It was a running play.
Sammy Watkins lined up just inside the numbers. He was roughly six yards to the left of Jared Goff, who was under center. Todd Gurley was behind Goff. He had just gained two yards on the Rams’ opening play of the season. The plan was to give Gurley the ball again on second down. It was an outside-zone run to the right side. Robert Woods searched out a defensive back instead of running a route at the snap. The offensive line shifted towards Woods while Jamon Brown advanced downfield to take out a linebacker. Everything on the field said it was a running play. Everything except Sammy Watkins.
Goff saw it before the snap. The outside linebacker to Watkins’ side of the field was pressed onto the line of scrimmage. The inside linebacker next to him was too far forward. Assuming Watkins could beat press coverage off the line, a safe assumption, Goff knew that he would have an easy pitch to his receiver on his slant route. Goff sold the run by turning towards Gurley before whipping back around to release the ball to Watkins. The receiver gained an easy 13 yards.
It was a running play. It was also a packaged play.
A packaged play is a running play where the quarterback has the option to throw the ball based on the alignment of the defense at the snap. On this specific play Watkins was running a slant route on the backside of the play. He wouldn’t be involved in an outside-zone run to the opposite side of the field so it’s an added wrinkle that costs the running play nothing. Packaged plays essentially allow you to audible the play without calling an audible. It’s like a read-option that occurs before the snap rather than after the snap. They are typically simple reads for the quarterback.
Sean McVay understands this. While Jeff Fisher probably doesn’t even know what a packaged play is, McVay understands their value the same way Kyle Shanahan did with Matt Ryan last season. McVay understands how to set a quarterback up for success. He sees the value in varying his play calling, working to be unpredictable rather than relying on the same three or four misdirection plays that make the offense predictable the way Jeff Fisher did. McVay features his running backs as receivers, puts his tight ends in different positions to attack different coverages and has put together a congruent receiving corps.
Last year, Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan relied on play action more than any other quarterback. Ryan threw a play action pass on 21.99 percent of his passes. The next closest quarterback was Dak Prescott at 18.11 percent, Ryan Tannehill was the only other quarterback to eclipse 17 percent. Goff has used play action on 23.38 percent of his attempts so far this season after using it on only 11.8 percent of his attempts last season.
Ryan gained 31.37 percent of his yards on play action passes, Goff has gained 27.78 percent of his yards on play action passes so far this season.
A good play action passing game is an unpredictable one. It’s one that mixes subtle and hard play fakes while moving the quarterback out of the pocket in both directions or keeping him in the pocket with different play designs. When the play fake is less predictable, the linebackers and defensive linemen are more likely to hesitate. Hesitating linebackers leads to distorted coverages. Hesitating defensive linemen lead to a slowed pass rush. Goff is benefiting from both things in McVay’s offense.
Play action alone can’t create clean pockets. Adding Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and John Sullivan at center gave the Rams something their line has been lacking for a decade: Established starting-quality veteran players. Whitworth is one of the best tackles in the NFL while Sullivan offers Goff a teammate who can help identify blitzes and set protections. Those two pieces ease the pressure on the young right side of the line both on the field with assignments and off the field with continuity/development.
Goff has spent much of this season bailing out of the back of the pocket and breaking into the right flat to throw the ball downfield. He’s afforded those opportunities because of the quality of his protection.
Take Gerald Everett’s 69-yard gain against Washington from Week 2.
Washington sends a five-man rush after the quarterback, a blitz. The Rams release all five eligible receivers into routes so the offensive line is trusted to win one-on-one matchups across the board. Goff’s processing is slow on this play. Washington is playing a form of Cover-3 with one deep safety in the middle of the field. Goff has an out route open to his left for a first down, then Sammy Watkins’ curl route comes open underneath on the same side of the field. When he works his eyes back to the right seam, he has a chance to hit that receiver if he leads him infield.
As he tends to do, Goff buffers in the pocket. His processing speed doesn’t allow him to recognize his opportunity to release the ball. Doing this against a five-man rush should result in a sack. But Goff’s line holds up so he has time to go through his progression, miss all the receivers, then drop backwards. Everything about this play to that point is bad for the quarterback.
