Halting the Run an Issue for the Rams

The problem is not just against the Seahawks, although it has been most pronounced in their two games against Seattle.  In their 35-23 win over the LA Chargers, the Rams allowed 141 rushing yards.  The New Orleans Saints also rang up 141 rushing yards against the Rams when they beat them in Week Nine, 45-35.

But stopping the run against Seattle has been a particular challenge for a Rams team that has shown few imperfections so far in 2018.  They beat Seattle in Week Five by a 33-31 score in spite of the fact that they surrendered 190 rushing yards.  In the NFL, teams that run for 190 yards rarely lose. 

That theme was built upon last Sunday.

When quarterback Russell Wilson’s fourth-down desperation heave soared over the head of receiver Tyler Lockett with 18 seconds left in the contest, the Rams had secured another nail-biting victory over the Hawks – this one by a 36-31 score (gamebook) (box score).

This win came in spite of the fact that Seattle earned 273 rushing yards on 34 attempts – an average of 8.0 yards per rush.

How does a team lose a game in which it runs for 273 yards, gets a 123.2 passer rating from its quarterback, and turns the ball over only once?  Well, that was the interesting dichotomy of this game.  While the Seattle offensive line generally had their way with the Ram defensive front seven when they went to run the ball, it was the Rams’ defensive front that dominated in passing situations.

Of the 34 times that Wilson dropped to pass, he was forced to throw the ball away twice, forced to scramble 4 other times, and sacked 4 other times. So 10 of his 34 drop backs were significantly disrupted by the pass rush.  This also turned the big plays that might have come through the passing game to a series of much shorter completions.  Wilson only had two pass completions over twenty yards in the entire contest, and totaled just 176 yards on his 17 completions.

This and the one critical turnover is about the only way you lose a game in which you’ve run for 273 yards – and, by the way, about the only way that you lose two games in which you total 463 rushing yards.

Much of this ground success is the product of a new philosophy in Seattle and an offensive line now much more proficient in run blocking than pass blocking.  With 173 more rushing yards in their Thursday night win against the Packers, Seattle now has seven straight games with at least 154 rushing yards.  That’s the kind of statistic you see associated with the old Oklahoma teams.  You rarely see that kind of run consistency in the NFL.

But this is who the Seahawks have re-branded themselves to be.  Thursday night, their 35 running plays stood opposite their 34 passing plays.  For the season, now, they have 323 running plays against 310 passing plays.  The running play total does include scrambles that might have been passes under better circumstances, so the actual Seahawk play-calling isn’t truly 51% run.  But this does make the point.

Seattle’s identity is to run through you until you show that you can stop it.  I’m going to call this Neanderthal football – a style hearkening back to the pre-1970s.

Thus, Seattle did some things last Sunday to the Rams that other teams might not be able to do.  Particularly impressive – during the running plays, anyway – was the middle of the Seattle offensive line.  Center Justin Britt and guards J.R. Sweezy and Jordan Simmons more than held their own against the Rams’ dominant interior linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Suh was frequently double-teamed, but that had more to do with his position in the center of the defense than any particular fear that Seattle had of him.  Throughout the game, they showed no particular hesitancy to leave any of their interior linemen one-on-one with any of the Ram defensive front seven.

Not a lot of teams can get away with that.

But even if much of the Seahawk success is a result of personnel and organizational philosophy, a good chunk of the LA struggle is endemic to the Rams themselves, and as such are things that other teams can exploit.

For one thing, the Rams are very quick on defense, but surprisingly small.  Even as it became apparent that the run game would be a primary focus, the Rams were decidedly unwilling to move out of their base 3-4 defense.  And who were those linebackers?

In their base defense, the Rams played almost every snap with some combination of Cory Littleton (6-3, 228), Mark Barron (6-2, 230), Dante Fowler (6-3, 255), Samson Ebukam (6-3, 245) and Matt Longacre (6-3, 265).  Frankly, when you look at the Rams lining up on defense, it almost looks like they have 8 defensive backs, as the linebackers are notably smaller than the linemen – a clearly advantageous alignment to stop the pass, but a potential liability against the run.

