Los Angeles Rams: Looking at Sean McVay’s 2020 play-calling tendencies

by Blaine Grisak
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The only individual criticized more for the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive struggles last season other than Jared Goff was head coach Sean McVay. Goff should take a lot of the blame last season. However, McVay’s play calling shouldn’t be swept under the rug either.

Two things can be true at the same time. Jared Goff played terribly and turned the ball over AND Sean McVay made mistakes in play-calling and occasionally put his quarterback in position to fail.

The offense could look a little different in 2021 with the trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford, but the changes will be subtle. We’ll take a look at McVay as a play caller last season and how that compared to 2018 and 2019.

First and foremost, using Sharp Football Stats as a detailed guide, here are a few things that stood out from McVay as a play-caller in 2020.

Personnel Groupings

The Los Angeles Rams ran a lot of 12 personnel last season. Like the rest of the league, 11 personnel is still their primary packing, running it 65% of the time. However, the Rams ran 12 personnel on 29% of their offensive plays which tied for fourth-most in the league. In fact, from a pure number of plays standpoint, the Rams were one of just four teams to run 300 or more plays from the personnel grouping.

This was near night and day from McVay’s first few years with the Rams and even a significant increase from last season. The Rams were only at 21% in 12 personnel in 2019 and seven percent in 2018. From 2018 to 2020, McVay has used 12 personnel on 22% more plays.

That’s incredible and shows just how much McVay has evolved as a play-called. McVay understood that he needed to change his offense after the 2018 season and made a significant change by incorporating more 12 personnel.

The only other significant personnel grouping that the Rams used was 13 personnel which is used more in goal line situations. The Rams only ran a handful of plays in 22, 10, 01, and 02 personnel.

Sharp Football also has something called “successful plays”. The Rams weren’t much more successful from a percentage standpoint in formation compared to the other. As an offense, the Rams were 53% successful in 11 personnel compared to 50% in 12. However, the Rams were the fourth most successful team in 11 personnel and only tied for the 15th most successful in 12 personnel.

Los Angeles Rams Snap-Rates – Under Center vs. Shotgun

The Los Angeles Rams were among the leaders in the league last season in snaps from under center. McVay called 59% of snaps under center compared to 41% of plays in shotgun. That 59% rate under center ranked tied for second in the league behind only Minnesota and tied with Tennessee.

The play calls from under center is where this gets interesting. It’s also where McVay gets incredibly predictable. The Rams ran the ball 67% of the time from under center. However, compared to shotgun, the Rams ran the ball only 9% of the time in that formation. That 9% ranked dead last in the NFL.

The question then becomes if that 9% is enough to keep defenses honest. Most likely not.

The discrepancy is seen again in passing plays. The Rams throw the ball 33% of the time under center and 93% of the time from shot gun.

Going off of those numbers, it’s pretty easy for defenses to know what the Rams are going to do when. Under center it’s more 50-50 and the run-pass discrepancy is more in line with the rest of the league. However, in shotgun, it’s pretty clear that the Rams are going to be throwing the ball.

This is pretty in-line with past seasons under McVay as well. In 2019, the Rams ran the ball just 5% of the time from shotgun and in 2018 it was 4%.

There is an element of surprise when the Rams do run it from shotgun, however, it’s very predictable. When teams know you’re going to throw the ball in a certain formation over nine times out of ten, it’s pretty easy to prepare for that.

What’s interesting is that McVay is pretty consistent throughout the game as well. Those percentages don’t move a lot when comparing the second quarter from the fourth quarter. McVay however, is more likely to run the ball from shotgun in the first quarter than any other part of the game. The Rams ran the ball out of shotgun 11% of the time in the first quarter last season. That’s a 4% increase from their game average.

Looking at how that changes depending on the distance, McVay is more likely to run the ball from shotgun in short yardage situations (three yards or less to go) and mid-distances (six yards or less). In short yardage, McVay runs from shotgun 16% of the time and 10% of the time in mid-range distances.

