Welcome to the biggest and most-hyped game of the year so far, folks. It’s not taking place in Mexico City as planned, but the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefsare preparing to do battle in what promises to be one of the highest-scoring games of the 2018 NFL season.
The Rams enter the game at 9-1 and the Chiefs have the same record. The offenses are explosive. The design of those offenses, thanks to Sean McVay and Andy Reid, are arguably the two most creative in the NFL.
There will be stars all over the field. Jared Goff. Patrick Mahomes. Todd Gurley. Kareem Hunt. Brandin Cooks. Tyreek Hill. Robert Woods. Travis Kelce. Aaron Donald. Dee Ford. Ndamukong Suh. Justin Houston. Just pondering the matchups between all of these guys is endlessly fascinating.
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There’s really no reason to delay any further. Here’s everything you should be looking out for on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m., ESPN).
You’ve probably heard about this, but the the Rams’ offense is pretty awesome! Los Angeles ranks second in the NFL in yards per game, third in points per game, and second in overall offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The Rams average 6.9 yards per play, tied with the Chiefs for the best mark in the NFL. They also average 41.0 yards per drive, just ahead of the Chiefs and tied for best in the NFL with the Saints. And they’re at 2.89 points per drive, just behind the Chiefs for third-best in the NFL. So yes, they are very good at moving the ball down the field and scoring points.
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At this point, we know what the Rams want to do: they keep the same players on the field at almost all times. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Rams have been in 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) on 98 percent of their snaps this season. That is by far the highest mark in the league. The next closest team is the Dolphins at 86 percent, and that 12 percent differential is the same as the one between the Dolphins and the 17th-place Colts.
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Of course, that near-exclusive usage of 11 personnel could shift in the coming weeks as the Rams adjust to life without Cooper Kupp. Josh Reynolds filled in for Kupp earlier in the season and the Rams mostly kept things the same, but at that point they knew they’d be getting Kupp back soon and wisely chose not to completely overhaul their offense in his absence. Now, Kupp is done for the year. It’s possible the Rams decide to use more of Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett on the field together, rather than only using them one at a time.
Either way, the Rams will presumably continue to base everything in their offense around what Todd Gurley can do running the ball, as nearly 40 percent of their passes are of the play-action variety — tops in the NFL. Jared Goff is completing 66 percent of his passes at better than 10 yards per attempt on play-action, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions for a 119.8 passer rating, per Sports Info Solutions. The Rams show some sort of run action on nearly every play, whether it’s an actual play fake or jet motion or something else. It serves to moving linebackers and safeties around and keeps them away from where Goff intends to go with the ball. And it’s a huge part of the reason Goff has absolutely destroyed man coverage this season, to the tune of a 124.5 passer rating. The Chiefs, though, have been quite good playing man (and terrible playing zone), which they’ve done more often than almost any team.
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The receiving matchups in this one should be fascinating, especially as Robert Woods bumps back down into the slot with Kupp no longer in the lineup. The Chiefs’ pass defense ranks second in DVOA vs. No. 1 receivers and first vs. No. 2s, but they’re 27th against the slot, 22nd against tight ends, and 27th against running backs. All of those figures point toward this being a heavy-usage game for Woods against (probably) Kendall Fuller inside, as well as Higbee and Everett against linebackers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens and safety Ron Parker. And one thing you definitely don’t want to be when playing against a versatile running back like Todd Gurley is poor at defending passes to running backs. But that’s exactly what the Chiefs are. They’ve given up a ton of ground on screen passes, allowing 43 completions to gain 284 yards and two touchdowns, according to Sports Info Solutions.
On the outside, Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick will mostly match up with Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds. Cooks obviously plays a much larger role in the offense than Reynolds (six targets in the two games Kupp sat out earlier this season) but the Rams could look to incorporate Reynolds more now that he’s going to be in the lineup the rest of the season. The Chiefs play sides with their cornerbacks so the Rams can dictate which matchup they want for Cooks simply by moving him to one side of the field or the other.
Perhaps the biggest key against the Rams is getting pressure in order to force Goff to make plays off schedule. He is a decent athlete capable of maneuvering in the pocket and re-setting his platform to throw, but he’s among the large majority of passers who is far better at simply setting his feet and delivering on time and on schedule. Dee Ford has been among the best pass rushers in the NFL this season, ranking second in the league in pressures, per Sports Info Solutions. Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein will have their hands full trying to keep him and Justin Houston away from Goff.
One way the Rams try to neutralize pressure is with all that aforementioned jet motion, which works better than it does for any other team because the Rams have actually run far more jet sweeps than any other team. They’ve handed it off on the jet 23 times, gaining 158 yards (6.9 per carry) on those plays. They’ve also hit the jet flip pass 11 times for 62 yards, and those are basically runs as well.
