How the Rams Can Set Up Their Rookie Quarterback For Success
37.8 percent of Nick Foles’ yards in 2015 came on throws where the ball didn’t travel further than two yards downfield. 25.5 percent of his attempts came on those plays. Nobody else had more than 33.5 percent of their yards come on those plays while only seven quarterbacks had a higher percentage of their attempts qualify.
Case Keenum is naturally more aggressive, but even he finished the year with 23.2 percent of his throws qualifying under those conditions.
That was the construct of the St. Louis Rams offense last year. They were overly reliant on screens and quick throws underneath because of their inability to run a functional downfield passing game. Not only did they lack the quarterback talent to push the ball downfield but they were also playing with a leaky offensive line and receivers who couldn’t separate or consistently win at the catch point. An over-reliance on Tavon Austin’s YAC naturally developed.
Neither Keenum are Foles are going to start for the Los Angeles Rams in 2016. They will be replaced by Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, most likely Wentz, after the Rams traded up with the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the draft. Their new starter should be put into the same position that Foles and Keenum were. The Rams have given away all of their draft picks and didn’t invest in skill position or offensive line talent during free agency, so their personnel will remain the same.
Neither Wentz or Goff are on the level of Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston from last season, so being placed in a simplistic offense should actually favor them.
Even though the quarterback position typically takes away attention from those around them, that won’t be the case in Los Angeles. Todd Gurley is the focal point of the Rams offense. He will be the foundation of their success while the quarterback and the passing game are only asked to fill complementary roles.
The Rams won’t need to alter their offense much for either Wentz or Goff. Everything will be clearly defined with route combinations that attack specific areas of the field so that the quarterback doesn’t have to move his eyes or attack dangerous areas of the coverage.
Above are Foles and Keenum’s pass charts. What immediately stands out is the lack of intermediate throws for Keenum and the lack of intermediate throws over the middle of the field for Foles. Intermediate throws over the middle of the field are more dangerous than any other because there are regularly linebackers and safeties tightening throwing windows or reading the eyes of the quarterback.
You not only need to be accurate and smart throwing the ball into coverage over the middle of the field, but you also have to be able to throw with controlled velocity, timing and touch.
On clearly defined deep shots off of play action, that kind of nuance is less of a concern. Screen throws are similarly simplistic in that there is no read to make and the throw is typically to a wide open receiver or running back at or behind the line of scrimmage. Not every play is as simple as this touchdown throw against the Green Bay Packers but the degree of difficulty for the quarterback is generally low.
This was one of the Ram’s best plays of the 2015 season. It comes on Third-and-3, midway through the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers. Before even considering what happens once the ball is snapped, you have to consider what happened leading up to this point.
Up until this point of the game, the Rams had run the ball 35 times and thrown it 24 times. After half time, the Rams had run the ball 21 times to just five pass attempts. Those 21 attempts had gained 71 yards, including the seven from Tre Mason on the two plays that set up this manageable third down. This came after Todd Gurley had run in a 71-yard touchdown and Tavon Austin ran in a two-yard touchdown during the second quarter.
It’s not just that this down-and-distance allows for the Rams to run the ball, it’s that the Rams had been pounding the idea of running the ball into the minds of the 49ers defenders all game.
Foles began the play in pistol, standing behind the center but not underneath him so he was catching the snap. This allows him to still sell play action without having to turn and move towards his running back. When Foles turns to face Benny Cunningham, he turns away from where Tavon Austin is on the field. Austin was lined up to the left, off the line of scrimmage tight to a teammate but not outside the numbers.
The alignment is hugely important. Furthermore, we should not that the 49ers were anticipating a running play by having seven defenders in the box. Seven defenders in the box doesn’t sound like a commitment to the run but it is when the offense has three receivers on the field. The alignments of both offense and defense are crucial for the space that the Rams are trying to attack.
When Foles turns towards Cunningham, the edge defender on the opposite side of the field and the linebacker closest to him both make aggressive moves away from Austin and towards the running back. Even though the ball has just been snapped, both are already out of the play.
The first receiver who lined up tight to Austin acts as a shield. He’s not running a route. He’s just holding his position and doing everything he can to stay between the defensive back and Austin. Meanwhile, the Rams have two offensive linemen releasing cleanly into space before Foles has even released the ball. They can comfortably get out in front to act as lead blockers because the linebackers have so badly bought the run fake and because Austin didn’t line up wide of the numbers.
On the other side of the field, the receiver releases to the sideline so the cornerback’s eyes are taken away from the play as he is in man coverage. Foles now has a simple throw to execute to Austin.
Because of the threat of the run, the game situation and the play design, Austin has a huge amount of space when he catches the ball. He can fall forward for a first down and relatively easily run 66 yards for a touchdown with his speed. Not every screen is going to gain 66 yards obviously, but this is the type of play the Rams relied on to move the chains and create explosive plays last year. It’s a play design that asks next-to-nothing from the quarterback.
