Super Bowl 2019: How Sean McVay gets the most out of Rams' impossibly healthy offensive line
The Rams are always healthy up front, and McVay puts his talent in position to be as efficient as possible
The Los Angeles Rams reaching Super Bowl LIII with a just-turned 33-year-old head coach and a 24-year-old quarterback is a feat in itself, but there's a good reason for it. Sean McVay has incorporated brilliant philosophies to maximize the efficiency of his offensive line, running game, and passing game.
Let's examine the Rams' offensive well-oiled machine that gets an edge in a variety of ways, as they prepare to face the New England Patriots (Super Bowl LIII will air on CBS and stream here on CBSSports.com and the CBS Sports App for free on most connected devices).
Offensive Line Health
The Rams started the same five offensive linemen for every game in 2017... then started the same starting five offensive linemen in every game in 2018 (with only a substitution at right guard from Jamon Brown in 2017 to Austin Blythe this season).
Overall, Los Angeles has had a nearly unfathomable run of health.
In 2016, they finished first in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost (due to injury) at 30.7. They again finished first in 2017 with just 15.6 Adjusted Games Lost.
While AGL for the 2018 campaign has yet to be tabulated by Football Outsiders, @ManGamesLostNFL on Twitter tracks total games missed by players on every NFL team and had Los Angeles as the "fifth-healthiest" team in football this past season.
The secret to Los Angeles' amazing avoidance of injury is difficult to pinpoint, but its best offensive lineman, 37-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth, has made a concerted effort to squeeze every last ounce of ability out of his body.
In an ESPN article published before the regular season started in 2018, Whitworth discussed his regimen:
About six years ago, Whitworth began studying the careers of older linemen. He found that as most aged, they became overweight and their bodies failed to move like they once did. Whitworth knew he would have to break the mold.
"[The workouts] really became about trying to lean myself out and not be a 350-pound lineman," Whitworth said. "But figure out a way to play at 320, 310, and be as lean and have as much muscle as possible at the same time."
Diet is part of it, Whitworth said, but he mostly credits the training.
"Every offseason I go into it and find something that reinvigorates me," Whitworth said. "Like, it'd be fun to go hit bags this offseason, or it'd be fun to get into CrossFit, or [power] clean, or see where I can compete with some of those people in the CrossFit gym. Just finding ways to make it feel like year-round I'm in a sport."
There's probably not a singular controlled element to the Rams' team health and, more specifically, the durability of its offense line beyond a currently exceptional relationship with lady luck.
Maximizing Run-Game Efficiency
While the benefits of a cohesive, five-man unit up front are obvious -- particularly one that features a two-time First-Team All Pro in Whitworth and a one-time Second-Team All Pro in guard Rodger Saffold -- the Patriots aren't solely facing a starting blocking unit that's as congealed as it gets.
McVay puts Whitworth, Blythe, center John Sullivan, Saffold, and right tackle Rob Havenstein in the most advantageous situation of any offensive line in the NFL when the Rams run the football.
According to Next Gen Stats, running back Todd Gurley faced eight or more men in the box on an insanely low 8.2 percent of his runs in 2018, the third-lowest figure in the league. In 2017, that percentage was 16.85 percent, also the third-lowest in the NFL. With Jeff Fisher running the show in 2016, when Gurley averaged 3.2 yards per rush, he faced eight-plus defenders in the box on 25.9 percent of his attempts, the 34th-lowest rate among 53 qualifying ball carriers who received at least 85 carries.
The relevance of that? Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight.com recently explained ... quite matter-of-factly:
"Looking at 10 years' worth of data from ESPN's Sports & Information Group ... If we split the field up into 10-yard chunks, there isn't an area of the gridiron that exists where running against seven or more men in the box is easier than running against six or fewer."
In each of those chunks, league-wide yards-per-carry figures were all higher when running against six or fewer defenders in the box than seven or more defenders in the box. Simple math, right? Unfortunately, it's not a concept most head coaches let come to fruition on the field.
How did the Rams manage to see such a low percentage of "light" boxes? The main answer is by using three-wide-receiver sets more than any team in the league. Los Angeles used three receivers on an astronomical 90 percent of their offensive plays during the regular season. The Ringer's Robert Mays recently provided context on that percentage, writing: "no other team finished higher than 80 percent, and only six used 11 personnel (three receivers) on more than 70 percent of their snaps. That discrepancy is stunning."
Yeah, stunning. I like the word "bananas" as a descriptor. And it shows the direct impact McVay has had on the Rams offense simply from a philosophical standpoint, before you get to route concepts, blocking schemes, and quarterback progressions.
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The Rams' impossibly healthy starting offensive line blocked seven or fewer defenders in the box on 91.8 percent of Gurley's runs in the regular season. Think about that. For context, the 49ers used a three-receiver set on just 39 percent of their plays in the regular season, the lowest percentage in the league, and San Francisco's offensive line blocked seven or fewer defenders in the box on just 65.7 percent of Alfred Morris' runs in 2018.
No wonder the Rams had Football Outsiders' No. 1 rush offense DVOA in 2018 with the highest figure recorded in that statistic since the 2014 Seahawks that featured 1,300-yard back Marshawn Lynch and got nearly 900 yards at over seven yards per carry from Russell Wilson.
Don't forget, backup runner C.J. Anderson has 466 yards on just 82 carries, good for a hefty 5.68 yards-per-carry average (counting the playoffs) since he first appeared for the Rams in Week 16.
Maximizing Pass-Game Efficiency
McVay adores play-action passes. Probably because he knows they've been statistically proven to lead to a higher quarterback rating than non play-action plays.
This, from Pro Football Focus after the 2017 season, tells the story:
"Over the past three seasons, quarterbacks average a 103.5 passer rating on play-action, but only 90.1 the rest of the time. Over this span, passers attempted a play-action fake on just 19.9 percent of their total passes."
In 2017, Goff led the NFL in play-action passing yards ... by 176 yards over Tom Brady, more than the difference between Brady and fifth-place finisher Matthew Stafford.
This season, the Rams utilized a play-action pass on 34.6% of Goff's drop backs, the second-straight year he's had the highest percentage of play-action passes in the league ... and his lead in play-action passing yards jumped to a whopping 350 yards. His passer rating was 112.3 on those throws.
And just six of Goff's 33 sacks -- which equates to 18.1 percent -- during the regular season came on play-action plays. That means just 2.8 percent of his his 213 play-action drop backs ended in a sack, and a whopping 6.7 percent of his non play-action drop backs ended in a sack. Just another aspect of McVay's play-calling putting his offense (and offensive line) in the absolute best situation to succeed.
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