Those numbers still rank near the bottom of the league, but you can see the obvious difference and increase as the yardage gets shorter.

Now, taking that a step further and looking at it by down, the Rams are much more likely to run in shotgun on 3rd down than any other down. On third and mid-distance and third-and short, the Rams ranked 26th and 29th respectively as compared to 31st and 32nd in any other down and distance.

Getting less predictable in shotgun and under center formations is certainly an area in which McVay needs to improve.

Los Angeles Rams Huddle Vs. No-Huddle

Some have wanted the Los Angeles Rams to go to a more no-huddle offense in the past. The Rams actually ran the second-most plays out of no-huddle last season outside of the two-minute drill. The only team ahead of them was the Arizona Cardinals who ran over double the amount of plays in no-huddle than any other team. The Rams also had a 61% success-rate on those plays.

The Rams were among the league leaders throughout every quarter, however, in the fourth quarter, the offense only ranked 12th in the NFL. This difference makes sense as if the Rams are ahead, they obviously aren’t going to run plays quickly in a no-huddle format.

Last season, the Rams plays every 27.5 seconds which ranked 18th in the NFL. It’ll be interesting to see if with a more experienced quarterback if the Rams play quicker on offense. The Lions were the seventh-fastest offense last season.

Overall Pass Rate vs. Run Rate

Looking at play-calling from an overall perspective, and then breaking it down into various situations based on down and distance is interesting. Sean McVay gets a lot of criticism for not running the ball enough. However, the Rams threw the ball 57% of the time and ran it on 43% of their plays last season.

The 57% pass rate ranked 22nd in the league. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams ran the ball 43% of the time which was the 11th most. McVay’s play calling is actually pretty balanced and is in fact more run-heavy than some think it is.

Without breaking it down by down and distance, McVay threw the ball 62% of the time in 2019. That ranked seventh in the NFL. He was again at 56% in 2018. The rise in 2019 could have been because the Rams were trailing more often.

We’ll now break this down by down and distance for the 2020 season.

On first-and-10, the Rams actually only throw the ball 48% of the time. In comparison to the rest of the league, again, they are very balanced. In terms of success on these plays, the Rams ranked tied for 5th in passing success rate and tied for 6th in rushing success rate on first down.

On second down, the Rams get a little more pass-heavy, throwing it 56% of the time. However, that’s average compared to the rest of the league. The Rams could get more efficient here. They only ranked 14th in passing success rate on second down and 16th in rushing success rate.

The same can be said when breaking that up by distance. On second-and-long (seven yards or more), the Rams actually only throw the ball 48% of the time. Again, this ranked right in the middle of the league, ranking 14th. This does not change in the mid-range distance (four to six yards) either. That percentage is 53% which ranks 15th. Looking at second-and-short (one to three yards), the Rams get even less pass-heavy as compared to the rest of the league. McVay calls a run play 70% of the time which is 10th most in the NFL.

Lastly, we’ll look at third down, but again, the Rams are average and one of the more balanced teams. On third-down the Rams call a pass 56% of the time, ranking 17th in the NFL. Their 44% success rate on passing downs ranked fourth. However, their 39% success rate on run plays on third down tied for the second worst mark.

On third-and-long, the Rams are actually one of the least pass-heavy team in the NFL. On these plays, the team ranks 29th, ahead of only Baltimore and Buffalo.

In third and mid-range, the Rams throw on 85% of such plays, but like everywhere else, this isn’t much higher than any other team in the league. In fact, that number ranks 18th. Where the Rams are indeed pass-heavy is on third-and-short. This is one spot where McVay could get more balanced.

On third-and-short, the Rams throw the ball 57% of the time. That was the seventh-highest rate in the NFL.

For the most part, McVay is very balanced in comparison to the rest of the league. There are areas where maybe he could improved, specifically in third-and-short, but even then, the Rams had a 74% success rate which led the NFL by a wide margin.

The Rams don’t have a balance issue. They need to get better on second down. It’s an execution issue.

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