If you look around the NFL right now, you can see all the ways in which Sean McVay has drastically altered the landscape of the league. Not only has he taken the Rams from non-contenders to one of the league’s top teams, but now other teams are hiring the closest they can get to McVay - Matt LaFleur, Kliff Kingsbury, and Adam Gase, for example - to try and share in the success.
A big part of the apparent McVay model is the fact that he’s young and highly innovative on offense. Paired with some truly great talent on that side of the ball, McVay has created terrific offenses in his first two years in Los Angeles. In fact, the Rams offense ranks second in the NFL in total yards and points per game, fifth in passing offense, and third in rushing offense.
These ratings hold up against advanced metrics such as DVOA as well. Per Football Outsiders, the Rams offense ranks second in overall DVOA and weighted DVOA, fifth in passing efficiency, and first in rushing efficiency. Not surprisingly, a lot of this revolves around the two stars, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley.
Goff powers the passing attack, and he’s had yet another successful year in McVay’s offense. The former first overall draft pick has completed 64.9% of his passes for 4,688 yards with 32 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. He has also taken only 33 sacks this year, sixth fewest among quarterbacks who started all 16 games this year. Furthermore, Goff’s 8.4 yards per attempt were the third highest in the NFL, which reflects the big play inclination of this passing attack.
However, the Rams’ philosophy regarding big plays is very different than Dallas’ last matchup against Seattle. McVay, whose offensive philosophy has been cut from the cloth of both Gruden’s and both Shanahan’s, is a West Coast offense that uses the short, quick passing game to set up deep shots later on. McVay has also peppered in a heavy amount of pre-snap motion to misdirect defenses and give Goff an easier time reading the coverage.
Play-action is also a big part of this offense, and it works exceptionally well because of Gurley. While Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing, Gurley led the league in both DVOA and DYAR among running backs, according to Football Outsiders. And Gurley has been no slouch, as he’s put up 1,251 rushing yards despite sitting out the last two games of the regular season due to injury. Gurley is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and his 17 rushing touchdowns is the most for any running back this year.
But Gurley is also a threat in the receiving game, as he’s caught 59 passes for 580 yards - averaging an absurd 9.8 yards per catch - and four touchdowns. And while the Rams possess plenty of talent in their receiving corps (more on that in a moment), the offense is very much based around getting Gurley going. In fact, the Rams are 3-3 in games where Gurley had under 100 total yards of offense and are 1-3 in games where Gurley had less than 15 carries. The one win was the Monday night thriller against the Chiefs, in which Goff had over 400 yards passing and four touchdowns.
Yet, as much as Gurley gets involved as a receiver, the Rams have their own playmakers down the field aside from the All Pro running back. Los Angeles uses 11 personnel most frequently, meaning they utilize three receivers on the field at the same time, and the trio of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp was dominating until Kupp tore his ACL. Josh Reynolds has filled Kupp’s role, but has largely been ineffective, leaving Cooks and Woods as the two primary receiving threats.
Not surprisingly, both receivers have 80 or more catches on the year and over 1,200 receiving yards; Woods has caught six touchdown passes compared to Cooks’ five. The third leading receiver is Gurley and the fourth is Kupp, which shows how little depth there is in that receiving corps considering Kupp only played half the season. From that perspective, the Cowboys face a similar situation as they did with Seattle where the defense can focus most of their energy on limiting the top two receivers to try and throw this pass offense off.
But the most important part of derailing this attack is pressuring Goff. The Rams have a really good offensive line, but in the Rams’ three losses this year Goff was thrown off his rhythm as a result of defenders getting in his face quickly. The most notable example was the game against the Bears, wherein Goff was sacked three times, threw four interceptions, zero touchdowns, and completed just 45% of his passes. Even worse in that game is that Goff’s adjusted yards per attempt sat at 0.00.
And from that Bears game comes the blueprint for stopping this Rams offense. Chicago limited Gurley’s effectiveness on early downs and pressured Goff into bad decisions. And it may seem elementary, but if the Cowboys can force Goff to turn it over more than he scores, it’ll be a good day for Dallas. Goff had four games with a passer rating under 80, and all of those games saw Goff throw as many or more interceptions as touchdowns. The Rams were 2-2 in those games, 0-2 against playoff teams, and three of those games for Goff came all in a row in December.
At its best, this Dallas defense has thrived on generating pressure, especially as of late, and forcing the opposing quarterback to get rid of it before they’re ready. If they can do that against the Rams, as well as limiting the involvement of Gurley, then the Cowboys can do something that’s very hard to do: shut down McVay’s offense.