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How the Rams ran all over the Cowboys after the Seahawks couldn’t

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Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Saturday night in at the Los Angeles Coliseum it was a showdown between the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, with the victor getting the opportunity to advance to the NFC Championship Game against the victor of Sunday’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. The Rams brought their high powered offense to the game to take on the Cowboys stout defense, a defense that just a week before had stymied the running game of the Seattle Seahawks by consistently beating the Hawks up front.

While the Hawks could never get their ground game going, finishing their Wild Card appearance with just 73 rushing yards, the Rams ran wild on the Dallas defense. L.A. put up nearly four times as many rushing yards as the Hawks had in the previous week, tallying up 273 rushing yards against what had been a top five defense against the run.

In any case, that brings up the question about what was so different between the two games that led to the stark contrast in performances?

Obviously, as in any such explanation, there are a myriad of variables that come into play for analysis, but the simple version is that the Cowboys stacked the box to stop the run more against Seattle than they did against the Rams. I won’t waste too much time explaining the data, as it seems easier to simply lay the data out to be looked at.

So, here are the rushing attempts by the Seahawks running backs against Dallas in the Wild Card game with the yards gained and the number of defenders in the box.

Seattle rushing attempts against Dallas in Wild Card with box counts

Drive and Play Wild Card Offensive Blockers Box Defenders
Drive and Play Wild Card Offensive Blockers Box Defenders
Drive 1, Play 1 Run (5) 8 8
Drive 1, Play 2 Run (3) 8 9
Drive 2, Play 2 Run (5) 6 7
Drive 3, Play 1 Run (4) 5 6
Drive 3, Play 2 Run (0) 6 7
Drive 4, Play 3 Run (3) 8 9
Drive 4, Play 4 Run (0) 7 8
Drive 5, Play 3 Run (-4) 6 7
Drive 6, Play 3 Run (3) 6 6
Drive 7, Play 1 Run (1) 6 7
Drive 7, Play 2 Run (3) 6 6
Drive 8, Play 2 Run (5) 8 9
Drive 8, Play 3 Run (28) 7 7
Drive 8, Play 4 Run (-7) 7 8
Drive 9, Play 1 Run (3) 6 6
Drive 9, Play 2 Run (0) 7 8
Drive 9, Play 3 Run (2) 6 7
Drive 9, Play 5 Run (3) 6 7
Drive 9, Play 6 Run (2) 6 7
Drive 9, Play 8 Run (1) 7 7
Drive 10, Play 1 Run (-1) 6 7

And then let’s look at the data for the Rams in their triumph over the Cowboys.

Rams rushing attempts against Dallas with box counts

Rush Attempt Number Runner Box Count Yards Gained
Rush Attempt Number Runner Box Count Yards Gained
1 Gurley 8 3
2 Gurley 7 3
3 Gurley 7 4
4 Gurley 7 9
5 Anderson 6 12
6 Anderson 7 3
7 Anderson 8 4
8 Gurley 7 3
9 Gurley 7 3
10 Anderson 6 15
11 Anderson 8 -1
12 Anderson 7 11
13 Anderson 7 4
14 Gurley 7 4
15 Gurley 7 8
16 Anderson 7 2
17 Anderson 7 14
18 Anderson 9 1
19 Anderson 7 6
20 Anderson 7 7
21 Gurley 7 35
22 Gurley 7 8
23 Gurley 7 6
24 Gurley 7 18
25 Anderson 7 6
26 Anderson 7 1
27 Gurley 7 1
28 Gurley 7 8
29 Anderson 7 3
30 Anderson 6 7
31 Anderson 6 9
32 Gurley 7 1
33 Anderson 7 0
34 Anderson 7 5
35 Anderson 7 1
36 Gurley 7 1
37 Anderson 7 2
38 Anderson 7 5
39 Anderson 7 6

In short, let me break it down very quickly and look at how each of the teams performed against different boxes.

Rushing stats against box counts for Seahawks and Rams versus Cowboys

Box Count Seattle Percentage of Rushing Attempts Seattle YPC LA Percentage of Rushing Attempts LA YPC
Box Count Seattle Percentage of Rushing Attempts Seattle YPC LA Percentage of Rushing Attempts LA YPC
6 defenders 19.05% 2.3 10.26% 10.8
7 defenders 47.62% 3.7 76.92% 6
8+ defenders 33.33% 3.3 12.82% 1.6

Basically, as others have shown elsewhere, the best way to generate a consistently good running game is to run into lighter boxes, and that is what the Rams offense does. Sean McVay and company spent the regular season fostering an offense that gets receivers open and creates the threat of scoring from anywhere on the field on any play. That means that defenses have to respect that, because while only barely ten percent of all running plays result in a gain of ten or more yards, when it comes to the passing game, 27.43% (5,199 of 18,953 plays) of all passing plays in the NFL in 2018 went for ten or more yards.

In short, the Rams spent the 2018 season establishing the pass, and the Dallas defense was more concerned about stopping the pass than it was about stopping the run.