When the Los Angeles Rams travel to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round, we’re going to get one of the best strength vs. strength matchups. It’s not just a top defense against a top offense. This battle is going to stress what can be accomplished down the field.
The Packers had the best deep passing game in the league during the 2020 season. Only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan threw more passes at least 20 air yards than Aaron Rodgers’s 75 but Rodgers was more efficient on those throws. Among 39 quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts, Rodgers was third in on-target rate and seventh in completion percentage, per Sports Info Solutions. No quarterback had more Expected Points Added on deep throws than Rodgers in 2020.
But the Rams defense has been designed to take those throws away from opposing offenses. “I know that the quickest way to lose is to give up explosives in the passing game,” Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley told Robert Mays of The Athletic earlier this season. The Rams haven’t lost that way and they’ve been the best deep defense this season and one of the best we’ve seen over the past few years.
Only 12-of-53 pass attempts that traveled at least 20 air yards were completed against the Rams during the regular season. They allowed a league-low 411 yards on such passes with only one touchdown and two interceptions. That 22.6% completion percentage allowed was the fourth-lowest by any team over the past five seasons.
Lowest Deep Comp% Allowed, 2016-2020
Even with those other teams, the deep passes were able to connect for meaningful plays. The only team that really comes close to the Rams is the 2017 Tennessee Titans. But while that Titans defense was one of the best at defending the deep ball (they were third in DVOA against deep passes per Football Outsiders), they were the defense in the league on short passes by a significant margin and finished as just the 22nd ranked pass defense by DVOA that season.
It’s different for the Rams. Though they ranked 14th in DVOA against short passes, there was a bigger gap between them and the second-best deep passing defense (New England) than there was between No. 2 and No. 7. The Rams were fourth overall in pass defensive DVOA.
The Rams had eight games this season with no deep completions against them. The game log of opposing quarterbacks is quite ugly.
Deep Attempts vs Rams, 2020
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So what does it take to complete a deep pass against the Rams in 2020? We can take a look at the completions to find out.
Completion 1 – Week 2 vs Eagles
Situation: Third quarter, 2:14 remaining, first-and-10 from PHI 25-yard line
On a first-and-10 off play-action, the Eagles sent DeSean Jackon on a vertical stem before he broke outside against off-coverage from Darious Williams. The play gained 25 yards. With the Rams up 24-17 at this point, the defense played deep, which allowed for the massive cushion on the break. It’s rare the Rams to allow that much cushion and both of these teams are so far away from this point, it feels like another world.
Completion 2 – Week 3 vs BUF
Situation: Second quarter, 13:59 remaining, first-and-10 from BUF 34-yard line
Jet motion and play-action helped flow the Rams defense to the opposite side of the play, but the key here was putting safety Taylor Rapp (24) in conflict as the single-high safety. Rapp bit hard on the crosser from tight end Tyler Kroft (81) and that allowed Gabriel Davis (13) to run free on a deep corner for a gain of 39 yards.
Completion 3 – Week 3 vs BUF
Situation: Second quarter, 0:55 remaining, first-and-10 from LARM 33-yard line
Behind a vertical stem from John Brown on the outside, Cole Beasley slow-played a slot wheel that caught Troy Hill (22) flat-footed on a Josh Allen pump fake before Beasley turned his route upfield. The pass went for 29 yards and set up a touchdown two plays later.
Completion 4 – Week 7 vs CHI
Situation: First quarter, 3:51 remaining, first-and-10 from CHI 18-yard line
The Rams did just about everything right here. The Bears, with Nick Foles at quarterback, tried to create some misdirection with play-action and tried to leak tight end Cole Kmet on a delayed release from the front side of the play. Linebacker Justin Hollins had everything covered but got lost as the ball arrived which allowed Kmet to adjust for the pass and come down with a 38-yard gain.
Hollins, a college edge rusher, played some off-ball linebacker for the Rams earlier this season, which led to some plays like this. Hollins played 34% of the Rams’ defensive snaps this season but had only 69 snaps in coverage. That led to four targets and two receptions for 45 yards. He’s not in coverage often and the end of this play shows why.
Completion 5 – Week 7 vs CHI
Situation: Fourth quarter, 12:45 remaining, first-and-10 from CHI 38-yard line
Allen Robinson is good. He was able to create just enough separation from Jalen Ramsey off the line to give Foles an open window even as Ramsey closed in as the ball arrived. This 42-yard catch was the only completion the Rams allowed on a go route in 2020. Opponents were 1-for-17 with no touchdowns and an interception on straight go routes during the regular season, which shows how difficult is was to straight-up beat the Rams deep.
Bringing it back to the Divisional Round, the Packers were the best go route offense in football, 11-of-19 for 471 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions, according to SIS.
