One of the main components of L.A.’s offense is their play-action passing game. It’s an offense in of itself, and Rams Head Coach Sean McVay isn’t afraid to be relentless in his use of it.
Play-action is a quarterback’s best friend. In general, it allows him to turn his back to the defense, and by the time he turns back around, the coverage is defined. There are generally fewer receivers, which means simpler reads and a clearer picture for the quarterback.
If the play-action is used with a bootleg, the quarterback can get on the perimeter where he has the ability to safely throw the ball away or run it. McVay likes to use play-action to help get Jared Goff settled into games. In fact, we saw him call a play-action bootleg on the first pass play of both playoff games.
The Rams included a pulling guard on this particular play-action, and the tight end who ended up catching the ball (Tyler Higbee) took a couple of initial steps inside. The run action really helped sell the fake, and this forced the defense to flow away from the boot. The result was a big play.
Another reason play-action is a quarterback’s best friend is that it helps slow down the pass rush. On a straight play-action drop back, the defense has to honor the play-fake. If used with a bootleg, it also changes the launching point of the quarterback. All of this prevents the defense from pinning its ears back and getting into a rhythm rushing to the same spot on every snap.
You can argue that Sean McVay is as good as anyone in the NFL at influencing defenders in coverage with his play-action passing game. This is because the Rams don’t just run simple play-action. They also combine it with motion and misdirection that helps move or hold underneath defenders. Just watch Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (#55) on this below play.
That was a nice window for Goff to throw into.
McVay loves to align his receivers in tight splits (alignment inside the numbers close to the formation). One of the benefits of this approach is that it allows those receivers to attack any deep area of the field. Given that there are so many route options due to the tight splits, McVay can more easily deploy multiple route concepts that work off of each other. He can set up tendencies and then break them at the right time. You can see this in our breakdowns below.
This first play was a post-cross combination. This is a route concept that needs time to develop downfield, which is why the Rams use it with play-action. It’s also a route concept the Rams use often. Notice the tight receiver splits on every single one of the plays below.
This next play against the Saints looked like it was shaping up to be another post-cross combination, as you can see from the initial paths of the receivers.
The Rams weren’t running a post-cross here, though. They were running a post-corner with a crosser underneath it. You can see how effective this was based on the fact that the deep safety was sitting in the middle of the field with his body turned inside, ready to defend the post.
This left the corner open.
On this play vs. the Seahawks, you can again see the beginnings of what looks like another post-cross combination.
But neither receiver was running a post or a cross. Instead, both receivers stopped their routes.
Tough to defend when you’re anticipating the post-cross.
This final play against the 49ers again looked to be some kind of post-cross combination at first.
You can see the safety sitting in the middle of the field, ready to defend the post.
This time, both receivers ended up running corner routes.
The result was a touchdown.
Sean McVay isn’t the first great play-caller and designer that Bill Belichick has faced. Still, the Patriots will have their hands full trying to take away L.A.’s play-action passing game.
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