Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s Divisional Round games will take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as the Green Bay Packers will face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what you should know:

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 04: Aaron Donald #99 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates a tackle made by teammate Jalen Ramsey #20 during the second half against the New York Giants at SoFi Stadium on October 04, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

RAMS’ DEFENSE IS TALENTED AND OVERLOOKED

Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit over the last three years was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who has appeared to keep the system in place.

Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, the underrated Michael Brockers, former Bear Leonard Floyd and gifted third-year linebacker Micah Kiser, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. Nevertheless, the team finished the 2020 regular season first in the league in passing yards allowed, third against the run, second in sacks and first in points allowed – the franchise’s best output on that side of the ball in more than 40 years.

Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last two years, out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes got burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Troy Hill, who shifts to the slot when the Rams go to their subpackages. John Johnson III and Jordan Fuller are the team’s primary safeties.

This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and company into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Staley mix it up more against Green Bay?

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 20: Head coach Sean McVay speaks with Jared Goff #16 of the Los Angeles Rams during the first quarter of a game against the New York Jets at SoFi Stadium on December 20, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO

Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t field anything remotely close to a good offense for a long time. That has changed ever since Sean McVay took over in 2017 and he’s created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.

Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.

The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including former Rams back Todd Gurley, who was also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats.

But Gurley, who helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII in 2018, was released by Los Angeles this spring after a knee injury compromised his production and his contract became an albatross to the team’s salary cap. In have stepped former backups Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson (who is out with an ankle injury) and rookie Cam Akers from Florida State, and they have performed well. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Joe Noteboom, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).

One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly in order to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.

Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use makes excellent use of shifts and motions, and the receivers typically execute intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.

Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate, intelligent and throws a better deep ball than people realize. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and he isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.

Goff is also sometimes a tad late when it comes to exploiting coverages. According to USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “(Goff) throws with anticipation to a degree, but he’s often throwing guys open when they’re already open, meaning that he’s throwing them closed and allowing defensive backs to jump and pick routes. The problem gets worse when his receivers are challenged.”

The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Woods has emerged as a solid possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills four years ago and Higbee and Everett have been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).

Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and Woods in what are known as “high/low” concepts – Woods being the low man on hitch routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take away his route, while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 03: Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) runs with the football in action during a game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers on January 03, 2021 in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PACKERS’ OFFENSE STILL DANGEROUS, JUST IN A DIFFERENT WAY

After 13 years, four trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl victory in 2010, longtime Packers coach Mike McCarthy was let go by Green Bay after 2018. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood.

Second-year coach Matt LaFleur was the Titans’ play-caller that same year and prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran McVay’s offense for the Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.

Like his former colleagues, LaFleur has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field. Additionally, unlike McCarthy’s matchup-based system, LaFleur’s playbook relies more on the design of his plays and the progressions of the quarterback – and it has taken well to this roster.

The Packers’ offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 37 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp. What’s interesting about Rodgers though is that sometimes the favorite to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will try to pull off sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long but making a greater play than what the original call designed.

According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.

“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”

Rodgers’ targets include an extraordinary route runner in Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and is a favorite target on third down), Marques Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, and all are adept at running Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such routes, they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot. Green Bay’s tight ends also occasionally get in on the action – notably within the red zone – and they’re a mix of young and old, featuring 15-year veteran Marcedes Lewis, breakout performer Robert Tonyan (who had a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2020) and Jace Sternberger.

Not only are the Packers a good passing team, but they can also run the ball with ease. Aaron Jones is Green Bay’s starter in the backfield and was on pace for a career-high 1,262 yards rushing if not for two games missed due to injuries. His backups, Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon, can also get the job done, as they combined for 747 yards on the ground this season.

Executing blocks for Jones are normally longtime stalwarts David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley, second-year guard Elgton Jenkins and imports Billy Turner and Rick Wagner. The problem for Green Bay though, is that Bakhtiari – one of the best left tackles at the professional level – is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL and has been replaced by journeyman Jared Veldheer.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – DECEMBER 27: Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates a sack with teammate Jaire Alexander #23 against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter at Lambeau Field on December 27, 2020 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

GREEN BAY’S DEFENSE AGGRESSIVE

Mike Pettine, former Cleveland Browns head coach and defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, took over as the defensive play caller for Dom Capers in Green Bay in 2018. While Capers was a fan of the fabled zone-blitz, Pettine favors a Rex Ryan-style system that leans on overload blitzes, man-press coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.

Sometimes the complexity of this defense, what with its emphasis on disguise and communication, can lead to communication breakdowns. But if executed well enough, the results can be outstanding.

While the Packers’ defense was in the middle of the pack in many categories this year, they did finish the regular season ninth in total yards allowed, seventh against the pass and tied for 10th in sacks – numbers that are sure to make any defensive coordinator smile. The defensive backs that have been integral to those accomplishments are the tall and lanky Kevin King, All-Pro Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson at cornerback and a pair of versatile safeties in Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos.

Clay Matthews III and Nick Perry, the longtime pass rushing duo for the Packers, were replaced last year by veterans Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Each responded with career-best statistics, as they racked up 13.5 and 12 sacks, respectively, and combined for 16.5 quarterback takedowns in 2020. Joining them at linebacker are Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes.

Green Bay’s defensive line is unique in that they aren’t taught to control one or two gaps. Unlike other coaches, Pettine asks his defensive tackles and ends to beat their blocker first and worry about their gaps later. Pulling off these tasks are Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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