Over the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams have been the home of one of the most explosive and creative offenses in the league under head coach Sean McVay. Since McVay took over, no team has scored more points than the Rams, Jared Goff went from draft “bust” to “franchise quarterback”, Robert Woods has led one of the most prolific wide receiver groups in the NFL, and Todd Gurley became a staple in MVP conversations.
To say the least, McVay’s offense took the NFL by storm.
What makes that even more impressive is that he is doing it with one personnel grouping. The Rams offense isn’t diverse and they don’t show multiple looks. They run everything in one formation. With the Rams, McVay has primarily used the same personnel grouping on the field: three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end – otherwise known as 11 personnel.
In fact, over the last two seasons, the Rams have only used a total of only five personnel groupings which is by far the least in NFL with the Chiefs being the next closest at 12.
In 2017, the Rams ran 11 personnel 81% of the time which was 9% more than any other team in the NFL and way up from the league average of 52%. It was no different last season. In fact, McVay increased his usage of 11 personnel as the Rams ran 11 personnel on an astounding 90% of their plays.
However, that 90% mentioned is slightly misleading. In Week 1-15 the Rams actually ran 11 personnel on an extraordinary 95% of their plays. The next closest in that time span was the Miami Dolphins at 76%. In other words, in Weeks 1-15, the Rams ran 11 personnel 19% more than any other team in the NFL.
No team utilized 11 personnel more than the Rams last season, and only the New England Patriots (5%) and Oakland Raiders (10%) used 12 personnel less (13%)
It makes sense for the Rams to use 11 personnel. With wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Woods, and Cooper Kupp, the Rams are able to have all three on the field along with Gurley and the tight end of their choice. One of the main reasons the Rams are able to get away with this high of a percentage of one personnel grouping, specifically 11 personnel, is because of the blocking abilities of both Kupp and Woods.
While most teams need to insert a second tight end for blocking purposes, whether it be for pass protection or run blocking, Kupp and Woods excel in this area. According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams duo are both ranked in the top-5 when it comes to blocking.
The Rams may not use a lot of personnel groupings but they are still able to show different looks with how they line up the personnel on the field. The plays below display just how simple, yet complex the Rams offense is. This is going to be the same passing concept, with the same personnel on the field, ran different ways.
This play is from Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders and as you can see the Rams are in 11 personnel. They have Woods and Kupp lined up to the left with Cooks on the right and Todd Gurley serves as the running back. You have Cooks running up the sideline on a go-route, Kupp runs a 5-yard sit-route, and Woods runs a deep post.
Goff really should have hit Cooks on this play, but he gets Woods with the completion.
This is what makes the Rams offense so difficult to defend. Again, they are in 11 personnel but Todd Gurley is lined up as a wide receiver, putting a trips left formation on the left side of the field. Again, you have Higbee and Kupp running 5-yard sit routes. Instead of the go-route, Cooks runs a deep curl, and again, you have Woods coming across on the post. Touchdown.
Again, this is the same play and the same formation as earlier against the Raiders except instead of Higbee, Everett is the tight end. Everett and Kupp run the 5-yard sit, Cooks runs the go-route and Woods comes across the middle on the post.
As you can see, this is basically the same play in the same personnel grouping, but they are able to line up players like Gurley out wide to show a “trips package”, yet run the same designed play and have success. Being able to run several things, but show something different in the same package is special as it keeps defenses guessing.
In the NFL it’s all about tendencies. Teams may run the ball more if they go with 12 personnel on first down and defenses are going to take notice of that. The Rams being able to run their entire offense from one personnel grouping makes them unpredictable.
Want to see an example of how "simple" the Rams offense is? Too bad.
They ran their version of the sail concept three times in the same drive against the Chiefs.
Play 1- Start in a bunch and motion Cook over to run the sail route. pic.twitter.com/rMVf54pLFh
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) January 31, 2019
In this play the Rams motion Cooks over pre-snap, again in 11 personnel, before running the sail concept. Goff completes the out to Cooks, but later in the game…
The Rams found success early in the season in 11 personnel. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Rams had success on 53% of their plays in 11 personnel in Weeks 1-15. Only the Chiefs (56%), Chargers (54%), and Saints (58%) had more success during that time span.
However, essentially overnight, the Rams completely changed their offensive philosophy. The Rams went from running 11 personnel on 97% of their plays in Week 15 to 43% the following week. One could point to the matchup being the reason, but in Week 17, the Rams were only at 70% and were below 90% in each of their playoff games. The 43% in Week 15 is certainly an outlier, but there is still a huge change in philosophy.
There are two events that you can point to in order to find the answer to the sudden drop. Those events are the injury to Todd Gurley in Week 14 and the signing of C.J Anderson prior to Week 15.
Gurley and Anderson are two completely different styles of running backs. While the Rams ran the ball 91% of the time out of 11 personnel last season, as shown above, that changed drastically after Gurley’s injury. With Anderson, the Rams ran the ball 31% of the time out of 12 personnel. This lines up with what the Broncos did in 2017 when Anderson rushed for over 1,000 yards. On rushing plays, Denver used two tight ends 32% of the time.
This was no accident. The abilities of Gurley and that of the receiving corps perfectly fits what the Rams want to do while in 11 personnel. When the Rams not only lost Cooper Kupp but Todd Gurley as well, McVay adjusted on the fly.