Once he breaks into the right flat, the play has extended passed the point the defense expected it to. Gurley draws the zone defender underneath, the cornerback has followed the other receiver infield, leaving Gerald Everett wide open for a huge play.
This is the quintessential example of a good result, bad process play.
Because of the newfound quality surrounding him in his supporting cast, Goff is now able to be productive on bad process plays. He wasn’t able to do that last year in Jeff Fisher’s defunct, talent-deficient offense. Over the first two weeks of the season, Goff didn’t really do anything spectacular. He had still taken a step forward from his rookie season because he was executing easier plays at a higher rate, but the quality of his opponents’ play had a lot more to do with his success than his own play.
In Week 1 he was accurate on 65.52 percent of his passes, to put that in perspective Goff was accurate on 65.24 percent of all his passes last season and ranked last in the NFL for accuracy. Cooper Kupp catching two inaccurate passes to create 52 yards and the Colts complete lack of coverage and pass rush made him look good. In Week 2 he was similarly inaccurate, 65.22 percent, but showed off better reactions to pressure at different times, peak plays that he hadn’t shown off as a rookie.
Getting excited about that Week 2 performance was still a challenge because of his two worst plays of the game.
It’s Third-and-11 late in the second quarter, the Rams are trailing by 10. McVay isn’t trying to punt. He sends all five receivers out into patterns again. His four receivers release vertically downfield while Gurley waits underneath for a checkdown. It should become apparent quickly to Goff that none of his receivers will be open. Washington is playing Cover-3. Goff initially looks to Watkins on the left side who has a cornerback above him, another beneath him and a linebacker inside of him. His eyes linger on Watkins too long while he steps up in the pocket.
Goff’s initial movement to step up in the pocket is a good one. He isn’t a fast mover but he does enough to avoid the initial rush. From there he is oblivious to the pursuing defender and tries to locate one of his other receivers. Goff exposes the ball for the strip sack instead of flipping it to Gurley for a modest gain. His center fell on the ball, saving Goff from giving up a turnover deep in Rams territory that would have set Washington up to end the game as a contest with a touchdown.
Washington would eventually end the game, but not until Goff made his worst play of that particular game.
Besides being horrendously inaccurate, Goff had three main issues during his rookie season. His processing speed in the pocket invited pressure. When that pressure arrived his reaction was to panic, turn around, drop his eyes and try to run away. Those two things destroyed the design of passing plays, made it impossible for him to throw with any timing and took away his platform to throw the ball. The third issue was a commitment to staring down receivers, leading linebackers to the ball for interception opportunities.
The third issue ended the Week 2 game as a contest.
When asked after the game, Mason Foster told reporters that he anticipated Goff leading him to the ball. It was something he knew the quarterback had a tendency to do. Goff did that on this play but he still could have gotten away with it had he released the ball earlier and shown off greater velocity. Goff isn’t a big-armed passer so his passes can never catch up if he’s late releasing the ball. If you pause the above gif at the moment Goff begins to release the ball, the receiver is already coming out of his break. That can’t happen. The ball should have been arriving at the receiver when he turned, not leaving Goff’s hand at that point.
Monitoring these problems will be crucial to understanding Goff’s development over the course of this season.
Development is the key word for Goff because for as much as his overall numbers are misleading right now, he has taken a step forward. He has gone from someone who didn’t look like he belonged in the NFL, probably the worst starter in a league that boasted Blake Bortles and Josh McCown, to a competent player. He’s likely still a below-average or bottom five or six quarterback, but that’s progress. As a 22-year old quarterback, progress is enough.
That progress can be best measured in Goff’s accuracy. While his accuracy percentages in the first two games of the season were poor, Goff’s performance against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 was undeniably excellent. He was accurate on 21 of 25 qualifying attempts while primarily working in the 1-5 yard range, 13 of his passes went into that range. More significantly, Goff was accurate on all three of his deep attempts in the game.
