The St. Louis Rams have quietly emerged as legitimate contenders in the NFC behind an offense that's creating headaches for defensive coordinators everywhere, led by rookie back Todd Gurley and young receiver Tavon Austin. Considering this attack has helped the Rams carry a winning record into Week 9 for the first time since the 2006 season, I thought I would break down the All-22 Coaches Film, to see how St. Louis is getting it done. Here's what I discovered:
1) Todd Gurley has shown himself to be the Rams' franchise player.
In the scouting world, the term "franchise player" is reserved for playmakers with the kind of transcendent talent that places them among the top five at their respective positions. Thus, I'm paying the 6-foot-1, 227-pound rookie the highest compliment in the book when I describe him as the premier player on the Rams' roster just five games into his career.
I know most teams refer to their quarterback as their "franchise player," but the Rams' offense is driven by Gurley's spectacular talents as an electric runner with an uncommon combination of size, speed, power and agility. Not only has he reeled off four straight 100-yard games, but his 566 rushing yards in his first four career starts are the most of any NFL player since 1991.
Most scouts expected Gurley to take the NFL by storm when they watched him blow through the SEC for almost three seasons prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury last year. But few expected him to bounce back from that injury this quickly, or immediately emerge as one of the top runners in the NFL. Gurley has not only met the expectations that accompanied his selection with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but he's lived up to the lofty comparisons (to Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson, for example) that astute scouts have thrown out after watching his game.
From a scouting perspective, Gurley exhibits all of the traits the great ones possess as dynamic inside-outside runners. He is a ferocious runner between the tackles with extraordinary strength and power, as evidenced by his remarkable ability to run through contact in the hole. Additionally, Gurley displays exceptional balance, body control and agility slipping through creases at the point of attack. Although he is less than a year removed from the ACL injury, the rookie shows outstanding lateral quickness and burst making hard cuts in the hole. With Gurley also showing the burst and acceleration to turn the corner on outside runs, the Rams can attack the defense with a diverse running game that probes the defense from various angles.
In the video clip to the right, from the Rams' Week 7 win over Cleveland, Gurley displays nearly all of his elite characteristics on one run. After taking a handoff on an inside zone play, Gurley slithers through a crease at the line and runs through an arm tackle before cutting the ball back to the back side. The combination of balance, body control and burst is a thing of beauty, and it's one of the reasons Gurley could emerge as the NFL's premier running back early in his career.
Gurley's big-play ability adds an explosive element to the Rams' offense while allowing the unit to maintain the rough and rugged approach that Fisher covets in his squad. The Rams are comfortable leaning on their workhorse runner to salt away leads in the fourth quarter, which is when defenders typically tire of hitting big-bodied, physical runners like Gurley. It's no coincidence Gurley has amassed 38.4 percent of his rushing yards (221 yards) in the fourth quarter. Most impressively, he's averaged 8.5 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.
One of the best running back prospects to enter the NFL since 2007 has given the Rams' offense an identity. Gurley is a franchise player St. Louis can lean on during a playoff push.
2) Frank Cignetti has unlocked Tavon Austin's potential.
Credit the Rams for promoting an offensive assistant with an extensive collegiate background to the offensive coordinator position. Having knowledge of and experience with high school and collegiate concepts has become a vital part of the offensive equation, due to the proliferation of the spread throughout college football. While most would associate the experience with schematics, I believe dealing with young, athletic playmakers as collegians provides savvy offensive coaches with an opportunity to tap into their collegiate playbook to create big-play opportunities for their most dynamic players.
Given Cignetti's recent experience on the collegiate level (he served as an offensive assistant at Fresno State and North Carolina), he understands how to get the ball to the ultra-explosive Austin in a variety of ways on the perimeter. From jet- and fly-sweeps to traditional handoffs to bubble screens, Cignetti is using a number of concepts plucked straight from the high school and college playbook to get the ball into the hands of the Rams' most dangerous perimeter weapon in space. The concepts used are familiar to Austin from his experience at West Virginia -- and they taps into his skills as a dynamic runner.
It has thus not been surprising to see Austin make a significant impact for the Rams this season, with the playbook featuring more quick-hitting plays designed to get him easy touches on the perimeter. Austin -- who is firmly established as one of the most dangerous kick returners in the game -- has explosive speed, quickness and cutback ability with the ball in his hands, and the Rams are wise to prioritize him in their offense.