Completion 6 – Week 12 vs SF
Situation: Fourth quarter, 13:39 remaining, second-and-9 from SF 26-yard line
Splitting the safeties is usually a term used when a receiver runs deep through and past a split-safety look but on this 29-yard pass from Nick Mullens to Richie James, the receiver ran a post from the slot and got the ball on his back shoulder right between the two safeties who went to carry him deep.
Completion 7 – Week 13 vs ARI
Situation: First quarter, 13:35 remaining, second-and-10 from ARI 41-yard line
This was the lone deep touchdown allowed by the Rams during the regular season. It was similar to the Gabriel Davis play with the deep safety breaking on the crosser, which allowed for the deeper route — in this case, a post from Dan Arnold on a more traditional Yankee concept — to get wide-open.
It also wasn’t just how the defense was drawn into conflict, but who did the drawing. DeAndre Hopkins was the receiver on the crosser. Top-tier receivers are believed to have “gravity” on the field because of how they draw the coverage and while we’re not yet able to quantify exactly how much impact that has, let this still of three Rams trying to jump Hopkins’s route be an example:
Completion 8 – Week 14 vs NE
Situation: Third quarter, 14:14 remaining, second-and-20 from NE 15-yard line
On the opening drive of the second half, the Patriots were already down 17-3 in what would become a 24-3 final. The Patriots had little success throwing the ball but a double move from N’Keal Harry got Darious Williams to bite, though that still resulted in the need for a contested catch on the gain of 30 yards. Despite trailing the entire game, Cam Newton attempted just two deep passes. Overall on the season, he was better than you’d think, but there were so few opportunities to go downfield.
Completion 9 – Week 16 vs SEA
Situation: Third quarter, 13:35 remaining, third-and-8 from SEA 32-yard line
The Rams created pressure, Aaron Donald broke through the line, and Russell Wilson was forced to escape from the pocket. Like the Harry reception, stutter-step from David Moore got Darious Williams to stop his feet. Moore got behind him and made a great adjustment to a throw down the sideline from Wilson for a gain of 45 yards.
Williams has come up as a target a few times here and he was actually tied as the most targeted cornerback on deep attempts in the league with 21 along with Atlanta’s A.J. Terrell. On those targets, Terrell allowed six receptions for 206 yards. Despite leading the league in deep targets, 51 players allowed more yards on deep completions than Williams during the 2020 regular season. Fifty-one. Williams allowed just four completions for 125 yards and two interceptions. He had more passes defensed on deep targets (six) than he allowed completions.
Completion 10 – Week 16 vs SEA
Situation: Fourth quarter, 6:05 remaining, first-and-10 from SEA 46-yard line
This might be the best-designed passing play the Rams saw and the Seahawks ran this season. Tyler Lockett motioned from the outside to inside D.K. Metcalf at the snap. Metcalf’s vertical route drew all three safeties while Lockett started his break to the middle of the field and then broke back to the outside with no one around him.
Completion 11 – Week 17 vs ARI
Situation: Fourth quarter, 12:39 remaining, third-and-15 from ARI 30-yard line
From a trips bunch, the Cardinals stressed the Rams’ coverage responsibilities. The point of the bunch ran a crosser that drew the deep safety. Meanwhile, Trent Sherfield ran straight up the seam from the inside position. Troy Hill passed him off expecting help, but Sherfield had space before Jalen Ramsey broke over for the tackle after a gain of 26 yards.
Completion 12 – Week 17 vs ARI
Situation: Fourth quarter, 12:15 remaining, first-and-10 from LARM 44-yard line
On the next play, the Cardinals again used the Rams’ zone coverage against them. A deep post from DeAndre Hopkins to the left had the coverage of Jalen Ramsey and drew the single-high safety. On the other side of the formation, Dan Arnold released vertically from an inline tight end alignment. Once Arnold vertically passed through the second level, he was already too far over for the outside corner to catch up on his crosser. The play gained 25 yards. And with that, Arnold became the only player to catch multiple deep passes against the Rams in 2020.
There were also two deep completions from the Seahawks in the Wild Card game, a broken play for a 51-yard touchdown to D.K. Metcalf and a 28-yard completion down the sideline to Freddie Swain late in the fourth quarter when Seattle trailed 30-13. Russell Wilson was still just 2-of-7 deep against the Rams in the game.
Few things truly stand out as the way to beat the Rams deep. The double moves that got corners to bite still needed perfect throws and contested catches because the defenders were quick to recover. Stressing the safeties is the best bet, but that also takes timing in the pocket, which the Rams don’t often give.
It’s also not as if the Los Angeles safeties are easily exploitable. What we saw was a tiny portion of completions which didn’t happen all too frequently to begin with — again just a 22.6% deep completion rate with 12 completions. Dak Prescott had 14 deep completions this season and he only played in five games.
No pass is impossible to complete against the Rams, but it’s going to take a combination of luck and design for those to happen and even then, those plays aren’t guaranteed to be as explosive as they would be against any other defense.