Throughout most of the first half, the Packers Defense looked like it had solved the Rams’ high-powered offense. They held Los Angeles without any offensive points until just 25 seconds remained in the 2nd quarter. While the Packers ultimately weren’t able to hold on, it is definitely worthwhile to take a look at their performance to see exactly what they did to give the Rams so much trouble.
There is no scheme that can take away everything an offense does. It comes down to a combination of game-plan, play-calling, and execution. And a large part of Green Bay’s success on Sunday was due to the way their secondary and pass rush executed.
Rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander was outstanding. He handled Brandin Cooks 1-on-1 multiple times with success. He did allow a few completions because he was targeted so often. However, he showed the ability to find and play the ball consistently. On the pass rush front, Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, and even middle linebacker Blake Martinez were disruptive throughout most of the game.
Schematically, it was clear that the Packers had game-planned to bring lots of pressure up the middle. Whether this was because they saw something on the interior of L.A.’s offensive line, or they wanted to make sure Jared Goff had pressure in his face, it was a deliberate effort.
The below sack is a great example. Focus on the Packers’ defensive front. On the right side, those 3 potential pass rushers were accounted for by the center, left guard, and left tackle.
On the left side, focus on the defensive tackle aligned over the right guard. At the snap, he rushed to the left, pulling the right guard away from the center.
This would end up ensuring that the center had no help to his right with a blitzing Blake Martinez (#50).
The alignment and design of the pressure got Martinez in a 1-on-1 matchup against a less athletic center right in front of Jared Goff. There was no escape for Goff.
Throughout the game, the Packers targeted the Rams interior in every way possible. They often aligned with players in the A-Gaps (the gaps to the left and right of the center) in order to put pressure on L.A.’s interior protection calls. They brought blitzes up the middle, as shown above. Their D-line used lots of stunts and inside moves, designed to bring pressure in Goff’s face. The Packers attempted to win inside via power, speed, and confusion. They ended up with 5 sacks and had the Rams Offense sputtering for a good portion of the game.
The Rams clearly had trouble protecting Jared Goff early. So of course, the offense contracted in on itself, used max protect on every play, and called nothing but screens and running plays for the rest of the game, right? Wrong. This is Sean McVay we’re talking about here. Not only did he continue running his offense, he started spreading the defense out and actually removed players from the protection on several plays.
After the Rams got their first points on the board by way of a safety, McVay started aligning his offense in more 3×2 formations (empty backfields). Goff would finish 5-6 for 92 yards and 3 touchdowns out of this formation.
Why did these 3×2 sets work so well? There are a few reasons. First, this formation spreads out the defense. With five receivers definitively running routes, the defense has to account for them with at least five defenders and generally one safety. More often, they end up dropping at least 7 defenders into coverage, which means fewer blitzes. This all but eliminated an element the Packers were having success with in the first half.
Second, this formation can help define the defense. Spreading the defense out makes it more difficult to disguise blitzes. It can also help define the coverage for the quarterback depending on how the offensive personnel is distributed. For instance, on the Rams second touchdown, running back Todd Gurley was aligned on the perimeter to the left. The Packers matched up with linebacker Oren Burks, as shown below.
This was an indicator of man coverage. Linebackers do not typically play on the perimeter unless it is man.
Goff adjusted the play at the line here. The Rams ended up running multiple crossing routes. Whether it was Burks’ inexperience, or a miscommunication where he thought he had help inside, someone did not go with Todd Gurley. He was left wide open for an easy touchdown.
This combination of formation and personnel distribution forces safeties and linebackers, like Burks, to play in uncomfortable positions if they want to play man-to-man coverage. The Packers were having success in man to that point, and the Rams found a way to use that against them.
Another thing this type of formation does is help create a numbers advantage for the offense if the defense decides to play zone. Below you can see how. One major element of this formation is that the 3-receiver side is aligned in a trips bunch (The Rams did this on all 6 plays called out of this 3×2 set).
Teams sometimes defend trips bunch by accounting for it with 4 defenders – three for the three receivers and a help defender inside to take away any shallow crossers. On this play, that pulled the middle linebacker to the 3-receiver side.
On the backside, the Packers were left with 2 defenders. The Rams were able to work on these two with a route combination that attacked the underneath defender.
With that defender in conflict and the middle linebacker helping out on the 3-receiver side, a huge void was left in the middle of the field. The Rams scored their final touchdown of the day as a result.
The Packers had a very good plan on defense. The Rams had an even better counter. This matchup was football at its best. When it was all said and done, a few too many mistakes by the Packers (both on defense and special teams), combined with the Rams’ relentless offense, ended up tilting the game in L.A.’s favor.