The Los Angeles Rams defense is a group of con men. They make you believe one thing then do another and they’ve hoodwinked offenses all season. Quarterbacks see two deep safeties and think it’s a prime opportunity to run, but these linebackers and the sub-package defenders Brandon Staley deploys flow fast to the football. Despite playing the most light boxes in football, the Rams are a top-10 run defense. On Saturday, the Green Bay Packers can counter by turning to some deception of their own, and Buffalo, the only team to crack 30 points on L.A., offers a blueprint.
In Week 3 against the Rams, Josh Allen went 9/13 for 135 yards and 3 touchdowns off play-action and much of what they did there translates for the Packers. The touchdowns were all low red-zone plays, as the three scores encompassed just 7 total yards. Which means the six other play-action completions earned 128 yards on 10 attempts, outstanding efficiency that fits with the season-long numbers we’ve seen against Brandon Staley’s group.
As ESPN’s Mina Kimes pointed out on her podcast this week, this wasn’t a one-game fluke; the Rams are 24th in QBR against play-action, 22nd in yards per attempt, and 32nd in yards of separation in those scenarios. Meanwhile, Rodgers and the Packers are 1st in QBR, completion percentage, and touchdowns off play-action. They’re particularly deadly in the red zone, where they’re one of the most efficient red zone offenses in league history. Meanwhile, the Rams are allowing a touchdown rate over 90% in the red zone on the road this season, last in the league.
Red zone productivity can vacillate wildly, as the Rams are also allowing under 30% touchdown rate at home (the best in the NFL), but that’s the point. The Packers offense isn’t just great in the red zone, it’s the best offense overall in football, and if performance there is highly volatile, that’s a matchup that favors the Packers.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Hackett and Matt LaFleur put together arguably the best-designed red zone offense in football, with Aaron Rodgers putting up a preposterous 35 touchdowns and no interceptions on 72.2% completions. Each of those marks lead the league by a wide margin. Still, Buffalo has a trick or two up its sleeve Green Bay could borrow while also using concepts already in the Packers’ plan to beat the Rams.
Here is the first score for the Bills. They line up in a heavy formation, hoping the Rams key run. On first watch, it seems like a second-reaction play, with Allen coming off the usual goal line boot play to the backside, much like Rodgers did in the first Bears matchup to Allen Lazard.
But offensive coordinator Brian Daboll does something so much more diabolical: he brings in a 6th OL to run a pick for his tight end. Watch the end zone view because this touchdown is actually on Jalen Ramsey, who the Bills catch watching Allen’s eyes.
Ramsey starts to run with the tight end, but sees Allen looking to his left, feels the flow of the play going that way, and assumes they’re trying to get some kind of levels concept in to that side of the field. Ramsey drops the coverage on Lee Smith, Allen waits just long enough to clear space, and fires back for the touchdown.
It feels like a second-reaction play, but it’s designed that way. Plays like this make it easy to see why Daboll likely earns a head coach spot this offseason.
The second touchdown against the Rams might as well have been taken right out of the Packers’ playbook. It’s an outside zone fake where the backside tight end pretends to block the edge defender. The quarterback reverses into the boot and with the outside receiver crashing inside, there’s no sideline defender there. Easy touchdown.
Green Bay kills teams in the low red zone with plays like this. It’s one of the reasons Robert Tonyan caught 11 touchdowns this season. In Week 3, the Packers ran it perfectly against the Saints with the only major difference being the personnel. With a fullback in the game, they make the run action look like a lead play with Allen Lazard taking the backside defensive back with him inside.
Even for the most disciplined defenses, when the run action looks this convincing, it’s nearly impossible to reasonably stop the run here and also safeguard against the boot.
Neither of these plays represents anything groundbreaking. Teams around the league run them, but the Packers happen to be uniquely proficient with the details, a focus for LaFleur this offseason: Make every play look the same. Tying the run game to the play-action game drove the massive improvement by this offense in 2020.
The final touchdown pass Allen threw against the Rams, the game-winner with under 30 seconds to play, also came off play-action with a design similar to those deployed by LaFleur and Co.
Jet motion creates flow opposite the play and the timing of the snap forces the defense to wonder if this is a give play on the jet or a give to the running back. Allen rolls with the motion to create flow to the right, which allows the space to throw back to the left.
Even though there’s good coverage on the play, the space created to the back of the end zone allows Allen to float this in over the defender. It’s not nearly as “easy” as the previous play, but the design still creates distinct advantages for the offense. Luckily for the Bills and the Packers, they have quarterbacks who can make a well-defended play still work because of their ability to place the ball precisely where it needs to be. (Now imagine your July 2020 self reading that sentence!)
This is a mirror image of the touchdown Rodgers threw to Lazard in Week 1 against the Vikings, an otherworldly throw that seems to defy physics and gravity. Notice the similarity in formation, except with Rodgers under center. The jet motion acts as a double action on this play with the defense having to account for both Tyler Ervin and the run fake.
Lazard doesn’t come from across the formation the way Tyler Kroft does for the Bills, but the intention works the same way. He drives inside like he’s going to chip on the linebacker or dig out the safety, then pivots outside. The base concept of working against flow remains the same. The problem initially is he gets held up and the Vikings stick to Davante Adams, which means Rodgers has to improvise. He buys some time, creates a window and fires for the score.
This is why, to a certain point, all the pretty numbers the Rams put up this season don’t matter. They haven’t faced a quarterback playing like this. And the second-best quarterback they did face—at least the guy playing the second best—lit them up. All three Seahawks matchups came post-Russ cooking and while the Cardinals boast impressive skill talent, that offensive design is a mess and Kyler Murray doesn’t display the consistency making plays in structure from the pocket.
On the other hand, the 49ers beat them twice (once with Jimmy Garoppolo and once with Nick Mullens) using heavy run and play-action scripts along with RPOs and a mix of underneath routes. If the safeties are going to play two-high and fly downhill, then letting Rodgers decide pre-snap on numbers or reading the conflict defender makes sense. So too, does enticing the linebackers to fly downfield, getting the safety to replace and going over the top for a shot play or two.
Efficiency in the red zone could very well decide this game, with fewer scoring opportunities than Green Bay is used to. Following Buffalo’s model and utilizing play-action provides the best path to maximizing those chances and scoring enough to keep Jared Goff and Co. out of reach.