As we start heading down the home stretch towards the playoffs, I want to take a look at two teams that have taken vastly different approaches to balance on offense over the past few weeks. The Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Rams have been polar opposites when it comes to their commitment to the run game – particularly when it comes to their running backs.
Buffalo ran the ball with their running backs just seven times in their Week 14 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is coming off an impressive shorthanded victory against the Arizona Cardinals in which running back Sony Michel had 20 carries after recording 24 the week prior in a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Though the Bills rank 15th in rushing yards per game, much of that is due to quarterback Josh Allen’s proficiency in the run game. He ranks third among quarterbacks in rushing attempts and rushing yards while no Bills running back ranks among the top 25 players league wide in rush attempts or yards. Their inability to run the ball with any consistency has plagued them throughout the season and placed a heavy load on their passing game. They are too dependent on Allen being great every week, which is an unrealistic expectation and grants him no margin for error. When they can’t orchestrate explosive plays in the passing game, the offense stagnates. Buffalo’s offensive line is not good enough to pass protect snap after snap and allow their offense to be successfully one-dimensional, which has compounded their problems.
Allen’s performance in the second half of Week 14 against the Buccaneers was one of the better halves I’ve seen from a quarterback this season. Down 24-3 at halftime, he was able to rally the Bills to 24 second half points as they sent the game to overtime at 27-27. Allen was just the third quarterback ever to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game, as he became Buffalo’s first 100-yard rusher in over two years.
The Bills had issues with Tampa Bay’s pressure schemes and stunt concepts in the first half, leading to three sacks. Buffalo’s first rush by a running back came on the first play of their second possession in the 3rd quarter as their 27 first half plays were 24 called passes and three designed runs for Allen. Allen was able to overcome these issues as he ran for a touchdown in the third quarter and threw two more scores in the fourth quarter despite playing much of it with a sprained foot. Allen’s warrior effort was an impressive performance and the only reason Buffalo was able to remain competitive in this game.
The Los Angeles Rams currently sit just one game out of the NFC West lead after back-to-back wins. Despite playing both games without starting running back Darrell Henderson (on the reserve/Covid-19 list), they have 48 rushing attempts in the two wins with the vast majority of these carries by Michel. Their balance over the past two weeks demonstrates the value of the running game and shows how an offense can function at a high level when not overly reliant on the passing game (a la Buffalo). One of the biggest adjustments the Rams have made this season stems from their loss of starting wide receiver Robert Woods to a torn ACL and signing of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. prior to Week 10.
In addition to wideout Cooper Kupp, who has had a great season, Woods, Beckham Jr., and second-year receiver Van Jefferson have comprised the most important parts of the Rams receiving room this season. Woods operated as their Z wide receiver with Jefferson as their X wide receiver. The Z receiver lines up off the ball and to the strong side of the formation (which is almost always to the field) and is the motion receiver. The X receiver is the single wide receiver to the short side of the field and lines up on the ball, meaning he can’t move.
When the Rams signed Beckham Jr. and Woods went down, they had to make a change. Beckham Jr. is an X wide receiver, which is what Jefferson had spent the first half of the season playing. Los Angeles made a difficult change and moved Jefferson to the Z receiver spot while keeping Beckham Jr. at his X receiver spot.
This is a complicated change to make mid-season because each receiver position has its own nuances. Receiving splits and how receivers get into different routes and run them are dictated by which receiving position a wideout plays. Wide receivers are tied into their routes based on their splits and alignment, and they have to learn a whole new set of rules when they change positions.
Because the X receiver is often the lone wideout on his side of the field, he doesn’t have to work in tandem with other receivers and is an individual route runner. On the other hand, the Z receiver is almost always to the wide side of the field – often the trips side – which means he does have to run his routes in tandem with other receivers. To alleviate the difficulties of this transition, the Rams added personnel packages in Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with 16 plays out of 6 OL personnel. This allowed them to create more diversity in the offense without adding more plays to their 11 personnel (3 WR) package.
In their Week 14 victory over the Cardinals, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw touchdowns to Beckham Jr., Kupp, and Jefferson as he completed 77 percent of his passes for 287 yard and three scores. He had an outstanding game, as he threw with both touch and velocity when needed, was able to throw with precise location against man coverage, hit open schemed windows against zone coverage, and hung tough in the pocket.
On the first Rams possession of the third quarter, Stafford made a big-time throw 60 yards in the air for a 52-yard touchdown to Jefferson. The throw came on a staple Rams shot play concept versus single high safety coverage: play action boot left off outside zone run action right. It was a 2-man route concept: a post-cross combination with Beckham Jr. running the cross and Jefferson running the post. It’s a basic read for Stafford off the boot action as he gets his head around - post safety Jalen Thompson. Thompson had his eyes on the crosser. That told Stafford the throw was Jefferson on the post over the top, with the safety help removed. Jefferson got on top of corner Robert Alford and Stafford made the impressive throw. The touchdown gave the Rams a lead they would hold onto for a crucial divisional victory.
As the regular season winds down and the war of attrition via injuries and now Covid continues, a balanced offense allows teams to remain competitive under many different circumstances. The Bills will look to improve their running game and pass protection in the waning weeks of the regular season while the Rams will continue to integrate Odell Beckham Jr. and lean on their running game. I look forward to seeing how these teams adapt, especially if they are able to make the playoffs.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story