After prevailing over Seattle in the Wild Card round, the Dallas Cowboys travel to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum seeking to upset the No. 2 seeded Rams. Led by head coach Sean McVay, Los Angeles is second only to the Kansas City Chiefs in total yards (6,738) and points (527), and second to the New Orleans Saints in rushing touchdowns (23).
McVay’s Rams have destroyed opposing defenses for the past two seasons and have helped spark league-wide acceptance of “college concepts”. The recent appointments of Matt LaFleur and Kliff Kingsbury as head coaches of the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals are largely influenced by McVay’s success.
With an extra week of rest and preparation, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s defense faces a tall task against a mostly healthy and prolific offense. Here are some of the plays they’re sure to see Saturday night.
McVay’s offense has a few widely known tendencies. One is their near-exclusive deployment of 11 personnel. This three wide receiver, one running back and one tight end grouping is a hallmark of their system, largely due to the talent, speed, and proficiency of those players.
Another aspect of McVay’s philosophy is the constant use of condensed formations. By aligning his receivers in minus or reduced splits, the Rams can more easily hide their route concepts and manipulate coverages. Because defenders often shade themselves on the outside shoulder of these receivers, those men have a natural advantage on in-breaking routes like shallow crosses and overs, staples of the McVay system.
A third aspect of his offense is the use of jet and sift motions. Jet motion is when a receiver speeds across the formation pre-snap as if he’ll receive the ball on a jet sweep. Sift motion occurs after the snap and often involves a tight end cutting across and behind the offensive line, usually to block a backside defender or release into the flat on a rollout pass.
Those motions make up a large portion of the Los Angeles playbook and are used on both passes and runs like the outside zone and split zone.
Similar to Dallas’s opponent last week, the Rams frequently call outside zone and split zone. In fact, a lot of their pass designs are built on those plays. Stifling Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on these runs is critical to limiting Los Angeles’s potent attack.
Although simple in overall concept, the outside zone has numerous subtleties in its execution that decide the success or failure of the play. The Rams have proven themselves to be highly proficient in blocking this zone-scheme run.
Against the Eagles in Week 15, Gurley tore threw Philadelphia’s front-seven for a gain of 21 yards on 1st-and-10.
At Arizona the following week and with Gurley sidelined by injury, Anderson exploded for 46 yards on this play, even with the defense stationing an extra defender in the box.
If DeMarcus Lawrence and his fellow defensive linemen can produce a similar performance on the ground to last week’s, they’ll take away a huge dimension of Los Angeles’s attack and force them out of their comfort zone.
Fortunately for them, the Rams were exposed in a similar fashion at Chicago a month ago.
So, while impressive, their offense is not an unstoppable force.
As stated by Bill Barwell of ESPN during Dallas’s Wild Card matchup against the Seahawks, Russell Wilson and Seattle were at their best when utilizing play-action passes.
According to Barnwell, if the Cowboys have a weakness on defense, it’s that they struggle to defend play-action.
This is an area where Jared Goff and his receivers excel. McVay will be sure to exploit this deficiency as much as possible on Saturday. And because his offense does such an amazing job making their runs and passes look the same, they’ll be that much harder to stop.
3-Level Flood/Sail Concept
One play McVay has repeatedly dialed up the last few weeks is a play-action pass that attacks the defense at three different depths. The 3-Level Flood or Sail concept is an excellent Cover-3 beater, a core coverage in Dallas’s defensive philosophy.
Typically, the over route is the primary read with the vertical or corner clearing space along the sideline. The shallow cross or flat route holds any flat or hook defenders closer to the line of scrimmage.
Against the Eagles in Week 15, the Rams combined this design with an outside zone action. Goff then rolled to the wide side of the field and threw to his first read, tight end Tyler Higbee sifting across the formation into the flat for a gain of 11 yards on 2nd-and-7.
