*** The following post is the first chapter from my book, Breaking Down the 2018 L.A. Rams Offense. The first chapter of the book focuses on the personal character and leadership of coach McVay, and, in turn, the culture that his character/leadership allows him to develop within the team. As the first chapter explains, without the work ethic and humility that McVay has developed within himself, the genius of the Rams’ scheme would not exist. Without McVay’s leadership (which stems from his personal character), the Rams championship-level culture would not exist leading to poor execution of the scheme, no matter how ‘genius’ it was. I believe anyone can learn from the example set by McVay to become a better version of themselves and to become a more effective leader.
PERSONAL CHARACTER, LEADERSHIP, & TEAM CULTURE
“Sean McVay is a genius.” This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many people. This praise of McVay mirrors that of Bill Walsh when he was first building his dynasty in San Francisco. In Walsh’s book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, he has a section titled “Don’t Let Anybody Call You a Genius” where he states that “when the “Genius” title turned on me, I backed away from it as far as I could get.” I would guess that McVay would express similar feelings to the ‘genius’ label. While McVay is definitely a smart guy, I believe calling him a ‘genius’ is misguided. While McVay and his staff may have created a ‘genius’ scheme, crediting all of this to McVay’s natural intellect ignores his work ethic and other character traits that have led to his success. This also ignores McVay’s leadership abilities and does not recognize the rest of his staff for their contributions in developing the scheme. In addition to this, the team culture of the Rams, which stems from McVay and his staff’s leadership, plays just as big of a role in the success of the team as the scheme does. Former Michigan head football coach, Bo Schembechler, famously said, “I’ve always believed eye-popping innovation is not as important as perfect execution.” The way the Rams think, the attitude they take towards their work, and the way they go about their day-to-day business, in other words, their culture, is what allows them to execute the scheme to the best of their abilities. So, as the chart shows below, everything starts with the leader’s personal character.
Throughout the Brees-Payton era in New Orleans, the Saints have consistently finished as one of the top passing offenses in the NFL. Since 2012, the Saints have finished as one of the top 5 drop-back passing offenses in the NFL each season (in terms of yards per play).
While much of this success needs to be accredited to Drew Brees and other great players that the Saints have had over this period, their scheme has done a good job of maximizing the talent they have had over the years. A staple of Saints passing game over the years has been the Stick-Option concept. Below shows the combined statistics for their variations of this concept over the last 3 seasons (all of the stats from this article are based on the 2016-2018 seasons):
This article will go over the different variations of this concept that the Saints have used over the past 3 seasons. Below shows the basic structure of these concepts:
This preview will contain a few excerpts from the book to hopefully give the reader a good idea of what the book will be like. Hopefully, these excerpts can also give you some context on the Rams offense leading into the Super Bowl. There will be updates made to the book based on the Super Bowl, so the sections shown here will likely be slightly different when the book is released, but this is very close to what the final product will look like. There are 26 of the 359 pages shown below. The rest of the book follows the same structure to what is shown in the preview.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION – 1
CHAPTER 1: PERSONAL CHARACTER, LEADERSHIP, & TEAM CULTURE – 3
Plato and Aristotle. Pompey and Caesar. Obi-Wan and Anakin. Hayes and Schembechler. The motif of the student-turned-rival is as old and recurring as any in human history. It is one of those rare tropes of fiction and themes of history that never quite seems to lose its luster no matter how many times we see it played out. And for the foreseeable future, the rivalry between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart promises to be another great chapter of this millennia-long refrain.
My primary reason for studying Kirby Smart’s defense was in finding out how much he would keep from his near decade-long boss, and how much he would truly carve out on his own. Would he be simply Saban 2.0 – now with improved media relations? Or would he deliver a distinct defensive philosophy that was entirely his own? The answer, of course, is somewhat in between.
In many ways, defensive coaches are molded by the offenses they face. Saban, for example, spent a lifetime facing a litany of offensive schemes at both the collegiate and NFL levels, which in turn has led him to his near omnivorous approach to defense. There is almost no front, coverage, or blitz missing in Saban’s mental library, and he is thoroughly prepared to use them all if the situation demands it.
Smart’s defense, by contrast, appears more molded by the proliferation of the spread offense that coincides with his coaching career. His defense is more condensed, more streamlined, more focused. In short, Smart’s defense appears to have fewer individual play calls, but with more checks and adjustments built-in. When Smart calls a double outside blitz, for example, he isn’t particularly tied to which two guys are coming – he lets the offensive formation dictate that. So when Smart sends in a one-word play call (it doesn’t take long watching the TV broadcast to figure out that Georgia uses one-word calls versus tempo, but that’s hardly a surprise given that Smart told a room full of Texas high school coaches this offseason that he’d be doing that: https://matchquarters.com/2018/07/27/thsca-football-lecture-kirby-smart-2018/), he really isn’t sending in one play: he’s sending in four to five plays depending on how the offense lines up. So no, it is not any less complicated than Saban’s defense. But it is structured quite differently.
