Scouts and defensive coaches are raving about an NFC West team that is bruising and confounding opponents on a weekly basis, using a core of shape-shifting, position-toggling offensive weapons and a top-five quarterback to go on a remarkable tear following its bye … only it’s not the one you’re thinking of.
Yes, the San Francisco offense has been all the rage this season, at least before the 49ers were drubbed by the Ravens on Monday night. Kyle Shanahan has been widely hailed for his offense — and rightfully so — while the polarizing Brock Purdy was the MVP favorite going into Week 16. But within the sport, Shanahan’s old coaching buddy Sean McVay and his Los Angeles Rams, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, are being discussed in a similarly reverent manner. While the Rams don’t rely on hybrid receiver/running back combos in mold of Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel, they have their own rare blend of interchangeable weapons (Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua), embodying some of the same core principles that have guided Shanahan and McVay to the top of the NFL’s coaching paradigm. (Oh, and both have former head coaches serving as defensive coordinators in San Francisco’s Steve Wilks and L.A.’s Raheem Morris, who both deserve another opportunity to run their own teams.)
Stafford and the Rams’ potent mix have brought showtime football back to Los Angeles despite many predicting a lengthy rebuild after the Rams mortgaged top draft picks to fuel their run to the Super Bowl in early 2022. They have revived a season that appeared dead heading into their Week 10 bye at 3-6, off three straight losses in which they amassed a total of 40 points. The Rams are averaging 29.8 points during a 5-1 tear since, the loss coming on a punt return in overtime on a rainy day in Baltimore in which the Rams hung 31 points on the vaunted Ravens defense.
“It’s always about the players, and we got a couple of people back healthy,” McVay said in a phone conversation after reviewing film of his team’s Thursday night victory over the Saints. “That’s where it starts. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big Matthew’s thumb injury was, and Cooper really got that ankle feeling a little bit better and then getting [running back] Kyren Williams back, too.
“The guys getting a little bit of rest really came at a good time for us, just being able to recommit to some of our foundational philosophies and being able to have some early-down marriage of the run and pass. And you can only do that if you’re able to be efficient, and you have to be able to run it and throw it if you want to be a good offense. So our guys have done a good job executing and we’ve done a really nice job of being able to play up front, and we have some really nice continuity [on the offensive line] that we haven’t had for a couple of years. We’re sturdy on the interior of the offensive line and on the edges, and Matthew has a really good rapport with these players, and that has really helped us get the offense going.”
Stafford’s play has been sublime since the bye. His accuracy was ailing and he was abysmal when under pressure the first 10 weeks (38 percent completion percentage under pressure, with a 60.6 rating) as he dealt with elbow issues and the offensive line shuffled. The running game also sputtered while alternating backs by the week as Williams, a second-year sparkplug they plucked in the fifth round, recovered from an ankle injury. (The Rams have crushed the late rounds of the draft lately while going seven years without a first-round selection.) Much was asked of the QB, and physically he did not seem up for it.
But since the bye, Stafford has been able to contort his arm angles freely again. His fastball is all the way back, and his ball placement has been uncanny on deep throws. He has thrown 15 touchdowns to just two interceptions since the bye, with a sparkling 107.7 rating while averaging 263 yards; he has at least two touchdowns passes in five straight games.
“He is playing elite football,” said a top defensive coach on a team that recently faced the Rams but is not permitted to speak publicly about other teams. “His arm angles and accuracy are phenomenal.”
A high-ranking executive on a team that recently faced the Rams said: “He’s playing his [behind] off and they’re very well coached, but I still think you can get to him with pressure. You look at some of the teams they’ll see in the playoffs, and that’s going to be their issue. I think you can blitz them.”
The Rams are also confusing opposing coordinators with their personnel. As always, they espouse 11 personnel (three receivers and one tight end) and are using it now more than ever — 94 percent of the time this season, the most in the NFL and the highest rate of McVay’s career. They are in 11 personnel a remarkable 97 percent of the time since the bye. If it sounds predictable, it’s anything but.
Determining which of their big-bodied and physical receivers is going to run which routes, and which might actually be the tight end in that formation or even serve as a second running back, causes nightmares. Having shiftable pieces such as Kupp and Nacua (a breakout fifth-round pick) who also get opportunities in the running game allows McVay to further decoy and confuse.
“The pass game with McVay is like the run game with Shanahan,” said a longtime scout who has studied both offenses closely on film. “The offense is not complex. They do it with different formation shifts and motions, but it’s really the same plays over and over.”
The defensive coach said: “Sean’s system is advanced in its simplicity. He dictates to the defense with his check-with-me system and creates 21 [two running back] and 12 [two tight end] personnel groupings out of 11 personnel looks, which are really tough to defend.”
The receivers make it all go. No divas here. Blocking is the rule — their wideouts room is the antithesis of Pittsburgh’s — and the Rams do it as well as anyone. With no fullback or extra tight end on the field, the receivers have no choice, and like the offensive linemen they have played no small role in Williams churning out 601 rushing yards since Week 10, doing so at a ridiculous 5.4-yards-per-carry clip and going over 100 yards in five of six games. McVay celebrates that blocking as much as their catches and touchdowns — and there is plenty to champion there, too, as either Nacua or Kupp has gone over 100 receiving yards in each of the past four games.
“There’s no question about it: You reward it when you get in those team meetings,” said McVay, who is still tweaking a red-zone offense that isn’t where he would like. “You’re praising those big guys up front, but you’re also getting a chance to recognize some of those second- and third-level [receiver] blocks and digging out support that springs a long Kyren Williams run.
“It’s important to be able to identify and praise those moments that embody a lot of the things you are trying to instill within your culture, and nothing is more powerful than them seeing it in front of the team when they are doing it and seeing the tangible results of what happens when they do it.”
The combination of health, execution and scheme maximization has catapulted the Rams to the precipice of the playoffs. They are one of the hottest teams in the NFC, and no other team in that conference boasts a Super Bowl-winning head coach and quarterback. The season’s second meeting between McVay and Shanahan, set for Week 18, now could be significant for both teams, and with how the Rams are playing a third meeting seems more possible than could have been imagined six weeks ago.