The jet is just a component of the Rams’ rush offense, though, which is largely based around Gurley running outside zone left and outside zone right in succession, all the way down the field. The Chiefs have struggled against zone-blocking runs this season, yielding 845 yards and six touchdowns on 170 carries (4.97 per carry), per Sports Info Solutions. Kansas City ranks dead last in run defense DVOA this season, per Football Outsiders, as well as last in Adjusted Line Yards and second-level yards per carry, 31st in power success (the percentage of runs that achieve first downs or touchdowns on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go) and 30th in the percentage of runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage. All this sets Gurley up to have an absolute monster of a game.
When the Chiefs have the ball
You’ve probably heard about this, but the the Chiefs’ offense is pretty awesome! Kansas City ranks third in the NFL in yards per game, second in points per game, and first in overall offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The Chiefs average 6.9 yards per play, tied with the Rams for the best mark in the NFL. They also average 40.6 yards per drive, just behind the Rams and Saints for third-best in the NFL. And they’re at 3.22 points per drive, just ahead of the Rams for third-best in the NFL. So yes, they are very good at moving the ball down the field and scoring points.
Unlike the Rams, the Chiefs vary their formations a lot. They’ve used 11 personnel on 65 percent of their snaps, tied for 29th in the league, per Sharp Football Stats. They rank sixth in their usage of 12 personnel, working with two tight ends and one running back 21 percent of the time. Similarly, only five teams use 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) more often than the Chiefs, who are in that formation on 7 percent of their plays.
Kansas City averages 4.8 yards per carry out of two tight end sets, one of the best marks in the league. They run inside zone with Kareem Hunt more often than almost any other team, and it forms the basis for a lot of their offense. The Rams, by the way, have given up 846 yards and five touchdowns on 173 zone runs this season (4.9 per carry), per Sports Info Solutions. The big matchup there involves the interior of the Chiefs’ offensive line (Cameron Erving, Austin Reiter, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) against Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers. Those three are game-wreckers defensively, but they’ve been surprisingly tame against opposing run games. The Rams have been gashed in power situations, have barely stopped any runs behind the line of scrimmage, and have done a poor job tackling at the second level as well.
It’s far more difficult to keep up with Donald, Suh, Brockers, and the newly-acquired Dante Fowler in the pass rush. Donald is the only player in the NFL who has more pressures this season than the Chiefs’ Dee Ford, according to Sports Info Solutions. Erving has been solid blocking up the run but has blown nine pass blocks this season, and it would not be that surprising if Donald and/or Suh snaked past him a couple times and got to Patrick Mahomes before the star QB finished taking his drop. Mahomes, though, has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL at dealing with pressure, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt on those throws with rushers in his face, per Sports Info Solutions.
If the Chiefs manage to keep Mahomes well-protected, they have plenty of matchups to exploit all over the field. The Rams rank 13th in DVOA against the pass, but they’re 23rd against both No. 1 and 2 receivers and 25th against players lined up in the slot. Troy Hill and Marcus Peters have been absolutely dreadful in recent weeks, and they rank 113th (Hill) and 122nd (Peters) in opponent’s passer rating on throws in their direction, per Sports Info Solutions, and that is among 126 players who have been targeted in overage at least 25 times. It might make sense to try to play more zone coverage in order to give Peters a chance to jump some routes and make some plays, but Mahomes has absolutely torn up zones this season, ripping off a 133.4 passer rating against teams not playing man — best in the NFL.
He’s shown the ability to find Travis Kelce up the seams, Tyreek Hill in between the corner and safety on Cover 2, Sammy Watkins on crossing routes, and his running backs sitting down on check-downs out of the backfield. Kelce should have an athletic advantage against anyone the Rams match up with him, though Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson III form one of the NFL’s better safety tandems and could provide some different looks for Mahomes to deal with when trying to find his best overall target. On the outside, though, Hill should have an absolute field day, especially if the Chiefs find a way to give Mahomes enough time to let Hill take the top off with a double move. And if L.A. rolls its coverage toward Hill’s side (as expected), then Chris Conley and Watkins (if he plays) or Demarcus Robinson (if Watkins is out due to a foot injury) should have opportunities to make Hill or Peters pay in coverage.
The Chiefs, like the Rams, use a ton of misdirection and screens in order to confuse defenses and move the ball downfield. The Rams, though, have been strong defending against screen plays, and it’ll be interesting to see if K.C. can figure out how to break a big-gainer off a screen in order to neutralize the interior pass rush.
In the end, this game likely comes down to which team has the ball last. The teams are incredibly evenly-matched, and in that sort of scenario, it’s difficult to not just give a minor edge to the home team.