There’s a beauty in the cyclical nature of the National Football League. Every year, pandemonium encompasses the city of Seattle. A San Francisco 49ers running back will get hurt. Kirk Cousins will embarrass himself on national television. Sean McVay will introduce a new aspect of his offense for the rest of the league to copy.
The Los Angeles Rams are putting a wide receiver at fullback, and the rest of the league may soon follow suit.
The Rams’ New Wrinkle
Last year, superstar wide receiver Cooper Kupp found himself all over the formation: outside, in the slot, at tight end, in the backfield. That’s here to stay, but he’s not alone in his versatility.
Wide receiver Ben Skowronek was used at fullback 19 times in Sunday’s 31-27 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. They featured him in I-Form looks to keep Atlanta in conflict. Much like Kupp’s backfield cameos, defenses are pressured to either show their hand and put a smaller defender in the box or deal with the mismatch a linebacker provides.
Skowronek isn’t as skilled or athletic (despite similar 40 times) as Kupp, but his presence still makes a significant impact. He’s big enough to block larger defenders, even if it isn’t the trump card that Kupp possesses. In fact, McVay wasn’t afraid to use him in a handful of blocking assignments.
Los Angeles’ under-center run game improved with this new package. It’s fair to recognize Skowronek’s blocking skills as a work in progress, but he’s earned the right to take on these responsibilities. He looked good as a lead blocker for inside zone. He held his own on the four duo rushes as well.
Not only are the Rams versatile in alignment. They can attack you with multiple concepts as well. I’m not teaching any AP courses on running the football, but from my count the Rams ran the ball using the following concepts (during the 19 aforementioned plays).
Inside zone (4), duo (4), split zone (2), toss (2), counter (1).
All were delivered with virtually identical sets and personnel. Now throw in Kupp’s pre-snap motion. And the threat of play action. And a quarterback willing to test any window. Good luck.
When in I-Form, the Rams can best keep defenses on their toes. Their diverse ground game is a threat in itself. Furthermore, using 11 personnel in a 21 personnel set keeps the aerial attack viable as well. The six remaining snaps from Skowronek’s day in the backfield were passes, and those weren’t cut and paste either.
Seeing unfamiliar faces behind the quarterback could signal a manufactured touch to said player, a separate gimmick, or a creative way to run the ball. These dropbacks prove otherwise. Skowronek ran a couple of flat routes on these play action passes, hauling in an eight-yard catch. He was also made available as a checkdown option over the middle of the field and on bootlegs.
Perhaps most importantly, Matt Stafford was given the option to threaten defenses downfield from this peculiar I-Form set. It was exciting to watch Los Angeles run sail from this look. After a jet motion from Kupp, Allen Robinson ran downfield, Skowronek ran a sail route (think of a corner route, but the fullback sprinting forward first), and Cam Akers found the flat (and eventually the football). Creating effective high-low reads, complete with play action and window dressing, is another nuisance for opposing defenses.
If you thought to yourself that seems challenging to stop, you’d be right. Per Nate Tice of The Athletic, and courtesy of TruMedia, the Rams generated 0.23 Expected Points Added on each snap that saw Skowronek at fullback. Their remaining offensive plays? A whopping 0.09 EPA/Play. In short, this package was an early-down cheat code for an already dangerous offense.
Why not use Cooper Kupp?
Given Kupp’s experience in the backfield and skills as a blocker, one may wonder why the Rams aren’t simply plugging in the better player. The answer is two-fold.
For one, they do different things. Kupp still saw some snaps in the backfield, but they came as a running back. They opt to use him in “gun split” formations alongside Stafford and the running back of choice. McVay uses him to help illuminate coverages, manufacture touches, and stress defenses horizontally.
Defenses can’t allow Kupp to take free yards from flat routes, so they overcommit or run the risk of a safe, but explosive play. The results are easy completions to receivers in the newly vacated parts of the field. You’ll likely see this trend spread across football, too. Giving your best playmaker the football is the easiest way to generate offense, and coaches are increasingly willing to find new ways to do so.
Skowronek, on the other hand, was used mostly as a fullback. On these reps, they only lined up in I-Form. Still, they were able to stress defenses vertically and create windows wide enough for a JV quarterback. Throw in the added benefits of a multi-faceted ground game and defenses are once again lost, albeit from a different path. The labyrinth of McVay’s offense means Los Angeles will score in bunches until the rest of the league catches up.
Furthermore, Kupp is an elite wide receiver. Skowronek…is not. Duplicating the former’s skill set is impossible, but if you can get close enough that defenses react similarly, you’ve hit paydirt. McVay gets to keep up the delusion in the backfield to find easy yards and make his offense unpredictable. Oh, and there’s a 1,947-yard receiver to account for, too.
Sean McVay: Trend Setter
We’ve seen McVay staples get stolen before, passed around the league like a game of telephone. Whether it be friends of friends of friends of McVay finding coaching jobs or copy and pasting plays from his playbook, the NFL is a copycat league. The unique deployment of the fullback position is officially on the rise.
The biggest thing holding this trend back from nationwide domination is the lack of talent to pull it off. Let’s be thankful for that—the last time everybody started running the same stuff, announcers called every play action pass an RPO for two seasons. Regardless, there are teams with the requisite personnel and new age coaching to pull it off. Denver and Minnesota come to mind.
McVay found a new staple, and it’s here to stay. Will your team run it on Sunday?