In 1996, the year after the Rams moved to St. Louis, they and the Kansas City Chiefs reinstated the Governor’s Cup rivalry that had been put into storage when St. Louis’ original team, the Cardinals, had moved to Arizona.
The rivalry was, to put it kindly, lacking. It was mostly a preseason affair, but the teams did play six times during the regular season — only once, in 2006, did both teams have winning records at the time of the game, and only once, in 1997, was the game decided by under 14 points.
It took the Rams moving back west for Rams-Chiefs to become a true event.
And what an event, this will be. This is the biggest Monday Night Football game of the season and, records-wise, one of the biggest ever. Both teams are 9-1 and among the favorites for the Super Bowl — they are first (Chiefs) and second (Rams) in DVOA, first (Rams) and third (Chiefs) in FPI, second (Chiefs) and third (Rams) in The Power Rank, etc.
Both teams are also prolific as hell. In this year of offensive renaissance, they’ve both stood out — the Chiefs are first in yards per play and second in points per game, while the Rams are second and third, respectively. (Defensively, the Chiefs are 22nd and 17th, and the Rams are 25th and 12th. This evening’s game could get points-y.)
The Jared Goff-Sean McVay relationship in Los Angeles remains one of football’s most fruitful. Pat Mahomes has been so devastating in Kansas City that we immediately forgave him for putting ketchup on his steak. The teams are creative and innovative, even stealing plays from each other at times (McVay: “I’d be lying if I said we have haven’t stolen some of their stuff this year”).
They aren’t running the same offense, though. Not even close.
When the spread offense was catching on in college football, it quickly became a catch-all term. Anybody who was doing anything interesting and creative, particularly out of the shotgun, was considered a spread offense. Now, in the NFL, we’re seeing something similar. Anyone doing anything interesting and creative is incorporating “college concepts” or “spread concepts.”
Really, though, only one of these two teams is doing any such thing.
Before we get into the schematics, let’s look at the raw stats. What differences do they bring to the table in that regard?
One similarity, I guess: each offense possesses major advantages this evening. You probably already knew that. Using the SB Nation NFL analytics app, we see that the Rams’ offense is first in marginal efficiency, and the Chiefs’ offense is second. Defensively, the Chiefs are 27th, and the Rams are 26th. That suggests that knocking offenses off-schedule will be both a rarity and a premium.
Though it requires us to pick nits, we see that the Rams have the more well-rounded offense of the two teams. They stay on schedule, they generate plenty of big plays, they stand out via run and pass, and when they do encounter a third down, it’s third-and-extremely-manageable.
Kansas City, however, lives a little bit closer to the edge. They fall into third-and-longs more frequently and ask Mahomes to play with a bit more degree of difficulty. Of course, he tends to succeed when they ask him to do that, and leveraging them into blitz downs gets you burned pretty frequently.
While the passing game has almost entirely revolved around [Tyreek] Hill, [Sammy] Watkins, and [Travis] Kelce between the 20s (aside from the occasional behind-the-line pass to a blocking back), everyone gets involved near the goal line. Defenses have a massive space advantage near their own goal line; it appears the Chiefs are attempting to counter this by using everyone and every possible inch of space. It’s working.
It’s almost impossible to describe how much of a weapon this is. Even without getting into kicker quality, when you’re converting scoring chances into touchdowns this well, your opponent needs about three or four scoring opportunities to match what you’re producing in two or three.
The closer they get to the goal line, the more unstoppable they become. It’s the direct opposite for most teams.
Alright, let’s talk tactics. What do these two offensive juggernauts do that’s so different from one another?
The answer: a lot.
Let’s start with personnel. According to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, the Chiefs try to vary their formations and personnel packages pretty constantly. They end up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) 61 percent of the time and 12 personnel (one RB, two TE) 22 percent of the time, and they have plenty of situational packages, too — 21 personnel nine percent of the time, 22 personnel four percent, etc.
