Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive schemes. Get Todd Gurley going on the ground, hit vertical shots with play-action, gash you with the screen game, go fast with quick snaps as a constraint to their occasionally long pre-snap process, and use motion to influence defenses.
The last point, the use of motion, has been particularly tricky for defenses to handle. Other teams are beginning to catch on and use more motion as man/zone indicators, but there’s another type of motion that nobody uses nearly as much as the Rams. Jet motion.
“The play’s path to this point was 15 years in the making. It began as a stroke of genius from Division II football coach Bob Stitt in 2003, devised during a Colorado School of Mines practice as a way to shoehorn a chic trend into his shotgun offense. As Stitt’s team piled up yards and wins, it seeped into the major college ranks. The preeminent mad scientists at that level, from Mike Leach to Hal Mumme to Dana Holgorsen, wanted to pick Stitt’s brain.
Eventually the play became of staple of Holgorsen’s high-flying Air Raid offenses. The success of Holgorsen’s teams at West Virginia brought both the concept and Stitt’s name into the national consciousness, but it would still be years before this iteration of the jet sweep made its way to the NFL. Now, a decade and a half after Stitt’s epiphany, his play design is a featured element for Super Bowl contenders.”
One of those Super Bowl contenders, of course, are the Rams. The data shows that they utilize jet motion far more than any other offense in the league. Not only that, they use jet sweeps at a much higher rate, forcing teams to respect the motion man as a legitimate running threat.
Following up on this, which teams actually run the most jet sweeps this season? Note: this chart includes jet sweep passes and runs.— Keegan Abdoo (@KeeganAbdoo) November 27, 2018
Should be no surprise that Rams are once again an outlier, with more than double the jet sweeps as the next closest team, per @SportsInfo_SIS. pic.twitter.com/HNVqmPFoNS
The concept is simple: get the ball-carrier outside of the core of the formation quickly and allow him to pick up yards in space. However, it’s not just the sweep that has been giving defenses’ fits. The Rams use the threat of the sweep to accentuate their traditional run game by pulling defenders out of position to achieve run blocking angles that would otherwise be impossible.
This play is called “Weak Wide Zone Sift” and is a staple of the Rams’ offense. Pre-snap these blocking angles look foolish.
The jet motion is going to do three things to three different levels of the Denver Broncos’ defense on this play. First, it’s going to freeze the defensive end. Second, it’s going to get their linebackers to adjust their alignments to the right of the formation just before the snap. Third, they spin their safeties.
On the right side, the safety follows the motion man and is taken out of the play entirely. On the left side, the safety rotates to a deep alignment. All of this is creating space and favorable angles for the final product.
These aren’t the only concepts the Rams use, but I highlight these because my charting shows that the Rams are a heavy run team when using motion. They want to pull you out of position to create running lanes that otherwise would have never existed.
The problem for the Rams is that in the last two weeks defenses have begun to alter their initial alignments. They’re countering with evenly distributed formations that already take into account jet motion.
From what I can gather, teams may have begun to do this in Week 10, starting with the Seattle Seahawks. Not only does their alignment account for an extra threat entering the opposite side of the formation, but it allows them to auto-blitz from the side where the motion started.
“Getting [Justin Coleman] into a footrace with Gurley across the formation is foolish, and Seattle is in a cover-2 zone, after all. Instead, Coleman becomes the spare man—as Barkevious Mingo waits for Gurley on the other side...
The blitz is packaged into the coverage. The key for Coleman is the motion. As soon as Gurley begins moving on the jet, Coleman can move inside—as though he is following the movement across the formation. Instead, as the ball is snapped, Coleman is free to hunt.” - Matty Brown
This may have more to do with the Seahawks built in auto-blitz from their bear front, but it is notable that it was used to counter a play involving jet motion and could lead to further expansion on the idea.
It’s also of note, as Brown pointed out to me, that teams have been running more bear fronts against the Rams, but having five men down also springs play-action. Perhaps running more “Tite” front on defense may be a suitable counter to that downside, but now we’re exposing cut-back lanes and getting off-topic with this spit-balling.
Beyond blitzing, teams have made other adjustments to expand on the thought that accounting for the motion via initial alignment is a viable solution. The evenly distributed formations allow them to remain static before the snap with every player understanding how the shift effects their responsibilities.
The Detroit Lions began ignoring the jet motion back in Week 13. The Chicago Bears were similarly dismissive in their Week 14 win over the Rams. The Bears had a vested interest in trying out this idea.
Jet motion can succeed in part by freezing the end man on the line of scrimmage [EMLOS]. If the Rams were able to “freeze” game-wrecking defensive end Khalil Mack, that would be a win for the offense. Knowing what Mack is capable of when free to attack, the Bears put him in a position to win, which put their defense at an advantage.
It wasn’t just Mack who benefited though. Remember the “Weak Wide Zone Sift” play earlier that gashed the Broncos by manufacturing easier blocking angles? The Bears adjustments shut the door on that idea.
Unlike against the Broncos, the backside tackle can’t get to the MIKE linebacker and the center can’t get to the “Point”. There’s very little movement by the Bears and none of which that helps the Rams achieve their goal.
The other factor in this is that the safeties don’t spin. The Lions and Bears utilized a lot of middle of the field open [MOFO] deployments. This two-high safety alignment aids the defense in defending against jet motion concepts.
Yes, spinning a single high safety down to the box helps defends against sweeps, but it also leaves a vulnerability on the weak side, which is where the Rams love to attack in their run game. It also allows offenses to gash you with run-pass options.
By having two high safeties, it has a trickle down effect on the other levels of the defense.
“Staying even and not rotating to the motion allows the defense to be flexible and adapt to what the defense is giving them. Playing a two-high look and keeping box integrity allows the defense to maintain their box fits and not get out-leveraged by the offense.
By staying even and using quarters rules, the defense can adapt to any jet motion thrown at it. The key to breaking down a team that uses jet motion in its offense is to understand they are trying to move the defense.
Whether they are going to use the QB to run counter away from the motion or to get the LBs/safeties sucked in for an RPO, the defense can counteract this by staying still and using the leverage and flexibility given to it by staying in a two-high look.” - Cody Alexander, Match Quarters - Defending Jet Motion
If the defense is no longer shifting linebackers, freezing their EMLOS, or spinning their safeties, the impact of the jet motion dissolves. Simply put, if the defense doesn’t react to motion, there’s no reason for the offense to motion. As such, the Rams have used jet motion with decreasing frequency over recent weeks.
Now, the bad news. The Eagles are primarily and overwhelmingly a middle of the field closed [MOFC] team. They play single-high safety with cover 1 and cover 3 coverage deployments the majority of the time.
Is Jim Schwartz capable of morphing his defense into a two-high safety team to stop the Rams? Not only that, does he believe he has the personnel capable of making the switch? We’ll have the answer to that question very soon.