The All-22 Coaches Film shows that Cignetti is incorporating more fly sweeps into the game plan to get Austin loose on the edges. In the play depicted below, from the Rams' Week 5 matchup with the Green Bay Packers, the Rams are aligned in a trix formation, with Austin positioned at WR3. Prior to the snap, Austin motions across the formation. Quarterback Nick Foles flips the ball to Austin on a fly sweep to the left. Tight end Jared Cook gets a great block on Clay Matthews at the line, leaving a hole for Austin off-tackle. With tackle Greg Robinson sealing off the interior with a crushing block on the linebacker, Austin scoots in for a 5-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against the San Francisco 49ersin Week 8, the Rams used a jet sweep to get Austin loose near the end zone. As you can see below, the team is aligned in a solo formation (Ace Slot), with Austin positioned in the slot. He motions across the formation prior to the snap and receives the handoff at full speed. Cook executes a reach block on the defender at the end of the line, allowing Austin to race into the end zone for a 2-yard score on another play plucked from a high school playbook (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, from the win over the Niners, the Rams get the ball to Austin on a quick screen to take advantage of his running skills in space. The team aligns in a dubs formation, with Austin stacked behind receiver Kenny Britt. Foles executes a quick fake to Benny Cunningham before wheeling around to fire a dart to Austin on the screen. Robinson and Tim Barnes race out front to lead the way on the screen. Austin snags the pass, weaves through traffic and reaches the end zone on a simple quick screen to the perimeter (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Rams have opened up the playbook to help their diminutive playmaker get more opportunities on the perimeter, and the results have been spectacular. Through seven games, Austin has accounted for seven touchdowns (four receiving, two rushing and one punt return). Given Austin's impact as a multipurpose weapon, Cignetti deserves praise for digging a little deeper into the playbook to get his most explosive playmaker more touches in the open field.
3) Cignetti's creative scheming has helped the young O-line blossom.
Cignetti deserves credit not only for creating big-play opportunities for the Rams' top perimeter weapons, but for using a creative scheme to help his young offensive line dominate in the trenches.
The success of the Rams' third-ranked rushing offense has been fueled by a move to a zone-based scheme that better suits the team's athletic offensive line. The unit features a pair of rookies (Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown) and a second-year pro (Robinson) with the collective size, strength and agility to latch onto defenders on the move. The scheme is commonly used on the collegiate level due to the popularity of the zone-read by proponents of the spread, which eases the transition for youngsters adapting to the pro game. Additionally, the scheme allows blockers to work to assigned areas (offensive linemen are instructed to latch onto defenders on their assigned tracks) instead of matching up with designated defenders at the line. Thus, the unit is able to work in concert to create seams at the point of attack, resulting in fewer negative plays and facilitating consistent production from disciplined runners.
While the move to a zone-based scheme is definitely not earth-shattering in the NFL world, the creative enhancements Cignetti has added to the running game have helped the Rams' blockers get better angles on their assigned defenders and create bigger seams for runners. One such element is the utilization of the fake reverse or end around. During my time with the Oakland Raiders in the late 1990s, I watched Jon Gruden use the fake reverse to control the backside defensive end or linebacker on inside runs (backside edge players are responsible for bootleg, cutback and reverse). Cignetti is using the tactic to keep defenders from chasing runners from the back side. The collegiate version of the zone-read system providing similar controls, and Cignetti has tapped into a system that is familiar to the Rams' young blockers and runners alike.
In the Rams' Week 4 matchup against the Cardinals, the outside zone-fake reverse produced a huge gain for Gurley in the fourth quarter, as you can see below. The Rams are aligned in an offset I-formation, with Gurley at tailback. Austin is positioned at split end (X) and instructed to run a fake reverse to the right. Foles hands the ball to Gurley and executes a fake to Austin. The fake forces the Cardinals' backside defenders to pause for a count before pursuing Gurley. The hesitation provides the offensive tackle (Havenstein) with just enough time to get to the Cardinals' Deone Bucannon and give Gurley the crease he needs to reach the second level. The rookie eventually rumbles 52 yards (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Rams used a similar tactics against the 49ers to hold the backside safety on inside runs. On the play depicted below, the Rams are aligned in a trips bunch formation, with Austin positioned at WR1. He will fake a reverse to the left while Gurley executes an inside zone. The reverse fake by Austin holds the strong safety (Eric Reid) for a count, allowing Gurley to burst through a seam on the back side. Although this play only netted 8 yards, it showcases the impact of the misdirection action on the defense (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With the Rams also using fake jet- and fly-sweep action to hold backside defenders and create lanes for their star runner between the tackles, defensive coordinators will need to devote extra practice time to defending ghost tactics.