They’re almost equally good from formation to formation, too: their success rate in 11 personnel is 46 percent, and it’s 49 percent in 12 personnel as well. They line up in shotgun 79 percent of the time, and there is a quality difference there — 48 percent success rate in shotgun vs. 39 percent in non-shotgun.
Los Angeles, however, lives by the Joe Moorhead school of thought.
Mississippi State’s head coach believes in the power of using similar personnel on almost every play and leaving defensive coordinators to guess what’s going to come out of that personnel grouping.
“Defensive coordinators, they don’t really know what formation you’re going to line up in,” Moorhead says. “So when you’re in a certain personnel grouping, you have to make a defensive call, and it’s gotta match up against any formation they can align in.”
By the time the defense sees the formation, it’s too late to call a play.
“So with us never switching personnel, we can align in three different formations with the tight end attached, we can align in two different formations with the tight end detached, and then we can line up in three different empty[-backfield] formations. And we haven’t taken anybody out of the game.”
Since I’m referencing a college coach there, does that make that a “college concept”? I digress.
Again via Sports Info Solutions, the Rams utilize 11 personnel 95 percent of the time with a 50 percent success rate. They also use the shotgun far fewer than the Chiefs, lining up with Goff in the gun only 35 percent of the time and with a lower rate of success (42 percent success rate in shotgun, 53 percent otherwise).
Another difference: the Rams use play action quite a bit more than the Chiefs.
One of this year’s most important articles emerging from the analytics community was Ben Baldwin’s Football Outsiders piece on play action passing — both its importance and its independence from the quality of one’s run game.
[I]t appears that the conventional wisdom that running is necessary for play-action passes to be effective should be questioned. We have a lot of evidence that play-action passing is more effective than non-play-action passing, so the big question that remains is why teams run play-action so infrequently (the percentage of passes that are play-action has hovered around 20 percent since 2011). What would happen if teams started devoting a higher share of their plays to play-action passing? Would the advantage persist or would defenses adjust?
Los Angeles utilizes play action on 37 percent of its passes and 22 percent of all plays. This fits well with McVay’s favorite weapon, a bunch formation that keeps a lot of bodies near the line. The bunch is nothing new, but McVay explores its possibilities more (and better) than anyone else. He also deceives you with scrupulous self-scouting.
Now, for anyone who closely watches the Rams and 49ers, their similarities are hard to ignore. A few calling cards — such as the use of play-action, pre-snap motion and deceptive use of “minus” splits — permeate both offenses. But those are smaller pieces of the larger philosophy that makes a Shanahan and McVay offense go: creating down-to-down deception while presenting the same look.
”It’s all about not creating tendencies,” said running back Alfred Morris, who played for Washington under Shanahan and McVay. “It’s ‘Oh, they’ll never do this and this out of this set or this formation’ and then you try to game plan and it’s like ‘No, they actually will.’”
The Rams use the same personnel groupings and similar looks from play to play, and they succeed by making sure you have absolutely no idea what’s coming even if you know what they’re going to look like when they line up.
Of course, we’ll see how this changes with Cooper Kupp’s injury. The Rams’ use of 11 personnel was perfect for the personnel at hand, with the standard wideout trio of Kupp, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods each averaging between seven and eight targets per game. (Seriously, they don’t allow you to spot any tendencies.)
The next wide receiver on the list, second-year Texas A&M product Josh Reynolds, has averaged just 1.2 targets per game. He’s done a decent amount with those targets, mind you, catching seven of 12 balls for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, when Kupp missed two games earlier this year, the Rams’ balance was thrown off a bit. Woods and Cooks still got their targets (14 and 13, respectively, for a combined 286 yards), but Reynolds and Nick Williams combined for only nine targets, and a lot more ended up on running back Todd Gurley’s plate: he carried 40 times for 177 yards and caught 10 of 12 passes for 104.
