Each week this season, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell will study the tape and provide his world-class analysis to the 33rd Team.
As the first quarter of the NFL season draws to a close, the league’s hierarchy has begun to shake out, with the most talented teams rising above the rest. In the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams are 3-0 and tied for first place thanks to impressive victories over three 2020 playoff teams. Fresh off a resounding 34-24 triumph over the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the arrival of former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has elevated Sean McVay’s well-designed passing game. In my over 30 years of watching NFL coaching tape, Stafford is one of the quarterbacks I’ve appreciated the most. When the Rams traded multiple first-round picks and former number one overall pick Jared Goff to Detroit, I had a feeling Stafford’s career would become rejuvenated in a way he hadn’t experienced in his previous 12 seasons. His on-field ability combined with McVay’s multiple and intricate pass game concepts has led to a lethal offense that is tough to defend.
Highly respected by players and coaches alike, Stafford is an incredibly gifted quarterback. An intelligent field general with a gifted arm, he has quickly acclimated to McVay’s offense and is executing at a high level. Stafford has the ability to throw with velocity, touch and precise ball placement, and he has a superb feel in the pocket. His capacity to win both before and after the snap is one of the key things that has elevated the Rams in 2021. Stafford’s talent and intelligence within this offense have been on display a multitude of times throughout the first three weeks of this season.
On first-and-10 late in the first quarter of a scoreless game against the Buccaneers, Stafford found wide receiver Cooper Kupp for a 22-yard gain down the left sideline. The Rams were in no-huddle tempo and aligned in a 4×1 empty set. By aligning in an empty set out of this personnel, Stafford knew he could use Tampa Bay’s tendency predictability in coverage and saw the coverage declaration right before the snap. The Buccaneers had their nickel personnel on the field, and Stafford correctly read that Tampa Bay was in Cover 4. Running back Jake Funk (the no. 4 receiver) and tight end Tyler Higbee chipped edge rushers Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Shaquil Barrett as the Rams ran a post-corner route combination. The no. 1 receiver, Van Jefferson, ran the post route as Kupp, the no. 2 receiver, ran a corner route. Robert Woods, the no. 3 receiver, ran a route with an initial vertical stem that momentarily put safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in a bind. In quarters coverage, Tampa Bay is relying on cornerback Jamel Dean and Winfield Jr. to cover Jefferson and Kupp. Because the safety is responsible for the no. 2 receiver if his route is vertical – which is what happened with Kupp’s initial route stem – Dean was unable to pass off the no. 1 receiver, Jefferson, to the safety.
As routes develop, Cover 4 zone coverage transitions to a matchup-based man coverage. As Dean matches Jefferson, Winfield Jr. is forced to match Kupp. This confuses the safety as he is slowed by the presence of Jefferson and is late to Kupp’s route as he breaks to the outside. Stafford knew what he had before the snap and delivered an accurate ball as a key play in a 95-yard touchdown drive. When he dropped back, Stafford didn’t take his eyes off Kupp. While it may have seemed like he was blatantly staring down his receiver, the empty formation informed him presnap what the coverage was and thus how the route combination would impact the coverage. With Funk occupying the flat defender after his chip block, Stafford knew that defender wouldn’t be able to gain the requisite depth to affect his throwing lane. The route design defeated the coverage and presented Stafford with a throw that for him was routine.
Stafford making everyone better
Week 1’s Sunday Night Football matchup against the Chicago Bears was another showcase of the traits that allow Stafford to thrive in McVay’s system. On his second play from scrimmage as a Ram, he connected with Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown. Aligned in 11 personnel, the play was replete with McVay staples. Los Angeles lined up in a 2×2 set with reduced splits, and the play was a play-action boot with outside zone run action and a seven-man protection. A two-man route concept saw Woods run a curl route to attack and hold the boundary split safety Tashaun Gipson Sr., while Jefferson ran a post-corner-post route against the field safety Eddie Jackson. Stafford launched a big-time throw across the field off the boot left.
Later that game, he found Higbee for 37 yards on a first-and-10 as Los Angeles looked to increase its lead. McVay called a classic Cover 3 beater, two-through-a-zone which featured play action, a jet sweep and a three-man route concept to the field. After Kupp ran the jet sweep action, DeSean Jackson ran a go route as Higbee ran a corner route underneath him. This put cornerback Kindle Vildor in conflict as he had to run with Jackson. This left Higbee wide open in Vildor’s outside third, and Stafford delivered an accurate ball that allowed the tight end to gain additional yards after the catch.
Stafford has raised the level of production for Kupp and Higbee. Kupp leads the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns as he is on pace to shatter all of his career highs. Meanwhile, Higbee has operated as a wild card within the Rams’ offense as he’s lined up in different positions including in the backfield. He saw significant snaps as the boundary X receiver on the back side of trips formations against the Buccaneers as McVay uses him more in the passing game than in previous seasons. Two of the areas Stafford has been the deadliest are empty sets and off of play action. He has completed 25 of 32 passes for 345 yards and 3 touchdowns out of empty sets as the Rams have run the most empty sets in the league up to this point. All but three of these plays have come out of 11 personnel, which the Rams feature on almost 80% of their snaps. Stafford has also been outstanding off play action through three games, having completed 17 of 21 attempts for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Stafford’s ability to process information on the field and throw passes with touch, accuracy and velocity have combined with McVay’s proclivity for reduced splits, bunch concepts and play action to form the basis of a dangerous offense. The trade for Stafford has elevated the Rams’ receiving corps and offensive output as they look to continue their hot start to the season.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story.