Every year, NFL fans get to watch the league’s top four teams battle it out with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line. During the greatest Sunday in football, Conference Championship Weekend, fans aren’t the only ones watching. Coaches, general managers, and players from the other 28 teams looked at this weekend to learn what the best teams do, and how they do it. These two games gave every other franchise a model for success, and show the path in which a continually changing league will trend going into the next season.
Here’s what mattered in the Conference Championship Games:
The Running Game and Play Action
As it turns out, running does have a place in the Modern NFL. The victors of both championship games, and this year’s Super Bowl teams, both effectively used running plays in their offensive gameplan. For the New England Patriots, the rushing attack followed somewhat conventional lines. Using a mix of Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White, the Patriots called 48 rushing plays in the AFC Championship Game. They actually called more running plays than passing plays, a relative rarity in recent years. Their attack on the ground allowed them to have tremendous success in the Red Zone. Despite gaining most of their yards in the air, where Quarterback Tom Brady threw for a total of 348 yards, four of the five touchdowns scored by the Patriots came on the ground. While Brady got the Patriots close to the goal line, it was the running game that turned a 3-point field goal try into a 7-point score. Furthermore, by extending their drives on the ground the Patriots were able to keep the ball away from the Kansas City Chiefs and the presumptive MVP – Quarterback Pat Mahomes. The Chiefs only possessed the ball for a little under 21 minutes, as opposed to the Patriots nearly 44 minutes of possession. Everything considered, it is impressive that the Chiefs were able to put up 31 points with such little time, and if they could have balanced the time of possession they could very well be headed to the Super Bowl. However, the Chiefs defense and now-fired Defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton had seemingly no answer to the long, extended drives put forth by the Patriots, in large part due to their running game.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams also utilized an effective running game, albeit in a different fashion. The Rams did not run as many attempts, for as many yards or scores as the Patriots. Nor did they hog the clock in doing so, the New Orleans Saints were able to have the ball for a roughly equal amount of time as the Rams did in the NFC Championship game. Still, it is undeniable that the running game made an impact on the Saints defense. The Rams leading rusher, C.J. Anderson, touched the ball 17 times on 16 runs and one reception. But perhaps Anderson’s greatest impact was on plays in which he did not touch the ball. The Rams run a lot of their offense through play-action, in which the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back but keeps the ball and looks to pass to an open receiver downfield. The Rams will often run multiple misdirections between running backs, receivers, and occasionally even tight ends to confuse the defense prior to or immediately following the snap. The result is that Quarterback Jared Goff has more time to make plays, and defenses are sometimes tricked into pursuing the wrong offensive player, leaving a receiver open downfield. Here’s where the Rams’ offense gets weird – which gives the viewer insights into the modern NFL.
Play-action is not a new concept. NFL Teams have been using variations of this playcall since the 1960s. Conventional wisdom would hold that teams with great running backs should run play-action, as defenses will be keyed into stopping a superstar rusher. It also holds that play-action is essentially a trick play, trying to confuse the defense into stopping a runner without the ball instead of a quarterback with the ball. But, if you run a trick play too often, the defense will become aware of it and stop it. By this same token fake punts are only effective when you can surprise the defense. Until recently the conventional logic on play-action was true and coaches followed these unwritten rules. This Rams team, lead by Sean McVay on offense, defies all conventional logic. C.J. Anderson is not a superstar running back. In fact, he was cut from the Denver Broncos after the 2017 season and then cut again from the Carolina Panthers this season. In his final 7 games with the Panthers, Anderson’s yardage totaled; 9 yards, 9 yards, 0 yards, 0 yards, 20 yards, 1 yard, and -1 yard, respectively. The Saints’ defense should not be scared of C.J. Anderson. Similarly, the Rams run play-action so much that it should no longer be a surprise and the defense should know its coming. Yet the Rams keep using it effectively.
Here’s what Sean McVay is doing: a play-action call is still a trick play, but in a different way than it was in the sixties. In the modern NFL, the way to gain yardage is through passing. Great teams aren’t modeled after the teams of the past – where a hard hitting defense and a tough, violent runner was good enough to win. Great teams now work with superstar quarterbacks who are expected to pass for four to five thousand yards a season. For successful quarterbacks, passing for less than 30 touchdowns in a season is disappointing. So, when the Rams combine runs and play action, the trick isn’t that the quarterback might keep the ball – that’s what defenses should expect nowadays! The trick is that the quarterback might actually hand the ball off. In McVay’s modern offense, the trick isn’t play action, the trick is a traditional handoff.
That’s why play-action is actually more effective in McVay’s offense with a subpar running back and with an overuse of the call. Goff keeping the ball on play-action is the norm, while runs up the middle of the defense with C.J. Anderson is what catches the opposition off guard. On many running plays, you will see opposing edge rushers trail Goff and ignore the running back for precisely this reason. Anderson doesn’t have to have spectacular performances to take over a game on the ground. Sean McVay has already put him in a position to succeed, forcing defenders to leave him alone for a few moments while they continue to defend the pass.
Every team should emulate what the Rams and the Patriots are doing on the ground. They should either learn to use play action as a tool to enhance their running game, or be willing to call more running plays to extend their drives and choke out opposing offenses. Fans will see their teams act with renewed emphasis on running the ball, or at least appearing to, in the 2019 NFL Season.