Via both run and pass, Gurley’s efficiency levels dropped when Kupp was out. McVay appeared a bit more willing to run the ball in obvious run situations, while avoiding doing so has been one of Los Angeles’ biggest strengths.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Todd Gurley has rushed against eight or more defenders in the box on just 16 percent of his carries so far this season. That means he carried the ball just 10 times against a loaded box. According to the site, 37 other running backs in the league have seen a higher percentage of their carries against eight or more defenders in the box.
Mind you, the Rams won both games without Kupp — a 39-10 trouncing of the 49ers and a 29-27 slugfest against the Packers. But he’s out the rest of the year, and McVay might have to work even harder to avoid revealing tendencies from this point forward.
From a tendencies perspective, Kansas City might be a hair easier to prepare for. But because of absurd talent and dominant, nearly mutant, physical traits, the Chiefs aren’t any easier to stop.
In theory, any type of offense can work if you have the right personnel for it. Take the triple option, for instance: the longtime college football staple didn’t ever make much of an impact at the pro level, in part because of the team speed involved with pro defenses. But if you had the best option QB ever, a dominant line, and the fastest running back in the league attacking the perimeter, you could still score points with it.
Kansas City runs as close to a standard college football spread offense as anyone in the NFL. There were questions about which spread concepts might work at the pro level, but when you’ve got Mahomes’ otherworldly arm strength and Tyreek Hill’s unfair speed, those concepts work quite well.
They work even better when the awareness levels of the Chiefs’ play-calling is so high.
Since opposing defenses have no choice but to account for Mahomes and Hill, it tends to open up wide swaths of space in different areas of the field. Tight end Travis Kelce fills that space with vigor and has actually led the Chiefs with 86 targets and 57 catches thus far. (Hill still leads the team in receiving yards.)
When defenses overcompensate for both vertical space and the space in the middle, that leaves no one to account for Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware on the perimeter.
Because of his absurd raw numbers — he’s on pace for 1,580 rushing yards, 640 receiving yards, and 27 combined touchdowns — Gurley is considered one of the league’s MVP candidates at the moment. He and backup Malcolm Brown are averaging 29.5 intended touches (rushes and pass targets) and 163.1 yards per game (5.5 yards per intended touch).
Hunt and Ware haven’t been asked to carry quite the same load, but their effectiveness is what has taken Kansas City’s offense to such a ridiculous level. They are averaging more yards per carry (5.2) and more yards per target (10.0) than Gurley and Brown (5.0 and 7.6, respectively), and they’re averaging 23.9 intended touches per game and 6.2 yards per intended touch.
When you’ve got the fastest player in the league and one of the best tight ends, and you’re able to consistently carve out 5-7 yards a pop near the line of scrimmage, you’ve got an answer for just about everything.
And even when something goes wrong, the Chiefs still gain yards. According to data from Sports Info Solutions, the Chiefs average 2.8 yards after contact, third in the league. Plus, and this is truly absurd, Mahomes has a 34 percent success rate on passes when he gets hit. Heading into Week 11, that was higher than two teams’ overall passing success rate (Buffalo at 30.5 percent, Arizona at 33).
That’s just unfair.
These teams are not without their weaknesses. They each gave up over 40 points in their respective lone losses, and they’ve given up 27 or more points in wins seven times. Neither offense can afford an off-game with the state of either defense.
While the Rams’ defense does appear to be trending in the wrong direction (that piece was written two weeks ago, and they have given up a combined 76 points since), Kansas City’s defense might be figuring some things out. Since losing 43-40 to New England, the Chiefs have allowed just 17 points and 325 yards per game, down from 29 and 468 per game to that point. Granted, that’s included games against the Browns and Cardinals, but there may be signs of life there.
Still, you’re watching this game not only because of the 18-2 record but also because you’re going to see things you’ve never seen NFL offenses do before.
It’s been basically a weekly occurrence, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue on Monday night.