I’ll let you in on a little secret. During Sunday’s Super Bowl, all of us football writers spent time thinking about how the outcome of the game will shape the narratives ahead. How can we? Instead of waiting to see what happens after the Rams or the Bengals win, we threw the claim to ourselves: If Team X finds a way to pull this off, that means [insert take here].
Midway through the final quarter of the Rams’ 23-20 victory, that meant focusing on Shawn McVeigh. Los Angeles coach the a story. L.A. was down 20-16, and their attack had just faltered for the third time in a row, two of which had started within close range of the 50-yard line. Ramez McVeigh was on the cusp of a second Super Bowl transplant. That wasn’t as bad as Los Angeles’s three-point total against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, but their three-point scoring in the second half against the Bengals was still pretty bad.
The ravages of the attacking rams in the second half had an easy explanation: injury. Odell Beckham Jr., the star-level receiver, who was Kames’ most productive goal in the first half, injured his knee late in the second quarter and never came back. His absence, along with the lack of a tight start for Tyler Higby, left the Rams with four active wide receivers and two active tight ends — then back-up tight end Kendall Blanton fell with a shoulder injury in the third quarter, leaving only third-stringer Brian Hopkins to play center. The first three leaders of the team without Blanton? All three and pan.
With both Beckham and Blanton sidelined, the Rams were skinny in the pass-holders. But passing was the only way to move the ball. After that third triathlon finished just over 10 minutes ago in the fourth quarter, the Rams scored 11 runs into the game. They have carried the ball 18 times – and not a single run has resulted in a positive EPA. In other words: each Rams rush attempt makes the Bengals more likely to win the game. Surprisingly, this was not the first game in which the team failed to produce a positive performance. But it was the first time the coach didn’t stop asking for plays in the face of such a poor performance.
Rams have 0 successful campaigns (EPA > 0) on 18 loads, 1 of 4 teams have had a fast 0.0% success rate in a game over the past 6 seasons, per Tweet embed.
The other three teams to do this were all number one… https://t.co/e1a8VDcKdv
– Keegan Abdoo (@KeeganAbdoo) February 14, 2022
McVeigh probably felt it was necessary to run the ball, given the injuries to the pass catchers. Perhaps he felt that running – even ineffective – would determine upcoming theatrical shots. Either way, McVeigh was wrong. The Rams’ running game was only helping the Bengals.
We can see that by looking at Cincinnati’s reaction to the rushing attack in Los Angeles. The Rams wanted to run out of condensed formations, which required receivers to tightly enter the offensive line to provide another blocker. The Rams have rarely played in anything but 11 (a group with one running back, narrow end, and three wide receivers) this season. For this strategy to be viable, wide receivers in Los Angeles Must Contribute as blockers to the running game.
The problem on Sunday was twofold. First, without Higbee and Blanton, the rams would not have had a tight end. Hopkins, forced to play, is more than a 6-foot-4, 245-pound wide receiver. Neither he nor Blanton saw much of a shot in the regular season, and both struggled to identify, connect and synergize when working with the rest of the Rams’ offensive to disrupt the Bengals fronts.
Secondly, the Bengals intentionally changed the image they gave of the line of rams. By shrinking the front (moving defensive linemen closer to the middle of the formation) or sending direct offensive strikes at the blitz, the Bengals created confusion and corners beneficial to their line players and their safety. For Los Angeles, implementing double teams or coordinating compound blocks has suddenly become more difficult.
While the Rams found success in the passing game from intense combos early on – quarterback Matthew Stafford had 4 of 5 passes for 54 yards with a touchdown down the center, stopping play in the first half – the Bengals are tackled using late bouts to hide pressing packets and steal Stafford took the time to prepare for deep shots. As the Rams sat in their intense groups, the Bengals managed to bring so many bodies into the formation, that it was difficult even for a veteran like Stafford to determine which player was fluff. The clips below show how this works: On the first shot in this cut, the hole-gunner comes after Stafford and creates a speed and check-up. On the second shot in this cut, the slot gunner stops, mixes running back in protection, and fills the screening window.
Brahms’ running game wasn’t working. The Rams pass game has also stopped working. Los Angeles did not have subs in a wide receiver or narrow end. And widespread superstar Cuper Cobb – who was recently named the NFL’s Most Valuable Offensive Player – is somehow rendered passive. He didn’t see a target in any of the fourth quarter of the Rams. McVeigh, one of the masterminds of the modern attack, would have lost again, because the basic principles of his scheme (intensive combos, scrolling in play) had been removed. Sixteen points in 11 flights. The narrative began to stabilize.
Then the Rams 12 campaign took place.