Being that I live in Oregon (though not a Duck fan myself), I’ve had a sort of voyeur interest in watching both the collapse and rise of Oregon’s defense in recent years. For a decade and a half, the Ducks defense was guided by the adaptive hand of Nick Aliotti. Following his departure, Oregon enjoyed one more good year on defense before one of the most dramatic collapses I’ve ever seen in college ball. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Aliotti’s presence was more critical than likely anyone – perhaps even Oregon’s own coaching staff – had previously believed.
Following the defensive disaster that was the 2016 season, Oregon snagged one of the better defensive coordinators in the Pac-12 in Jim Leavitt from Colorado. After his hire, the Ducks bounced back in a big way on defense, going from atrocious to fairly solid. But what intrigued me was the high-level of secrecy that surrounded Leavitt’s defense: beyond the fact that it was a 3-4, no one knew much of anything regarding the details of his scheme. And to the best of my knowledge, that has remained the case.
So I decided to take the opportunity to analyze a defense that didn’t already have a lot written about it previously.
Jim Leavitt’s defense, at bottom, is disguised simplicity. Operating on a 3-4 structure, Leavitt uses his ability to rush either, both, or neither outside linebacker to hide his intentions before the snap. This flexibility allows Leavitt to disguise what is an otherwise fairly straightforward coverage scheme. Leavitt’s central idea is to limit the information a quarterback can glean pre-snap and force them to make reads and decisions on the fly. And for the most part, it that works. But a well-coached quarterback (e.g., Chryst) can, at times, see through the disguise and capitalize on the built-in simplicity.
In 2011, when Chip Kelly was the head coach, Mark Helfrich the offensive coordinator, and Scott Frost the WR coach, Oregon first debuted their pin and pull sweep play. This play, known as “Outside Zone” in their system (they called what most people would consider Outside Zone “Mid Zone”), quickly became one of the best plays in their offense. In 2011, Oregon averaged 9.8 yards per play as they ran this play 36 times for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns. The next season in 2012, they ran their pin-pull play 42 times for 382 yards and 5 touchdowns, good for a 9.1 yard per play average. This play remained a staple of the Oregon offense as Kelly left and Helfrich and Frost became the head coach and coordinator. Chip Kelly brought this play with him to the NFL and Scott Frost brought it to UCF with all 3 of these coaches running it with success. In the 2015 season, Chip Kelly’s last with the Eagles, Philadelphia had a down year running the ball averaging only 3.9 yards per carry but still managed to average 5.7 yards per carry on this play.
This play is always ran to a 3-man surface. The frontside of the line (PSG through Tight End) would utilize pin and pull blocking rules meaning that if a defender is inside of you, you pin, if not, you pull. The center would always pull versus a 4-man front, and would only not pull if there was a nose tackle lined up directly over him. The backside of the line would zone block as if they were on the backside of any regular outside zone play. This is a somewhat oversimplification of the scheme so we’ll look through a few different examples of how the play is blocked before looking at different variations/window-dressings of the blocking scheme.
If you were to poll members of the college football cognesceti who the best non-head coach defensive coordinators are in the game right now, you’d see a fairly short list. They would include guys like Bud Foster, Don Brown, and Dave Aranda. But probably the name that would come up most often is Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator since 2012.
Since taking up his post at Clemson, Venables’ defenses have ranked 34th, 12th, 1st, 6th, 6th, and 2nd in Bill Connelly’s Defensive S&P+ rankings. And he’s done that while losing about half of his starters every year – many to the NFL. This upcoming 2018 season will be the first several seasons where Venables returns nearly all of his key pieces on defense. So we’re going to be breaking down what I think will probably be the college football’s best defense in 2018.
An intriguing part of Venables base defense is that it is simultaneously complex yet straightforward. (I use the term base defense here to mean non- blitz calls.) He runs essentially five main split safety and nine main single-high play calls (and four of the single-high calls are essentially the same). So at first glance, Venables defense is relatively simple. But each individual play call is intricate and complex, particularly his split safety run fits. Venables schematic philosophy might be best summarized as, “depth over width.”
Perhaps equally interesting was that even though Venables has a reputation as a quarters coverage advocate, split safety coverages comprise only about half of his non-pressure calls. The other half: he’s in single high. Even in the spread-heavy ACC, Venables is dropping a defensive back into the box 50% of the time – and that’s only counting the plays where he isn’t bringing a blitz. Venables is a man firmly committed to stopping the run, and isn’t afraid put his guys in one-on-one coverage to do it.