In the usual alignment, this would have the smaller backers (Littleton, Barron and Ebukam) off the line as pure linebackers, and either Fowler or Longacre on the line as an undersized defensive end.

Other teams do this as well.  The small-but-quick linebacker concept isn’t unique to the Rams.  Unlike other teams that employ this concept, though, the defensive line of the Rams makes almost no effort at all to shield its linebackers.  While many teams will ask their down linemen to occupy blockers, giving their linebackers free range to chase down the running backs, the Rams basically leave their undersized defenders to fend for themselves.  Repeatedly, the Hawks’ large offensive linemen sprinted cleanly into the second level of the defense to gash open the LA run defense.  Perhaps when your defensive line includes stars like Suh and Donald, their focus is more an individual concept than a team one.  Perhaps.

On Seattle’s very first offensive play of the day – a 12-yard up the middle run from Mike Davis – Sweezy was on top of Littleton before he could blink and Simmons had unobstructed access to Barron.  Nobody impeded tight end Nick Vannett as he pushed away free safety Lamarcus Joyner, nor was fullback Tre Madden slowed as he hunted up Ebukam.

That would be the pattern all day.

On Seattle’s longest running play of the day, a 38-yard sprint on the first carry from Rashaad Penny, the Hawks employed a sixth offensive lineman as George Fant, playing the tight end position, lined up tight to the right of the formation.  The Rams responded by over-shifting their defensive linemen to that side.  The Hawks adjusted by running the ball back the other way.  Left tackle Duane Brown easily kicked out Fowler.  Meanwhile, the double-team block by Britt and Sweezy was so effective that they drove Suh all the way back into linebacker Barron opening a gaping highway through two levels of the defense.  Penny sliced through the gap and sprinted up the sideline until Joyner eventually ran him down.

Consistently throughout the afternoon, Seattle battered the Rams with an endless series of 5, 6, and 7 yard runs that featured offensive linemen having clean shots at the smaller Ram linebackers.

Even more damaging was the Rams’ loss of discipline against the Seattle running game.  Of the 273 rushing yards allowed, I count 93 surrendered by the Rams for simply not being where they were supposed to be.

Of these, the two most damaging plays were Penny’s 18-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that opened up when Ebukam completely neglected his containment responsibility and charged headlong into the backfield – allowing Rashaad to sprint untouched into the end zone; and a third-quarter, 24-yard run by Penny again around Ebukam who wasn’t quick enough to fulfill his containment responsibility.

Wilson – who added his 92 rushing yards to the 108 racked up by Penny – frequently hurt the Rams with his zone-read runs.

Just before the 24-yard run by Penny, Fowler bit hard on Wilson’s faked handoff, opening the sideline for an 11-yard run.  Barron also bit hard on the fake, so the run was wide open.  On a couple other zone-read runs from Wilson, linebacker Longacre didn’t over-commit to the run – keeping his eye on Wilson the whole time.  But even this nod to discipline wasn’t enough, as Matt was still too close to the formation.  Even though Wilson saw him trying to contain, he twice out-raced Longacre to the sideline – once for 12 yards with 2:48 left in the first half, and again for 11 yards early in the fourth quarter.

These were opportunities that were consistently open to the Seahawks the entire game.

Let’s be honest.  It will be difficult for most teams to beat the Rams by running at them.  When the opposing offense is running up 30-40 points a game against you at some point most teams will have to fold up the running game and try to match them air-strike-for-air-strike.

Interestingly, though, one of the teams that this weakness might come into play against will be the Rams’ next opponent.  Monday night at home, LA will match up with Kansas City.  Like the Rams, the Chiefs are 9-1 and boast an explosive offense.  With a dynamic passing attack of their own, Kansas City would seem to be able to keep up with LA’s air power.

But a significant feature of the Kansas City offense is an elite running game, centering on the cutback talents of Kareem Hunt.  Moreover, the Chiefs are among those teams that most challenge a defense’s discipline.  If any team employs the jet-sweep concept more than the Rams, it might be the Chiefs with speedsters like Tyreek Hill, who can threaten the edges like few players in the game.

The Ram-Chief game will be one of the season’s most anticipated – and is expected to be a shootout.  In a battle between two very even teams just a little lack of discipline might spell the difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.