual men playing are literally lighter. It’s defensive backs instead of linebackers, so even if the play isn’t blocked perfectly and the defense plays with discipline, it’s Todd Gurley 1-on-1 with a defensive back instead of a linebacker.
Add in the motion and the Packers are dead here. Look at how much space the motion creates with Tramon Williams running the other direction and all the eyes of the defense on that side of the field eying Brandin Cooks coming across the formation. If Jermaine Whitehead doesn’t stay home, this is a 35-yard run instead of five.
Matt LaFleur grew up in an offense running these plays. This is what he called the illusion of complexity. Give the defense something shiny to look at, while running something relatively simple at its core. It’s about creating advantages.
This play from Tennessee last season illustrates this premise. It’s a simple lead zone play with the tight end as a fullback, but that distinction is crucial here. The Titans are in the same personnel grouping as the Rams in the above play with three receivers, a back and a tight end (11 personnel). That creates a size advantage with the Cowboys in sub-package defense. With the two receiver set to the non-play side, LaFleur is using both a personnel and formational advantage to create opportunities for his offense.
The end zone angle shows this even more clearly. Without even having to know the play, it’s easy to see the Titans have a built-in lane exactly where they want to run the ball. This is a perfect call given the Cowboys alignment and personnel choice, but each of those are driven by the play design from LaFleur.
The play ultimately isn’t blocked perfectly (the Titans Taylor Lewan almost certainly should have been called for holding) but because of all the built-in advantages, it’s a big gainer.
This play in particular demonstrates LaFleur’s ability to adapt and evolve core concepts of his offense. This play is really just a lead zone play, run for hundreds of years (numbers approximate) in the NFL by coaches from the Shanahans to Gary Kubiak and even Mike McCarthy. In fact, the younger Shanahan ran it against McCarthy last season.
This play was a staple for the 49ers last season and for the Falcons under Shanahan and LaFleur in Atlanta, but it doesn’t have to be run with a true fullback. This is why the 49ers paid up for Kyle Juszczyk: because he serves the role of both fullback and tight end. If there’s a case for retaining Marcedes Lewis and/or drafting a tight end who can block, this concept is it.
Look at the advantage that type of player creates for the offense. On second-and-long, the Packers often went to their super-sub package, leaving them extremely vulnerable to the run game. Just by pre-snap alignment, this is stealing for San Francisco, with everyone accounted for and the closest safety 20 yards downfield.
This old school concept is reborn thanks to personnel advantage, which in this case is based on the unique skills of one player, but also league tendencies to throw on second-and-long, as well as the move toward playing small at all times to combat spread offenses and passing attacks.
Given how foundational the run game will be for LaFleur, expect considerable time and resources allocated to getting the ground attack back on track. The old joke about the Mike Shanahan offense was they could put just about anyone in that offense and he’d rush for 1,000 yards. His son Kyle, McVay, and now LaFleur have taken the bones of that highly productive run offense and updated them for 2018 and 2019. Making life easier for Rodgers isn’t just about revamping the passing concepts and route design; it means giving him a ground game that consistently churns out yardage and fits in the modern NFL.