The key to the Rams’ top-ranked offense is deception, whether it’s being able to execute run and pass plays out of the exact same formations, or trick defenses with run fakes before trying deep passes downfield.
No one knows that better than 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, because Los Angeles coach Sean McVay runs a scheme based on the same concepts Shanahan taught him when they were both on the same staff in Washington from 2010 to 2013.
The fulcrum of the Rams’ top-ranked attack is Todd Gurley, an early MVP candidate who’s on pace for 2,320 yards from scrimmage and 29 touchdowns, which would be the second most in NFL history behind LaDainian Tomlinson’s 31 in 2006.
Gurley is emerging as the league’s best running back, making the running game and subsequent use of play action his team’s most deadly weapon, evident by how often it’s used.
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Rams quarterback Jared Goff leads the NFL in using play action on 39 percent of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus. 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s played in fewer than three games due to his season-ending ACL tear, ranks second at 34 percent, signaling the similarities in approach between McVay and Shanahan.
“(When) you get the run game going and when you have a good run game and a good back, it takes a lot of people to stop that. It takes big commitment,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to shoot your guns and not hesitate. When you do shoot your guns, people usually are very open behind you. So, it’s the same philosophy that we do that a lot of people do and it’s just to balance the field out.”
The 49ers struggled defending play action in Green Bay. The 60-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage came on play action, as did a 54-yard gain to Jimmy Graham later in the first quarter. Defenders on that play kept their eyes on quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the pocket, while Graham slipped behind them on his crossing route over the middle of the field before finding open space near the left sideline.
“When you have a responsibility in coverage and you go up and play your run fit and don’t look at your responsibility, that’s how a guy gets very open,” Shanahan said. “That’s something that we try to do a ton on offense. That’s what a lot of people try to do, and that’s a bind that people put you in and we missed a number of them last week. We’ve got to get better in that area.”
Goff is averaging a robust 11.9 yards per attempt with the use of play action (8.6 on normal passing plays) with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Having a deep threat in receiver Brandon Cooks, who was acquired in a trade with the Patriots for a first-round draft pick last offseason, has given the Rams similar speed the 49ers have with Marquise Goodwin.
49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said his offense has studied how the Rams use play action when they prepare for defenses Los Angeles has played.
“You need to have a good running game so they respect it,” Juszczyk said. “And you need speed to like (Goodwin) that they’re scared of a guy getting over the top like that.”
Play action is effective through balance. The Rams rank fourth in the NFL by dialing up running plays 47 percent of the time, which means they call passes at the fourth-lowest rate.
But their 310 yards per game ranks sixth in the NFL. The running game averaging 154 yards per game ranks first.
“Kyle (Shanahan) talks all the time about how the run game can’t be good without the pass game and the pass game can’t be good without the run game,” Juszczyk said. “So they all work together.”