Goff’s deep accuracy has been excellent so far this season. It’s a relatively small sample compared to a full season but he is pushing the ball downfield at a high rate. 15.58 percent of his passes have travelled more than 20 yards downfield, that would have been the second-highest rate in the NFL last year.. He has almost doubled his eight percent rate from last season. Goff was accurate on eight of those 12 attempts, a 66.7 accuracy percentage. The best deep passer in the NFL last year was Sam Bradford at 65.85 percent.
It’s not just that he’s been accurate either. At least three of those eight accurate passes have been throws into tight coverage.
Again, the first thing we have to note on this play is the quality of the protection. Goff gets a completely clean pocket with Whitworth perfectly repelling the defender trying to get to his blindside. Goff uses that pocket to deliver a pass into Tyler Higbee. You could nitpick the placement and say it wasn’t completely perfect but it did hit the window. Importantly, Goff showed off a command of his velocity to push the ball past the trailing defender confidently. He cleared that defender without overshooting his tight end.
Higbee drops the ball but there’s nothing the quarterback can do about that. It was still an impressive throw.
That was a good throw. The next throw is a great one.
Watkins does a phenomenal job on this play. Tracking this ball through the air and controlling your body to catch it the way he did is extremely difficult. Even though it’s a difficult play for the receiver, it’s still a great throw. Goff puts a lot of air on the ball but he pushes it deep to nullify the cornerback who Watkins has beaten through his route and he pushes it wide towards the sideline to nullify the safety. Goff made sure that this ball would be caught by Watkins and nobody else while putting it in a spot where his receiver had the best chance of catching it cleanly.
Furthermore, Goff didn’t have a completely clean pocket this time. The pressure was closing in around him. He had to get rid of it and he had to do so with bodies engulfing him.
It wasn’t a Tyrod Taylor type of deep ball or a Ryan Tannehill type of deep ball. It didn’t sustain huge velocity to travel on a lower trajectory, but the placement and timing of the throw made it an accurate one. Goff didn’t show this kind of quality last year. He was a 26.67 percent deep passer last year, only Blake Bortles was worse than him. The league average was 44 percent. Goff has been 40 percent more accurate on his deep passes this season, obviously it’s a tiny sample but at this point we should still consider it growth.
Goff’s accuracy was abhorrent as a rookie. When you have so many other problems with your process in the pocket it’s very hard to be accurate. He was a bottom three passer to every level passed the line of scrimmage last year. He was dead last in the 6-10 and 11-15 yard ranges. He was the only quarterback in the league who missed more than half of his throws that travelled further than five yards downfield. It was so bad that it was hard to imagine it ever getting better. But, so far at least, it has gotten better.
Because of that performance against the 49ers, Goff is three percent more accurate in the 1-5 yard range, 16 percent more accurate in the 6-10 range, nine percent more accurate in the 11-15 yard range and 40 percent more accurate on deep throws. He is only worse so far on throws behind the line of scrimmage (where he ranked sixth in the NFL last year) and in the 16-20 yard range (where he has only thrown four passes).
He is now accurate on 61 percent of his passes that travel further than five yards downfield, far more than half of his throws.
The sustainability of Goff’s efficiency is unclear. He is gaining more than 50 percent of his yards after the catch, only seven quarterbacks did that last season. Todd Gurley’s success out of the backfield has been a source of easy offense while Robert Woods has been missed on a couple of open throws that should have been made. He has only lost one reception to receiver error, that Higbee play, and has gained three receptions on inaccurate throws that resulted in 75 yards gained. He only has one interceptable pass at least, which is promising.
What gives you pause about Goff’s performances so far is the opponents he has faced. The Washington defense dismantled the Raiders on Sunday Night Football in Week 3 but that wasn’t close to how they played in Week 2. The soft schedule and Goff’s need to take at least another step forward in his development to become even an average passer as an individual allows for skepticism.
The Cowboys secondary has been disastrous over the past two weeks so Goff should be productive this week. It’s after that game when the real tests begin. The Seahawks at home, the Jaguars in Jacksonville, the Giants in New York, the Texans at home and the Vikings in Minnesota is a combination of the best defenses in the NFL. Should Goff perform adequately over that stretch, the Rams will really have reason to get excited about their young quarterback.