Heading into Week 4 of the NFL season, we questioned whether Sean McVay could outduel Mike Zimmer, if the defending AFC champion could overcome its struggles on third down, and whether Cleveland’s new franchise quarterback could excel in his first NFL start. So, with another weekend behind us, let’s review the tape and pick our winners:
Mike Zimmer’s D vs. Sean McVay’s O
Sean McVay has established himself as one of the league’s brightest offensive minds, and that trend continued Thursday night as his Los Angeles Rams improved to 4-0 with a 38-31 victory over the visiting Minnesota Vikings. Jared Goff tossed five touchdowns in the triumph, and the Rams’ offense displayed numerous examples of how McVay and Co. will stress opposing defenses all season.
In the Week 4 preview, we dove into how McVay utilizes “11” offensive personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) more often than any other team in the league, yet also runs the football out of that pass-heavy package more than any other team. That ability to flip the script gives Los Angeles the ability to dictate defensive personnel groups/formations, and to attack potential weaknesses.
McVay did that again Thursday night, albeit in the reverse way.
Late in the third quarter – with the Rams nursing a three-point lead and facing a first-and-10 on the Vikings’ 31-yard line – the offense comes out using “13” offensive personnel (one running back, one wide receiver, three tight ends) and aligns with Goff (No. 16) under center and Todd Gurley (No. 30) as the deep back in an I-formation behind tight end Gerald Everett (No. 81):
Seeing this run-heavy personnel package, the Vikings stay with their base 4-3 defense, using three linebackers and four defensive backs.
Then, the Rams adjust their formation:
They empty the backfield, putting Goff in the shotgun, shifting Gurley out wide to the left, and moving all three tight ends to the right. That puts the only wide receiver in the formation, Robert Woods (No. 17), in the slot to the left. The Vikings have to adjust as well – and given their personnel on the field, playing man coverage across the board might be tough, so they switch to a Cover 3 scheme in the secondary:
Then, the Rams run four verticals:
That allows the two inside vertical routes – Woods and tight end Tyler Higbee (No. 89) – to bracket the free safety. Goff looks toward Higbee, moves the safety in that direction, and then throws to Woods for the touchdown:
As he does so well, McVay used offensive personnel groups to dictate the defensive lineups – and even the formations – on various plays in Week 4. This time, it took on a little bit of a different flavor, but it was very effective.
Dolphins’ crossing routes vs. Patriots’ defense
Heading into a pivotal Week 4 showdown with the AFC East-leading Dolphins, the Patriots and their fans had concerns – in particular, the defense’s inability to get off the field on third down. Jacksonville went 10-for-14 on third-down chances in a Week 2 win over New England, and Detroit went 7-for-14 in its Week 3 triumph. Given New England’s struggles against crossing routes (something the Dolphins love to run), fans feared a repeat.
Those concerns were put to rest on Sunday, as the Dolphins converted just three of their 11 third-down opportunities. That was due in large part to Miami facing difficult down-and-distance situations.
For context, in Week 3 against the Pats, the Jaguars faced an average of 7.21 yards on their third-down chances. That number dropped to just 6.50 when the Lions faced New England. But on Sunday, the Dolphins faced an average of 9.27 yards on their third-down situations against the Patriots.
Part of that was due to offensive penalties. The Dolphins committed a number of infractions on early downs against the Patriots, putting them behind the sticks. On one sequence in the second quarter, a first-down pass fell incomplete and offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil was flagged for a personal foul. Kenyan Drake ran for a 2-yard loss on second-and-22, putting the Dolphins in a very difficult third-and-24 situation.
As you might expect, it’s tough to pick up 24 yards on a crossing route:
Given the situation on the play above, the Patriots rushed just three linemen and dropped eight into a soft zone coverage. Jakeem Grant (No. 19) took the pass from Ryan Tannehill (No. 17) on the shallow crossing route, but his 9-yard gain came up well short of the first down.
Whether it was mostly due to Miami’s mistakes remains to be seen, but New England fared much better on third downs in Week 4. We’ll see if that trend continues moving forward.
Mayfield’s anticipation vs. Raiders’ defense
The Oakland Raiders spoiled Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield’s first career NFL start, pulling out a three-point victory in overtime. Mayfield threw a pair of touchdowns, but committed four turnovers, three of which led to points for the Raiders. Two of those turnovers came on interceptions, while Mayfield also fumbled twice.
We already broke down the first interception in this week’s By Design piece. The second was an example of Mayfield trying to be too aggressive late in the game. With 14 seconds left and the football near midfield, Cleveland was on the cusp of field-goal range. However, given the Browns had gone for 2-point conversions throughout the game, they might have lacked confidence in kicker Greg Joseph.
On the play below, the Browns still have a timeout, so Mayfield can throw the football anywhere on the field. But even with some checkdown routes available, he tries to force a deep throw that’s intercepted, forcing overtime:
The Raiders would go on to win in the extra frame.
On both of Mayfield’s interceptions, the Raiders took advantage of some ill-advised aggression, which helped them come away with the victory.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.