Sunday's NFC Championship Game will showcase two of the NFL's best offensive minds calling plays. It also will showcase two very different ways of using personnel as a weapon.
Through last weekend's Divisional Round games, Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams have used the fewest offensive personnel packages per game (2.47) in the NFL this season, according to Next Gen Stats. Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints have used the most (10.53).
Looking at those numbers made me think back to my visit to Thousand Oaks, California, in late November as the Rams were coming out of their bye, and the Rams' numbers were actually more extreme then. Through 11 games (not including kneeldowns, fake punts and mop-up time in one game with Sean Mannion in place of Jared Goff at quarterback), the Rams had run a grand total of three plays out of anything other than 11 personnel (three receivers, one back, one tight end) all season, and at least one of those was out of necessity because of injuries. They've mixed things up more since Week 16 -- coinciding with knee inflammation that sidelined running back Todd Gurley for the last two regular-season games, and had him splitting time with C.J. Anderson last week -- but still played 66 of 76 offensive snaps in 11 personnel in their divisional playoff win over the Cowboys and have been in that grouping on 90.9 percent of snaps this season, up from their league-high 79.9 percent in 2017 and well above the team with the second-highest usage this season (the Packers at 75.8 percent).
I laid out the numbers for McVay in his office that late-November day, and his explanation provided a window into the way he views how to put pressure on opposing defenses -- a lot of which is coming back to what his players allow him to do. As McVay told me: "I don't think we ever envisioned it being like this." Among the factors in where the Rams' offense has gone:
-- The Rams have a bunch of good receivers, and they're all willing to block: "In a lot of instances, you're seeing our receivers insert -- they're like fullbacks. So we're running 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) personnel concepts, we're just doing it out of 11 because we have receivers that are willing to block. And really, it's a way to get our best players on the field. Our best players are (on the field) when we're in those three-receiver sets. And then you feel really good about (tight ends) Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee. There is a merit to getting some 12. But those guys end up supplementing each other throughout the game. And before we lost (Cooper) Kupp, too -- I've got a real tough time having him standing next to me. Well now, Josh Reynolds has demonstrated why he deserves to be on the grass a lot (with Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks). And so, really it's more just kind of what our players have allowed our offense to evolve to. When you don't have a true fullback, or a true second tight end ... a lot of the core runs that you see teams activate out of those personnel groupings, we're able to do some variation, and it's largely a result of those receivers."
-- When you don't change players, it's easier to mix and control tempo: "We've got a lot of different protections with regards to our play-actions, because there's some play-actions where the tight end's in [and] there's a lot where we release the tight end. Now, dropback-wise, if you're living in a six-man protection world -- most teams have a six-man protection and then have the ability based on whatever the structure is to adjust and adapt. ... What we try to do is change the launch point, use different variations where if it's empties, screens, play-actions, dropbacks, breaking the huddle and snapping the ball -- we just try to make sure that if we can, and defenses are so tough these days, but try to dictate things. Because the one advantage that we do have offensively is we decide when the ball is snapped, and we try to use that as a weapon and as a tool to try to keep people off balance."
-- Because they can shift to those "heavier" concepts out of 11 personnel, they can still be under center almost every first and second down: "Now you've got the full gamut of your run-pass stuff. Kansas City does a phenomenal job of running the ball in the gun. But just based on the nature of the position of the back, you are limited with the inventory of runs that you can give to a defense, just based on getting it from an offset gun as opposed to the home position. And everything we do is predicated on our players. There's a philosophy and there's a fundamental system. But this thing has taken on an identity of its own as a result of how smart our players are. We've got good players that we want to try to keep pressing the ways of getting them involved in a variety of ways ... but if you have a quarterback that you can ask him to win the game by throwing it and receivers that can separate and then you have a back who is as special as Todd, it makes it tough, if you have the ability to legitimately run and throw the football, and if you can have [defenses] say you've got to take one or the other way."
There are additional factors as to why the Rams use 11 personnel so much, such as keeping the picture constant for Goff -- who acknowledged to me it "definitely helps" with identifying what the defense is trying to do -- and allowing McVay to utilize the in-helmet radio system to speak to his young quarterback after the play is called, though McVay downplays the impact of that. ("If it's something where we're at the line, [Goff] controls all of that," McVay told me. "I know he tunes me out a lot, too.")
As Payton pointed out this week, the same coach gave him and McVay their first NFL coaching jobs: Jon Gruden, who was the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator in 1997, when Payton started there as quarterbacks coach, and head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008, when McVay became assistant wide receivers coach. Payton recalls Gruden talking over and over about "plays that start off looking the same that are different," and McVay has taken that to a certain extreme.
For Payton, switching personnel groupings is part of how he tries to break tendencies, and the Saints took time to analyze theirs during their first-round bye. The Saints have scored touchdowns out of 13 unique personnel packages this season, the most in the NFL. No surprise, the Rams have scored TDs out of just three, tied with the Miami Dolphins for the fewest.
Asked Thursday about those numbers, Payton told reporters: "Well, it's not who's on the field, it's what you're doing with them on the field. And I think Sean (McVay), they do a great job of, 'Man, here comes the weak zone, the wide zone. Here comes the weak zone fallback. Here comes the play-action off of it. Here comes a screen off of it.' And there are so many of these concepts that start off looking the same that are different. They're in tighter splits. They spray the releases. They have speed. So when you combine a great scheme with extremely talented players, it doesn't matter if there's 14 different personnel groupings or two, there's no prerequisite there."
At one point this season, then-Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said the Saints had shown 28 different personnel groupings.
"It's a lot for everybody to figure stuff out," Saints veteran tight end Benjamin Watson told me this season. "Guys have to memorize when they're in, when they're out. When you look at our personnel group list, it's very extensive. And it can be quite challenging at times, especially during the game when they're yelling out personnel groups and some of them may sound the same, but everybody stays in tune. ... You want to make [the defense] sub, and then if they don't, you want to get a mismatch on the field."
The Saints have been in 11 personnel on just 45.5 percent of snaps, higher only than the San Francisco 49ers (who, oddly enough, are coached by one of McVay's mentors, Kyle Shanahan). All the changes put a different type of pressure on defenses, especially when done at an efficient pace.
"Part of it for us has been two receivers come on, one comes off, their tempo, and then there's got to be a rhyme or reason," Payton said, when asked if all those personnel groupings give him more answers and options. "What do they do best and let's try to see if we can put them in those positions and let's not start with what they don't do. Let's start with what they do and then try to mix it up. But it doesn't necessarily provide more answers. Hopefully it slows down maybe the process relative to what a defense is thinking and it depends each week how people [feel].
"The last time we played the Rams (a 45-35 New Orleans win on Nov. 4), it was kind of the first time they treated Taysom (Hill) as a tight end relative to the position. When he was on the field with another tight end, we were getting base defense. So the next home game I ran him out there as a receiver or introduced him as a receiver and they still treated him as a receiver, the next team. A lot if it is how is the other team going to treat this personnel group. That's important."
The Rams rank second in the NFL in scoring (32.8 points per game) and the Saints third (30.8), trailing only Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs (35.1), who rank on the lower end with 4.35 personnel groupings per game this season ... and face the New England Patriots (fourth in scoring, 27.3), in the AFC Championship Game for the right to face the Rams-Saints winner in Super Bowl LIII.