Clearly, Sean McVay’s confidence in his offense with Matthew Stafford at the helm was well-founded.
The Rams passing offense had a down couple of years after the explosive 2018 campaign, but it rebounded substantially this season.
Aggressiveness and Production for Recent Rams Passing Offenses
|Season||Avg Throw Depth||ANY/A||Passing EPA|
These results put into context how great the offense was in 2018 even with Jared Goff at the helm. If you compare the 2018 and 2021 stats at a surface level, the production is similar. But the 2018 version generated 31 more Expected Points Added than this year’s, despite playing one fewer game. (They ranked fourth in the NFL in both seasons, so it was just a more explosive passing season across the NFL in 2018.)
The Value of 7-Step Drops to the Rams Offense
When the team upgraded from Goff to Stafford, one big element that we’d have expected improvement in is the ability to make quick reads. That’s particularly relevant for the Rams, who from 2018 to 2020 threw 30 more passes from 7-step drops than any other team. If you are asking the quarterback to drop an extra couple steps, you need to be confident he’ll be able to get the ball to his playmakers with conviction to avoid a sack.
It turns out that the Lions also asked Stafford to take those deeper drops pretty frequently. Here’s a comparison of how quickly each of these quarterbacks got rid of the ball on 7-step drops in 2020, the season before the swap.
Comparison of Snap-to-Throw Time on 7-Step Drops in 2020
|Player||Snap-to-Throw +/- (sec)|
Here the Snap-to-Throw +/- means the difference between their average snap-to-throw time and the overall average for seven-step drops (additionally accounting for whether they were from shotgun and/or used play-action). On the deepest of drops, Stafford got the ball out much faster. (For more on timing and passing under duress, check out this article from last year.)
Here’s how bringing Stafford in worked out for the Rams specifically on 7-step drops.
Rams 7-Step Drop Passing Performance by Season
For those keeping score, that 43 EPA on 7-step drops was more than the Rams generated on all other 2021 dropbacks combined.
(And for those keeping score who are sadists, the Jets led the NFL in 7-step dropbacks this year and produced -37 Passing EPA with an ANY/A under 2.)
In general, having Stafford around has given McVay the confidence to call longer-developing concepts. You can see from the table above that he had called fewer and fewer 7-step drops prior to this season.
But then there’s the funny part: Stafford didn’t actually retain his quick trigger on 7-step drops this season. He was basically average by that same Snap-to-Throw +/- metric from above.
It turned out that this wasn’t an issue. Even beyond Stafford being an improvement overall, when the play took longer than average to develop, Stafford thrived where Goff wilted.
Rams Passing EPA/A on 7-Step Drops by Season and Snap-to-Throw Time
|Player||Earlier throws*||Later throws*||Difference|
* Compared to average snap-to-throw time for that type of dropback
5-Step Drops Were Back on the Menu
As it turns out, there was an even more extreme shift in the Rams’ use of 5-step drops this year.
Rams Drop Depth on Passing Plays by Season
|Season||0/1 Step||3 Step||5 Step||7 Step|
* Dropback types not shown include RPOs, rollouts, RB screens, and trick plays
The 2021 Rams called a deep drop (five or seven steps) much more than they had the previous two years, and they got almost all of their passing production out of those plays (69 EPA versus 9 EPA on all other pass plays).
They also had many more negative plays—18% of their 5-or-7-step drops cost them at least one EPA—but that’s to some extent by design.
How might this play out for LA in the Super Bowl?
Despite outstanding seasons from Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard—they both rank among the top 15 defenders in SIS’s Pass Rush Points Saved metric—the Bengals don’t have a great overall pass rush. They rank in the bottom half of the league in pressure rate.
But when the offense gives them a head start by dropping five steps or more, they rank in the top 10 in pressure rate, sack rate, and the percentage of plays resulting in a positive EPA. Hendrickson’s seven sacks on deep drops tied him for second in the NFL this year. So while obviously this is a strength for the Rams, the Bengals’ pass rush does “play up” in those spots.