Why You Should Expect a High-Scoring Vikings-Rams Matchup on Thursday Night
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jared Goff, Sean McVay
- Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams' habit of breaking NFL trends could break the Minnesota Vikings defense.
- Here's what a high-scoring matchup on Thursday Night Football could mean for fantasy and betting purposes.
I’ll be leveraging my experience as a fantasy analyst with a statistics background and a high school football coach to identify aspects of one matchup every week that you can take advantage of while setting your fantasy football lineups and/or placing bets on the upcoming slate.
This week, we’re focusing on why you should expect a high-scoring Thursday Night Football matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings.
The Rise of 11 Personnel
Over the last decade, one of the more seismic shifts in NFL offensive play has been the increase in 11 personnel, which utilizes one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
Here’s how much its usage has increased since 2008, via Pro Football Focus:
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 1, 2018
So far this season, 11 personnel has been used on 62% of all offensive snaps, according to Sharp Football Stats.
So why has the league taken more of an interest in this personnel grouping?
For starters, passing has increased greatly around the league. And if you’re going to throw a lot, you likely want more players to catch those passes. So instead of employing a fullback, many teams have turned to a slot receiver.
Sean McVay’s All-In Shove
Sean McVay and the Rams have not only embraced 11 personnel, they’ve gone all-in on it. Los Angeles’ top three wideouts — Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp — have all played at least 97% of snaps through the first three games.
That means almost every snap that the Rams have run this season has been out of 11 personnel.
So why do this? What advantage is being gained by using three wide receivers so frequently?
It starts in the box. If you want to see six defenders in the box while running your offense, you probably want to play out of 11 personnel.
Number of Men in the Box by personnel group, 2016-2017
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) August 14, 2018
FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer used data from Sports Info Solutions to create the graphics above and give the frequency of men in the box for each personnel grouping.
Six men in the box occurred with the most frequency against 11 personnel, and at a 56% rate — the highest in Hermsmeyer’s data set. Men in the box has a profound impact on yards per carry.
What better explains YPC when you have both total number of defenders in the box, and relative blocking advantage data?
Min number of carries at each combination of MIB and advantage filtered to 25 or more att.
The number of MIB explains ~80% of YPC by itself. pic.twitter.com/FmfixWH8ki
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) June 6, 2018
Using 11 personnel has allowed McVay and the Rams to maximize what they can get out of stud running back Todd Gurley on the ground.
Where 11 differentiates itself from 10 — which created a higher percentage of boxes with six or fewer defenders — is that it keeps an extra player on the line to block while still presenting four receiving threats.
This puts the defense in quite the bind. It can play with two high safeties and widen a linebacker out to the slot man, leaving a six-man box vulnerable to the run. Or it can roll a safety over the slot player and keep a seven-man box, but be more exposed to the pass.
It’s easy to see why McVay has gotten all his chips in the middle with this personnel grouping.
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Zig When They Zag
McVay has not only dominated with personnel, his Rams are also killing teams from under center.
Check out how LA compares to the league average in under center play frequency and pass frequency from under center.
- Plays under center: 68.8% vs. league-average 36.4%
- Passes under center: 44.6% vs. league-average 20.4%
Again, we must ask: Why is this so important?
- Well, the league-average run percentage from under center is 66.6%. So when the Rams are under center, teams are expecting the run.
- This allows the Rams to be more effective in play-action passing. They ran play-action on 29% of their dropbacks in 2017, according to Football Outsiders, second only to the Vikings.
- The effects of play-action on passing are extreme.
Here's another view of the same data, but compared to the same three year period of non play action passes. pic.twitter.com/v7wyKkSmcT
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) February 1, 2018
The results of this are evident in passing production around the league. In shotgun, where teams are passing 70% of the time, teams are averaging only 6.5 yards per attempt. That number jumps to 8.3 under center.
The Rams are averaging a stellar 9.1 yards per attempt from under center to start the season.
Expect Lots of Points in Vikings-Rams
By using 11 personnel almost exclusively and running plays under center at almost double the league-average rate, McVay has proven that he is not just a one-year wonder as a head coach: He has shown zero reservation about breaking league-wide trends, and it continues to be to his benefit.
The Vikings have been a league-average defense when defending the pass under center to start 2018, allowing 8.3 yards per attempt. Even if PFF’s No. 2 run defense can manage to slow Gurley down, it is likely that McVay and the Rams continue to hurt teams in the passing game.
Meanwhile, with Aqib Talib out a month with a high ankle sprain and Marcus Peters questionable with a strained calf, the Rams secondary is greatly weakened for a matchup with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Thursday’s matchup has massive shootout potential as a result, which makes this a great fantasy and DFS spot.
And if you can get the total lower than 49, I’d bet the over. But as of writing, this contest has already risen from 47 to 49 (see live odds here).