The Dallas Cowboys had the league’s 5th best defense against the run this year. The Los Angeles Rams have a great passing offense, and they went into last week’s playoff game against Dallas with their best runner just back from injury, and a sub who was cut by two different teams this year, who had only 24 snaps total in Weeks 1 through 15.
So of course the Rams ran, and ran, and ran some more — 48 times, against only 28 pass attempts (and 15 completions). That sub, C.J. Anderson, ran 23 times in this one game alone. Los Angeles racked up 273 yards on the ground (and only 186 through the air), and Anderson and Todd Gurley became the first teammates to each rush for over 100 yards in a playoff game since Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore.
This is the playoff chess game. Teams are scouted and studied in great depth, and everyone knows their tendencies. But coaches can do the unexpected, play against their own tendencies, and statistics like the Cowboys’ regular season success against run plays don’t matter much then.
At least not if a team is predictable. And let’s face it, the words “Jason Garrett” and “innovative” are not often seen in the same sentence, unless “not” is in between them. He’s more likely to be called “the new Jeff Fisher,” which is cruel, but fair.
Specifically, Rams right guard Austin Blythe told Danny Heifetz of The Ringer that the Cowboys had pre-snap tells that made their defense predictable.
“Usually they like to play a 3-technique but if he got a little wider, and looked like he was going to play the [left or right] tackle, he was going to slant out and we were going to get another movement from the other side too. If [the defensive tackle] is going to come in, the tell is going to come in from the other side.”
Asked how often these tells foretold the Cowboys’ defense, Blythe said “Plus-90 percent.” If he’s not exaggerating, then the Rams’ success running is no surprise at all. Any playoff team with competent coaching should be able to run successfully if you tell them what the defense will do, pre-snap. Especially since, according to Ted Nguyen at The Athletic, the Rams mixed up their offense, violating their most striking tendency by running out of shotgun — something they did only five percent of the time during the regular season.
The Rams have a couple of good reasons to keep emphasizing the run against New Orleans. The Saints best run-plugger, DT Sheldon Rankins, is out for the year with an Achilles tear, and despite his limited snaps this year, C. J. Anderson has been great for Los Angeles (as the Niners know all too well). His 123 yards against Dallas was actually the least he’s achieved in 3 late season games.
But Sean Payton is no Jason Garrett. It’s very unlikely that the wily veteran coach would tolerate his defensive coordinator leaving obvious tells on tape, or repeating his standard regular season looks.
Relatively green Rams QB Jared Goff is facing the biggest game of his life, on the road in the noisy Superdome, where the Saints under Payton and Brees have never lost a playoff game. Payton is sure to find ways to force Goff to make some plays under pressure; he was not sharp even at home against Dallas, only 15 for 28 and missing on several throws.
A passing duel between Brees and Goff would not be good news for the Rams. While the younger QB has a great arm and racked up 700 more yards than Brees this year, he had twice as many interceptions and sacks. And when a very big game is on the line, which quarterback would you rather have on your team?