The first thing Los Angeles did was expand. Per Keegan Abdoo of Next Gen Stats, the Rams formation width averaged in their 12th drive 26.5 yards—a big jump of 23.1 yards they averaged in the first 11. It was a reasonable change, and even evident on the surface: The Rams no longer threatened the run, as they had the ball with just over six minutes left and needed a touchdown to take the lead.
This was also an act of imitation. An offshoot of the McVay coaching tree, Bengals coach Zach Taylor quickly expanded his squad once he took over the Bengals job. You can see Cincinnati’s jump in view of the formation after the team drafted a borough.
The Rams averaged the most intense line-up display of all season under Sean McVeigh, with the exception of 2021 where they ranked fifth.
– NextGenStats February 8, 2022
Scattered formations force the defense to spread out with them, making it easier for savvy quarterbacks like Burrow and Stafford to take pre-match readings or diagnose cover shells. After going into these formations, the Rams expected to see coverage of the area from the Bengals defense – and they got it. Back from Keegan Abdoo at Next Gen Stats: In Sunday’s first 11 runs, the Rams were in 3×1 formations in 54 percent of offensive shots. That number dropped to 33 percent in the twelfth drive. These picks were replaced by 2×2 formations with four receivers (three conventional wide and Hopkins, narrow flex end). Los Angeles used these formations in 16 percent of the shots on its first 11 drive, and 40 percent of the shots on its 12th drive.
It wasn’t just the new formations that helped. It was also the rhythm with which the Rams got into those looks. The Rams did not need to replace new players, so they rushed into the line and forced the Bengals to make quick and simple defensive calls in order to maintain a defensive pace. Those defensive calls provided the Rams with coverage of the area, which they could anticipate and exploit. “We were in such a hurry this whole last trip,” Cobb said after the match. “Being able to stop them from making some lunges but also keeping them in the area calls where you can put some pressure on them and get calls they feel comfortable playing and off some things and let Matthew and I find some weak spots there.”
Put aside the 4D spreads and configurations for a moment. The rhythm was the straw that moved the drink. After the game, Stafford said the Bengals “played a bunch of cover guys, were doubling the fold of play on every three points, and you know, we just lost a few plays here and there that would have been big plays for us. And on that final trip, I thought That Sean did an incredible job letting us get out there and play with a set of rhythm.”
The Bengals quarterback Chidubi Ozi said the Rams “were walking on the ball, they were walking fast, and we weren’t really able to take advantage like we always do.” Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard said the Bengals were expecting the Rams to go fast at some point, but that wasn’t enough. “They did a great job putting 15 plays or something together at the most critical moment,” he said. “Matt Stafford is an incredible midfielder, so thanks to them, they went down and won the game, and we had to stop them.”
Throughout the match, the Bengals were defending McVay’s attack – until suddenly they weren’t. They were defending Taylor’s attack in terms of quick formations and throws. Once McVay got the Bengals on their back foot with this approach, he never stopped to let them recover. Ramez’ winning campaign in the game was far from perfect. LA had to convert fourth and 1 after the third and one run of an intense group failed to gain an inch. But it got the job done: Easy, the bottom throws became a lot more available.
This impulse was driven above all by Stafford. The moment was a definite final reminder of what he had always been capable of, but was constantly ignored when he was playing in the senseless regular season games in Detroit. In a crucial sequence on Sunday, after carefully moving the Rams’ attack on the field, Stafford pulled von Bell far enough out of his area window to deliver a powerful blow to Cobb by stride, over the middle. It was a 22-yard gain—the only game over 20 yards played by the Rams after Beckham left his injury. He was the only one they needed.
The twelfth drive was all about change for McVay. Not just the change in quarterback, though, because the Rams’ trade for promotion from Jared Goff to Stafford was the defining move in their latest season out. Not just a change of personnel, Rams had to overcome countless injuries leading up to and during the Super Bowl. It was also about the tactical changes within the game that he failed to make in his first Super Bowl appearance. The opponent’s defense removed what he wanted to do, but unlike the 13-3 loss to the Patriots, he adapted. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t instant. It was still enough to change the narrative.
There are plenty of universes in which the Twelfth Rams Engine does not occur. Heck, there are plenty of universes where the Rams don’t hit last-second field goals against the Pirates or 49ers, and where Bengals fail to take on Titans or bosses. This was a messy playoff, and out of that mess we’re going to extract and extract many narratives. Despite all the focus on Stafford and Rams’ all-encompassing approach, the NFL season has been reduced to one lead. McVay had the talent and means to adapt, and as a result the Rams are Super Bowl champions.
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