Gurley ran 30.1 routes per game in Weeks 1-14 which equates to 425 total routes last season – the third most among running backs in the NFL. Again, there is a drastic change in Weeks 15-17. In that three week span, Anderson ran just 10.7 routes per game, almost a third less than Gurley in the weeks prior. This number goes down to 9.7 routes per game if you include the playoffs and Super Bowl.
From Week 16 to the Super Bowl, the Rams used 12 personnel an astounding 27% of the time – a 25% increase. Only the Baltimore Ravens (28%), Kansas City Chiefs (31%), and Philadelphia Eagles (38%) used dual tight end sets with one running back more. Adding to that, McVay went from running 11 personnel on 95% of plays to just 69%. That’s a 26% difference.
This change is seen as early as the third play of the first drive in Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals.
On the third play of the game, the Rams line up under center with two tight ends in-line. After a Goff fumble, the Rams go right back to two tight ends on the first play of the second drive.
What was initially McVay adjusting to life without Gurley and Kupp, ended up becoming a happy accident. The Rams were still having success in 11 personnel (56%) but were thriving in 12 personnel packages. From Week 16 on, the Rams found success on 64% of plays ran in 12 personnel. Only the Cleveland Browns (69%) had a higher success rate in the personnel grouping during that same time span.
The difference was even more evident on passing plays. Passing plays in 11 personnel only had a 48% success rate compared to a 67% success rate in 12 personnel.
To get the full feel of this, one must look no further than the Super Bowl.
The Rams go 11 personnel on 3rd-and-8 on their first drive. The Patriots get pressure up the middle, forcing Goff to go underneath to Josh Reynolds for an incomplete pass.
On the very next drive the Rams once again go 11 personnel, but this time they add play action. It’s a play that looks to be set up nicely, but still, the Patriots get pressure up the middle, shutting the whole thing down and foricing Goff into a bad throw.
Now we’ll fast forward to later in the game in the third quarter. The Rams go 12 personnel with Higbee and Everett. Everett stays back to pass block, giving Goff just enough time to get the throw off. This is the first time in the entire game that the Rams threw from 12 personnel and it should have been a touchdown.
Later in the fourth quarter, the Rams once again go back to 12 personnel and leave both Higbee and Everett on the line to block. The result is a 16-yard pass to Cooks.
The Rams were utilizing their tight ends more and having more success doing it. The reason was in part because of the loss to Kupp. In the first eight weeks of the season, the Rams found success on only 44% of passing plays when targeting Higbee or Everett. From Week 9 and through the rest of the season, that number increased to 58%.
As the season went on, the Rams gradually started using their tight ends more. Prior to Kupp’s injury, Everett had only received 1.88 targets per game while Higbee just 1.38. After Kupp’s injury, both of their numbers increased significantly. Everett jumped to 3.82 targets per game which is a 103% increase in targets. Higbee followed the same trend as he saw a 72% uptick in targets with 2.82 per game.
Not only did the tight end duo see an increase in targets, but there was also an increase on a per-route basis. In the first eight weeks of the season, Everett ran just 87 routes while recording 1.13 yards per route ran according to Pro Football Focus. From Week 9 until the end of the season, the second-year tight end ran 224 routes with an increase of 1.21 yards per route.
Everett saw a clear increase in production, but Higbee’s is even more significant. Prior to Week 8, the Rams tight end ran 118 routes while tallying a lowly 0.59 yards per route. Post- Kupp injury, Higbee ran 149 routes with a whopping 1.86 yards per route ran. That number ranked seventh among tight ends who ran more than 100 routes during that span.
This is much more what Rams fans would have expected from McVay. From 2011-2013, the Rams head coach was the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins. Under his coaching, a tight end ranked second on the team in receiving yards in two of his three years. In 2011 Fred Davis tallied a career-high 799 yards with Rex Grossman throwing the football. Then in 2013, Jordan Reed broke onto the scene with 499 yards and a career-best 11.1 yards per reception. Subsequently, McVay was eventually promoted to offensive coordinator.
This gives us a lot to take in as we move to the 2019 season and also a lot of factors that come into play. There have been reports of Gurley having an arthritic component to his knee and that he won’t be the workhorse running back that he has been the past two seasons.
However, while the Rams did bring back Malcolm Brown who is much closer to Anderson than Gurley is running styles-wise, they did draft Darrell Henderson out of Memphis in the third round. Henderson is not the same caliber of player as Gurley, but he’s much more of a receiving threat than Anderson or Brown.
With Kupp returning, the Rams will also have their trio of wide receivers back and fully healthy. In the NFL it’s all about having your best players on the field at the same time. Logistically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Rams to take Kupp, Woods, or Cooks of the field on a given play when all three of them are arguably top-25 wide receivers. This is especially the case when Kupp and Woods are as good as they are when it comes to blocking.
That could change with the continued development of Everett and Higbee. If the Rams can trust their tight ends, specifically Everett, as pass-catchers, then McVay can justify taking Kupp or Woods off the field.
There’s a reason the best-designed offenses in the league (NE, KC, PHI, NO, SF) are the most multiple. While what the Rams have done out of one personnel grouping is impressive, the best offenses and coaches adjust.
When looking back at the end of last season, it’s obvious that the Rams found more success in 12 personnel. The only question is, will McVay implement that more in 2019 or stick with what got him here?
* Editor’s Note: Personnel grouping percentages and success rates are courtesy of sharpfootballstats.com.