He doesn’t have to make a post-snap read, he doesn’t have to throw under pressure, his window to throw is as wide as could be and there is no need to lead the receiver or throw with anticipation.
As prospects, Wentz is the better fit for what the Rams do because he is more comfortable moving in space and has a bigger arm to push the ball downfield. Goff is more likely to be effective on short and intermediate routes on the next level. Taking shots downfield in the Rams offense is a must because they can’t consistently find intermediate routes to gain first downs. They need big plays to complement the run-heavy approach.
Last year, the Rams showed off a lot of creativity to give their quarterback clearly-defined reads on downfield shots. They ran four verts often but those weren’t the plays that stood out for the quarterback position. In the above image, we can see a play from an early game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Todd Gurley is in the backfield and Foles is under center. This image comes from just before the snap.
The yellow lines on the image are the receivers’ routes. Tavon Austin is alone at the bottom of the screen. He is going to run a deep crossing route where he must draw the attention of the cornerback covering him but also the deep safety. The tight end just inside of him, Jared Cook, is running a shallower crossing route to entertain the attention of the underneath coverage.
Both of those routes will go completely against the grain of the play action as Foles will turn over his left shoulder and extend the ball towards Gurley.
Foles’ movement can be seen on the blue line. He works back to Gurley at an angle before making a sharp cut towards the far sideline. Gurley and his blockers move laterally, aggressively pushing the defensive front towards the left sideline, away from Foles. Foles has no pressure close to him as he turns to read the coverage downfield, however his two receiving options are severely outnumbers. That’s okay because this is a designed throwback towards the other side of the field.
Lance Kendricks had lined up as a tight end to the right side of the formation initially. He moved with his fellow blockers initially before bending into a route down the left seam. He was running to wide open space as the two crossing routes and pulled all of the defenders to the other side of the field.
James Harrison does an excellent job of recognizing Kendricks releasing into his route after initially biting on the play fake. The play fake had drawn him far enough out of position that the linebacker had no chance of catching Kendricks though. Foles throws a good pass, not a perfect one but an accurate one. He had a huge amount of space to lead the tight end into which would have made his catch easier even though Kendricks should have caught the ball regardless.
This is the kind of play that doesn’t require a great understanding of coverages or a quick process. Such an aggressive play design distorts the structure of the coverage and gives Foles a simple either/or situation.
Distorting coverages is the easiest way to simplify an offense for a quarterback. If you can manipulate the defensive backs with play action or route combinations while keeping receiving options in the same line of vision the quarterback doesn’t need to possess an impressive mental process to be effective. These are the types of plays Wentz was asked to make at NDSU.
In Gurley and Austin, the Rams have two players who defenses will always be wary of. Play fakes to either player aren’t your standard play fakes, they come with a greater treat because of Gurley’s overall ability and Austin’s usage. On this play, the Rams combined play fakes to Gurley and Austin while using route combinations downfield that allowed Foles to focus on one area of the field.
The play fakes come with a six-man protection, seven if you include Gurley’s chip block. Those numbers in pass protection combined with pulling the defensive front from left to right make it almost impossible for the Vikings to get timely pressure on Foles in the pocket. When Foles looks downfield, his intermediate crossing route is in line with his deep post route. He can view both receivers without moving his eyes from one side of the field to the other.
On this occasion he takes the deep shot and finds Kenny Britt with an accurate pass. Britt pulled the ball in for a 55-yard gain.
The Rams sacrifice three of their eligible receivers so that they aren’t running routes past the line of scrimmage. One is in pass protection and the other two were used to manipulate pass protection. They are comfortable doing this because they are attacking one specific defender in the secondary. Foles is reading deep safety Harrison Smith. The intermediate crossing route runs beneath him while the post route runs behind him.
When Foles recognizes that Smith is running forward, something he is slow to process, he knows that Britt has to be his choice. Once again, he is in a situation where the read is clearly defined and it’s an either/or situation because the defense’s play design has been distorted by the offense’s play design.
Foles still had to make a precise throw because he was late releasing the ball and Britt isn’t a fast deep threat. This is the kind of throw the Rams will hope Wentz is capable of making with his big arm.
The Rams aren’t a quarterback away from competing in the NFC. Their roster isn’t as stacked as it once was, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the offensive line is still a work in progress and the receivers all come with limitations. Despite that, they do have the pieces to manage the expectations for their quarterback in 2016. You can afford to have a limited passing game when you’re expecting to win games by running the ball and playing good defense.
How many games the Rams can win remains an uncertainty. With a rookie starter, Jeff Fisher’s usual seven or eight would be an impressive achievement.