On the Los Angeles Rams’ third play from scrimmage in their season-opening game against the Chicago Bears, Matthew Stafford faked a handoff to Darrell Henderson then booted to his left. Wide receiver Van Jefferson sprinted down the left hash, then as he crossed midfield and safety Eddie Jackson turned his hips to defend a break to the outside, Jefferson broke back across the field to the right. Stafford rest his feet and threw the ball 46 yards down the field (54.9 yards from the point of release, per NFL Next Gen Stats) for what resulted in a 67-yard touchdown.
It was a perfect start to what was a productive day for the Rams’ new quarterback — one the team paid a significant amount to acquire during the offseason as an upgrade over Jared Goff. Stafford finished the day 20-of-26 for 321 yards (12.3 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Stafford’s 19.7 EPA led all passers in Week 1 and 40.7% of his pass attempts produced more than 1.0 EPA, according to Sports Info Solutions.
The Sunday night performance was aided by a number of wide-open throws against a Chicago defense that struggled to keep up in coverage. On a 56-yard touchdown pass at the start of the third quarter, Cooper Kupp could not have been more open behind the Bears’ secondary. The degree of difficultly on the throw from Stafford was close to zero.
This is part of the allure of the Sean McVay offense. We’ve even seen Goff take advantage of open receivers against overwhelmed defenses. But even then, it wasn’t quite to this degree. During the three-year Goff-McVay partnership, Goff only had two games that eclipsed Stafford’s total EPA from Sunday night (those came with 43 and 33 attempts) and there were only two games in which Goff had over 1.0 EPA on at least 40% of his passes.
Even the small sample of Week 1 highlighted some keys to what the quarterback upgrade means for the offense. The Rams had success with Jared Goff, now they can have success because of Matthew Stafford.
That opening touchdown was indicative of the difference. The Rams have become one of the most boot-heavy temas in the league, so that part is nothing new. Over the previous three seasons the Rams ranked 12th, third, and first in the percentage of snaps with a designed rollout. With Goff, that was part necessity. Those boots got the quarterback on the move and away from pressure.
This was especially true on bootlegs to the left. A boot to the left can be an effective changeup for a right-handed quarterback. The run action to the right should pull the defense with it while defenders do not expect a throw from the quarterback’s opposite side. Another layer on top of that is the deep shot off the boot to the left, a staple of the Kevin Stefanski version of the wide zone offense that worked well with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota and now with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.
From 2018-2020, Jared Goff had 63 pass attempts on bootlegs to the left, the most of any quarterback in the league over that span. None of those attempts were deep shots of at least 20 air yards. Goff’s average depth of target on those passes in 2020 was just 2.7 yards past the line of scrimmage. But on Stafford’s third play of the game — his second pass as a Ram — McVay dialed up a deep shot to the right off a boot to the left.
So, sure, it was wide open. But the quarterback was part of the reason why. That play just wasn’t in the toolbox during the previous version of the offense. It’s everyone helping everyone else out.
The same can be said about the Rams’ empty package. Under McVay, the Rams have been one of the foremost proponents of empty sets. McVay has a tendency to go empty once the Rams cross midfield and it is again used as a way to spread out the defense to allow the quarterback to have some answers provided to him thanks to the formation. But like those boots, the lack of big plays from such a commonly used look was a constraint on the offense. In Goff’s three seasons under McVay, his season-long aDOTs from empty were 6.3, 6.9, and 6.4.
With Stafford in Week 1, the Rams continued to use empty sets at a high rate, 10 of Stafford’s 26 passes came from empty and his aDOT on those throws was 11.7, which included the long touchdown to Kupp.
Taking a seasonal average against a one-game sample isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison but if we include single games in which Rams quarterbacks had at least 10 pass attempts from empty, Goff’s highest aDOT was 8.5. He had seven such games in 2020 and three of those came with an aDOT under 6.0.
If we consider all Rams quarterbacks for this list, the second-highest aDOT belongs to John Wofford during his fill-in game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 of last season at 11.2.
While Stafford’s touchdown to Kupp blows open some of these averages in a small sample, it’s also clear there were advantages inside the structure of the offense. Stafford has been one of the league’s better intermediate throwers, another area where Goff struggled, and that increased the options available in some of those empty sets.
On the second drive of the game, the Rams had a second-and-9 from their own 42-yard line. Los Angeles came out in a 4×1 set with three receivers and Henderson on the quad side. DeSean Jackson was the third receiver from the outside and he ran a deep crosser. Kupp, the No. 2 receiver, ran a post that occupied the deep safety. Jackson ran his crosser under Kupp’s route and over Bears linebacker Alec Ogletree, about as big of a mismatch in coverage the Rams could have hoped.
Stafford stepped up and hit Jackson for an 18-yard gain that set up a field goal.
Stafford didn’t have to carry the Rams to victory against the Bears in his debut. But that was never the point of the Stafford upgrade. McVay and the Rams have been mostly fine building an offense around a quarterback that needed some help. Now they can have that and a quarterback who can also help out the offense. That’s what Stafford brings to this team and it’s a new element that was already on display in Week 1.
Not all defenses are going to be as easy to pick apart as the Bears appeared to be in the opener. The point, though, is that the quarterback opens up more options for the offense when they need it. It was already on display Sunday night and it won’t be the last time this season.