GREEN BAY – There are a couple of ways the Green Bay Packers can counter the sleight of hand they’ll encounter Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
Here are two:
They can play their best defensive game since picking off Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson five times in a 38-10 victory in December of 2016.
Or they can turn the tables on the undefeated Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and attack them with the same play-action prestidigitation they’re going to face on defense.
If there is a model for how a collection of play-action fakes can spin a defense into the ground, it is Rams coach Sean McVay’s prolific offense. Just 32 years old, McVay has transformed the Rams into an offensive powerhouse.
Hired after the 2016 season, McVay improved the Rams offense from 32nd in the league to 10th last year and helped his young quarterback, Jared Goff, improve his passer rating from 63.6 to 100.5.
Currently, the Rams rank third in points per game (33.6), second in yards per game (446.4), tied for third in receptions of 40 or more yards (seven), tied for eighth in rushes of 20 or more yards (six) and first in yards per pass attempt (9.7).
“The play-caller, McVay, he’s outstanding,” passing game coordinator Joe Whitt said. “He understands how to beat coverages. He understands how to attack leverages. He knows the spacing that he wants.
“He makes the reads easy for his quarterback with how he spaces people. He does an outstanding job. So that’s why they score what they score. He’s very good.”
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He also squeezes every ounce of advantage he possesses from the presence of running back Todd Gurley, the league’s leader in rushing yards (636) and total yards from scrimmage (956). If he isn’t calling for Goff to hand the ball off to Gurley, he’s ordering him to fake a handoff to him.
In the meantime, he’s trying to draw curtains over each play’s intention with motioning wide receivers, shifts and bunch formations. He will run different plays out of the same formations so defenses have trouble tracking his tendencies.
He isn’t the first coach in NFL history to apply play fakes to his offense. He’s just more committed to it and more successful with it than most others. And he has Gurley there to support it.
“I think the play action is something that is part of our foundational identity and what we believe in philosophically as an offense,” McVay said in a conference all this week. “When you have a player like Todd, he certainly legitimizes those play actions.
“We do things that are definitely a little bit different as a result of having such a special player like him.”
McCarthy also loves the play-action game and used it more often when Eddie Lacy was in his prime and Ryan Grant was still productive. But the absence of a franchise back and his desire to keep the ball in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ hand has lessened the run threat.
As far back as the Detroit game, McCarthy told his team that they were going to get back to the play-action game, having shelved much of it earlier in the season because Rodgers’ knee injury didn’t allow him to line up under center or execute bootleg fakes.
In the San Francisco game, there were 11 play-action fakes, including six bootlegs that required Rodgers to sprint out toward the sideline. Rodgers completed 6 of 10 passes from those for 162 yards, including gains of 22, 54 and 60 yards.
Eventually, San Francisco adjusted to the bootleg fakes and kept the backside defensive end in place to account for Rodgers’ rollouts. The Packers were trailing and passed a lot, but they could have taken advantage of the 49ers keying on Rodgers with more run calls.
“It’s really been the emphasis the last two years,” McCarthy said of play action. “But we lost Aaron (to a broken collarbone) last year and never really got into the stuff. We have similar concepts that the Rams, that teams are using, Atlanta, San Francisco.”
What the Packers don’t have are the twists that make McVay’s offense so difficult to defend. Besides the play fakes to Gurley, McVay runs jet-sweep action with his wide receivers, sometimes handing them the ball, sometimes faking it to them and sometimes faking it to them and then throwing the ball to them.
If you’re a defender, you must pay attention to Gurley first and foremost. But you also must be aware that the play might go in a direction you didn’t anticipate or it might go where you thought it was going before you changed your mind.
“I feel like their offense more than a lot of other offenses, they actually do something with that guy (in motion),” outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. “Like all the times there’s ghost motion, most offenses don’t usually throw the ball to him or hand the ball to him.
“But they do all of it. They do the fly sweeps, they do the ghost motions and throw the ball to him. They do a lot of different stuff out of the same formation, so it’s hard.”
The theme on the defensive side of the ball this week has been to keep eyes from drifting to something that doesn’t matter. Often, defenders will see the motion out of the corner of their eyes and follow it instead of Goff or Gurley.
Other times, linebackers will be so quick to react to Gurley that they’ll give up their pass-coverage assignment and leave gaping holes behind them. Cornerbacks must be aware that wide receivers might start out in a blocking stance, but they may take off running right after it.
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The Packers got a taste of that style with the 49ers' offense, which under coach Kyle Shanahan runs many of the same play fakes.
“It’s nothing new to me,” said inside linebacker Korey Toomer, who played for the 49ers under Shanahan. “You just have to be more patient with those type of offenses and let everything declare before you can react to a run or a pass.
“They will try to confuse you with all that motion.”
Some teams have broken from their norm and altered their scheme to counter McVay’s attack while others have tried to stick with basic principles and make things easier on their players.
Seattle, for instance, went to a “Bear” front, where all five offensive linemen are covered up. The idea was that the Rams’ offensive line wouldn’t be able to reach the linebackers and create big cutback lanes for Gurley.
“I think it was effective,” said one member of the Seahawks organization. “But then they hit a big play with (receiver) Robert (Woods) at the end of the third quarter. It was a really critical point in the game.
“Sometimes they got us over-committing (to the run), but other than that we did a good job.”
The Rams won the game, 33-30. They threw for 313 yards and ran for 155.
Their last two games have been tougher. Denver stuck to its man-to-man coverage and usual pressure packages and held the Rams to a season-low 23 points. San Francisco got blown out but held the Rams to 185 yards passing and 145 yards rushing.
The Packers get the next crack at solving the Rams puzzle and their plan is to play better football than the opposition.
“You have to have a certain mentality going against this team, that we’re going to knock back blockers and release right off of blocks and we’re going to get helmets to the football and play with great fundamentals,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “So, I mean, the scheme is important.
“But this one here, you can’t get overly complicated on defense because of what they do. You just have to go out there and play.”