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Alfred Morris, Matt Jones and Washington's unstoppable running game

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Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look at why the league's best defenses are struggling against Washington's old school running game.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After Washington's running backs rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns on the Rams this past Sunday, I decided to take a look at the coaches tape to try to figure out what went wrong for the St. Louis defense. It didn't take long for me to notice a familiar scheme bedeviling the Rams and it all started to make sense.

The Rams play an attacking 4-3 style defense. If there is one thing that stresses those types of defenses, it's when teams use two tight ends and one running back to run the ball. I know this because it used to give us fits in Tampa when I played for the Bucs back in the 90s and beyond. After watching the film it was apparent, as the saying goes, that some things never change.

Washington had success early in the first quarter when they actually put three tight ends to the right side of the formation and had Alfred Morris run a zone play to the left. They used three, but in this situation it didn't matter much because all three of them were on the same side with the widest two being in a wing position off the line.

This formation dictated that the Rams set the side with two, or in this case three tight ends, as the strength of their defense. That meant their undertackle, Aaron Donald, would have to line up to that side, as well. That was the set up.

When they ran zone to the left, Donald was lined up on Washington's right guard, rookie Brandon Scherff, who gave Donald a quick chuck then went up to the linebacker while right tackle Moses Morgan invited Donald up the field on his cut off block. Because Donald got up the field instead of going laterally, Morris was able to cut back to where Donald should have been. To make things worse, the linebacker to Donald's side also ran into the wrong gap and got cut off, making the cut seam even bigger.

The result was a Morris run of 35 yards, a harbinger of things to come.

Two plays later, Washington put both tight ends to the left of the formation. This time rookie running back Matt Jones ran a sort of zone play to the left that had a couple of interesting wrinkles.

First off, left tackle Trent Williams and left guard Shawn Lauvao executed a perfect down-and-around combo block on Donald who was once again lined up to the two (or three) tight end side. Lauvao pulled to the left and buried the force player for the Rams.

The widest tight end goes up to the outside linebacker on his side while the inside tight end blocks down on the defensive end. This all comes together to create a really nice running lane for Jones, which he ends up hitting hard then bouncing outside before ultimately making a house call.

You may notice in both situations the Rams tried to play defense with just their regular four defensive linemen up front. That's where the weakness of the attacking 4-3 scheme shows up against two tight end/one running back sets.

Sure you could walk a linebacker down to the line of scrimmage, as the Rams later did, to act as a fifth down lineman, but most of the time that guy isn't used to actually taking on offensive linemen and tight ends like a defensive linemen. Instead, most 4-3 teams just try to get by with the normal four guys up front lined up with just a little different spacing against those sets. The defensive end to the strong side moves from head up on the inside tight end to the outside of that same tight end, taking an angle to get between him and the tight end who is lined up off the ball as a wing.

When the tight ends are on either end of the offensive line, the defense is stressed horizontally. For that reason, sometimes the defensive coordinator will have the nose tackle move to what is called a "G" technique, where he is head up on the "weak" side guard. The end to that side is told to line up wide five on the inside shade of the tight end, so it isn't as easy to get around his corner.

This all sounds good on a white board, but on a field it's just hard to consistently stop the run against a team who commits to running the ball a lot, using two tight ends and one running back against an attacking 4-3 scheme. If a team gets rolling early using that personnel, then the defense just has to hope and pray they are too stupid to keep doing it all game.

The Rams would have no such luck.

With 6:56 left to go in the first half, Washington lined up with a tight end on either end of the line, along with two receivers to the right side of the formation. The Rams designated their right side, Washington's left side, as the strong side of their defense for some reason. That left a nose tackle and a defensive end to fend for themselves against the center, right guard, right tackle and a tight end on a zone running play to that side.

Guess which side Washington ran zone to.

No really, go ahead guess.

Yep, they ran an outside zone play to the Ram's weak side and made them look like a scout team.

Essentially, the left defensive end and the nose tackle got pinned inside. The tight end got up on one of the safeties in the box. Next thing you know, Matt Jones is running for 25 yards right up the numbers practically untouched.


Suffice it to say, the Rams had some adjustments to make before things got out of hand.

So, what did they do? They started lining up more like a 3-4 defense by kicking one defensive end inside to the B gap while lining up the nose tackle head up on the center and walking a linebacker up outside the tackle on the weak side.

Now they had both B gaps occupied, a defensive end as the force guy to the strong side, and a linebacker, who basically just had to get up-field and turn everything back on the weak side. This is sometimes called a "bear" front, and just about all 4-3 teams have to use it at some point. It actually worked pretty well at times.

But, it definitely didn't work well all the time.

With 3:35 left in the game, leading by seven points and driving to seal the win, Washington said forget it and went back to the three tight ends on one side formation and ran another zone right behind them. Mind you, this was on third-and-8!

If you love old school, smash mouth football, then this play was nearly pornographic. Lauvao and Williams once again executed a great down-and-around block on Donald, this time with Lauvao leading Jones up the field to the outside.

All three tight ends got on their blocks and stuck, too. To cap it off, the center got off clean, even with the nose tackle lined up over him, and got up on the middle linebacker before that guy could blink.

Jones, for his part, did a great job of just following his blocking, picked up nine yards for the first down and helped Washington close out their first victory of the season.

So, there you have it folks, that's what happened to the Rams defense. Washington decided to commit to running the ball with two tight ends and it was just hell on St. Louis after that.