Philadelphia was in a single-high zone defense. If Goff’s first read was to Brandin Cooks on the deep corner instead of to Higbee, he might’ve been able to hit the speedy receiver for a long touchdown as that deep-third defender turned to cover the crosser late in the down.
Additionally, depending on how aggressive the deep safety is in covering the over route, this play can be easily altered in-game. McVay could change Goff’s bootleg to a half-rollout or fake rollout with Cooks breaking for the post instead of outside. Provided their pass protection holds up, this altered design could be a touchdown in the making.
Facing the Cardinals the following week, Goff scored a touchdown throwing to the corner route against man coverage. The cornerback stumbled as Robert Woods stemmed inside before breaking outside. The result was a beautifully-executed rollout for a 39-yard touchdown.
A full quarter earlier in the game, Goff found Josh Reynolds on the over for 26 yards.
Notice that in each of the above three plays, the linebackers were greatly influenced by the run fake.
The Dallas linebackers have been outstanding searching for crossers behind them once they read pass on play-action. But all it takes is one wrong step for them to get burned. That’s the case on this 34-yard touchdown pass to Dede Westbrook in their Week 6 matchup against the Jaguars. The play fake puts Leighton Vander Esch a split second behind the former Sooner.
Also note that Vander Esch is a linebacker trying to cover a wide receiver. That’s a clear mismatch McVay will attempt to replicate on Saturday. Watch for him to send either the outside or slot receiver streaking across the field when the Cowboys are in Cover 3.
Other Play-Action Passes
Sometimes the Rams will utilize two-man route concepts essentially run out of seven-man or max-protection. One useful design is a deep sticks route. If the offense is in rhythm, this play is difficult to stop.
Goff isn’t afraid to check the ball to his outlet receivers either, especially on early downs. This is a great way to pick up easy yards and create more manageable 2nd or 3rd downs.
Another excellent Cover 3 beater is a play-action TE Switch-Wheel concept.
This is a switch release design that confuses zone assignments down the field. The deep slant or shallow post occupies the deep-third defender who vacates his zone at the same time the tight end breaks out-and-up along the sideline. If the defense isn’t communicating, they’ll be gashed like the 49ers in the example below.
Due to Dallas’s struggles defending play-action, and because the Cowboys are likely to focus on the run first, watch for Sean McVay to open the game with play-action passes. If they hit, it will ignite their home crowd and put the Cowboys on their heels early. Dallas’s offense isn’t designed to play from behind, so an early, explosive score could snowball into an avalanche of points.
However, Marinelli and Richard are sure to have pointed out their team’s lackluster track record on these plays. They’ve likely challenged All-Pro corner Byron Jones and the rest of the secondary to put forth a better performance this weekend. Whether they do remains to be seen.
The Bears showed that this Rams team is beatable by a strong defense. But given what’s at stake, it’s hard to imagine McVay’s offense being shut down for an entire game, despite what happened in Chicago.
That loss to the Bears gave him and his staff an early peek into their weaknesses, and the bye allowed them extra time to solve or disguise them. On paper, the Cowboys run defense and offense look to at least be equalizers, or maybe advantages. However, the same could be said about Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh against Joe Looney and Connor Williams/Xavier Su’a-Filo. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is also familiar with Jason Garrett and the Dallas offense, having been a head coach of the team. That’s a critical factor that hasn’t been discussed as much as it should be.
The Cowboys’ popularity in California and nationwide also creates a friendlier environment than in other cities, but they haven’t performed as well on the road. despite the anticipated support in the stands.
This game could easily begin as a low-scoring slugfest that turns into a late shootout or vice-versa. Ultimately, a win or loss won’t be surprising, but I’ll stick my neck out and say they advance to the NFC Championship game. Provided their defense performs at a minimum of last week’s level to limit Gurley and Anderson and forces the Rams into a one-dimensional offense, and they keep Aaron Donald from wrecking the game, they’ll win.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.
*Mandatory Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports