Running Revolution? Los Angeles Rams RB Rehaul Sparks Questions About McVay’s Offensive Philosophy

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And just like that, the Los Angeles Rams overhauled their running back room. Gone are Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson. The Todd Gurley days are now a distant faded memory. In are Kyren Williams, Blake Corum, and Boston Scott.

But even before the roster revamp, there was a philosophical shift within the Rams coaching staff. Simply put, the change entailed a move away from zone-blocking schemes to a much higher usage of gap-blocking. All teams use both, but because the demands on the offensive line are so different, it demands that teams move in one direction or the other. In 2021 the Rams ran 116 gap scheme rushing plays, versus 258 zone runs. By last season, it essentially flipped with 240 gap plays to 149 zone.

Los Angeles Rams Make the Transition From Zone to Gap

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This philosophical shift demanded remodeling the offensive line, from nimble athletic (smaller) o-lineman to large body movers. The Rams replaced Brian Allen with Coleman Shelton at center, drafted Steve Avila as a left guard, and traded for Kevin Dotson to play right guard. With that, they were set up to open up huge gaps for Kyren Williams. Last season, the Rams offensive line provided Williams with the second-most yards before contact in the league (3 yards), just .1 yards behind Christian McCaffrey.

Williams didn’t come out of Notre Dame solely as a gap scheme runner. Notre Dame is an outlier of a football team because they split evenly between the two philosophies. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Fightin’ Irish offensive linemen are highly sought after in the last decade of NFL drafts.

Contrast that to Cam Akers, who was traded just one week into the season, in part because he was having issues adapting to the new blocking scheme. This isn’t unusual. Zone blocking requires running backs to hit their hole as quickly as possible, no questions asked. In gap, sometimes running backs have to remain patient and wait for their gap to open then fire through when the dust is settling.

Michigan is a gap-running team. Blake Corum ran behind gap schemes on 61 percent of his carries.

This year the Rams have already doubled down on their effort to become one of the most physical rushing teams in the the league. In addition to the two new running backs they also added Jonah Jackson, another big physical guard. Avila will move to center. Collectively, the Rams have 1000 lbs of interior offensive linemen. In theory, that impressive 3 yards before contact should go up and with three competent ball carriers in the backfield, the 2024 Rams should harken back to the teams of the mid-70s under rushing impresario, head coach, ‘Ground Chuck’ Knox. Knox went 54 and 15 over five seasons and was routinely in the bottom five in the league in passing attempts

Why Make The Shift?

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The reason the Rams and other teams are making the switch is actually because of something that McVay played a hand in. The proliferation of Vic Fangio’s defense. McVay hired Brandon Staley to teach him the principles to a defense that McVay had issues moving the ball against. Essentially, teams are prioritizing two high safeties, which allows one fewer player in the box. This creates a numbers advantage for teams prepared to run the ball on passing downs. The more physical an offense is at the line of scrimmage, the better against a Fangio defense.

It isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done. But beating up on light boxes forces teams to ‘stay honest’ when defending the run. The knock-on effect is opening up explosive passing plays downfield, when the team is forced to stack the box.

Rushing the ball also helps teams take time off the clock, also out of the hands of opposing offenses.

In addition, it takes the pressure off bad or in the Los Angeles Rams case aging quarterbacks. In 2021, the entire offense relied on Matthew Stafford to make plays, which ended up working out because Stafford remained healthy all season and he played phenomenally, especially through the playoff run. But in the cases that he faltered, the team lost games, not having another valve to open when he was off his game or if defenses made life hard for him.

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