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How Sean McVay Steals Plays From Sean Payton and Vice Versa—and Why It’s the Ultimate Sign of Respect

In November, Payton detailed how he watches Rams tape closely and takes some of their concepts. McVay admits to doing the same thing with Payton's offense, and even stole a play that burned the Rams defense to use one week later. Plus, news and notes for the conference title games.

If the Seahawks had taken a real hard look at the Rams’ previous game tape before their Week 10 visit to L.A., they’d have seen the concept that shook slot receiver Cooper Kupp free for a big gainer at the end of the first quarter against them. But it’s hard to blame Pete Carroll and Co. for missing it. After all, they were probably looking at the wrong team.

Sean McVay has no problem admitting what was going there: He lifted the play from the Saints, right off the day-after tape.

“[The Saints] did a great job, it was a little out-and-up concept,” McVay said, from his office on Friday afternoon, 48 hours ahead of the NFC title game. “They hit it on us for a big gain down the right sideline. And I said, ‘Dang, that’s a nice way to do it.’ And we put the same exact thing in with Cooper Kupp and we hit them for about 25 yards down the left sideline at home.”

Like McVay said, it’s right there on the tape.

• In Week 9, the Saints were in a first-and-10 at the Rams 48 with 9:48 left in the first half. They broke the huddle into trips-right with an empty backfield. Tight end Dan Arnold was split wide right, with Ben Watson and Mark Ingram inside of him and off the line. At the snap, Arnold ran deep to the post and carried safety John Johnson with him. Meanwhile, Watson ran an out-and-up, with linebacker Cory Littleton isolated on him, and Littleton’s deep help (that would’ve been Johnson) gone.

• In the days to follow, McVay took the play, flipped it and deployed receivers rather than tight ends to juice it. And with 2:16 left in the first quarter against Seattle, he called it, out of trips left, with Woods split wide left and Kupp and Tyler Higbee in the slot alongside. Like clockwork, Woods ran the post, carrying Seahawks corner Tre Flowers, covering the deep third in Seattle’s Cover-3, with him. That opened space for Kupp with nickel Justin Coleman chasing.

All of that happened in the space of eight days. McVay got hit with it, liked it, retrofitted it, installed it, and hit someone else with it. It was that simple. Stealing? Maybe. A huge sign of respect from one coach to another? Absolutely.

“Sean Payton’s definitely one of those guys,” McVay says. “I have so much respect for the success that he’s had since I’ve been coaching, as a play caller. The creativity, the ability to put players in great spots, you can see there’s an intricate understanding of what they’re trying to get done. There are certain offenses you watch where you can see what the intent of the play is, and how it’s designed to attack certain defensive structures, manipulate some of the rules.

“They do a great job. And there are a couple other teams you love to study. But certainly, New Orleans is definitely one of those teams, I’m watching their game every week.”

BREER:How the Rams’ Blueprint Stacks Up With the Saints, Patriots and Chiefs

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Normally in the Sunday Rundown, we give you a bunch of injury news and updates, and we’ll get to that at the end of the column (there’s not a ton of injury stuff this week—all four teams are pretty healthy for this time of year). But with the Saints and Rams in the NFC title game, I wanted to revisit a story we did earlier in the year with Payton.

We actually ran that one in the days leading up to the two teams playing that Week 9 game. Payton explained to me then that he has a list of offenses he has to watch every week (“The last thing you want is some trading tip that’s going hot on the floor, and you just didn’t pay attention to it, and everyone else is”), and that the 32-year-old McVay had earned a place on it.

I figured this week, with the teams playing again, I’d go to McVay and see if he does the same thing. As you might expect, the answer was yes—and yes, Payton’s on his list. For McVay, the idea of this practice started a decade back, when he first got into the NFL, serving then as assistant receivers coach for Jon Gruden in Tampa. Part of his job that first offseason, in fact, was to study trends across the NFL.

“He’d give you projects to watch other teams in the offseason, to see if they’re having a high level of success at something,” McVay says. “And then it was, ‘What is it that they’re doing?’ And then, ‘Is there something worth implementing in the offseason for the upcoming season?’”

But what we’re talking about here is a considerably more aggressive version of that. Thanks to staffs growing, and technology making accessing tape far less laborious, guys like Payton and McVay are finding time to turn around those sorts of projects on the fly, in-season. In some cases, like the one we explained above, the turnaround is a matter of days.

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Payton said back in November that he does his league-wide study on Mondays. Ditto for McVay. On a normal Monday, his routine is to finish up the tape from the day before, and then study “some of the explosives, and the specific offenses that are having good production” across the league, even before he’s on to the next week’s opponent. And his rationale for it lines right up with Payton’s trading-floor analogy.

“If there are some real good things, or trends going on around the league, you want to make sure you’re not waiting til the following season to implement those things,” he says. “These guys have great ideas. We got a lot of great coaches in our building, but we also have this tape that’s showing the other great ideas that are around the league that we’re not exposed to. And when you can look at it and see if it fits for you, it helps give you a good feel for the overall framework of the league.

“What you’ll see is, if someone hits a good concept that’s successful, then usually it’s going to show up around the league.”

McVay had two examples of that happening quickly. The first was a concept from Week 1 that the Chiefs ran out of two different looks, with a back in the shotgun crossing over as if taking a handoff, and a player from the H-back spot flying across in the opposite direction on a jet sweep, then taking the ball on a pop pass. Tyreek Hill went for 21 yards on it on the first play of the third quarter. De’Anthony Thomas scored a 1-yard touchdown on it to cap that drive.

The second was a 3-yard touchdown by Browns receiver Jarvis Landry in Week 14 against Carolina. On the play, Landry was in an H-back spot to the left of the formation. Baker Mayfield faked a toss left, then gave to Landry on an inside handoff going right, with the play blocked like a traditional counter would be. Landry waltzed past a baffled Carolina defense into the end zone standing up.

According to McVay, those two plays, pretty soon thereafter, were everywhere. “Some really cool plays that show up and have success, usually you’ll start to see a lot of teams running it.” Which, you could say, is Payton’s trading floor come to life.

Of course, there is a limit to how much any coach can see, no matter how much more efficient the process of getting and culling tape gets. So they do have to pick and choose what to look at. As McVay said, some of what goes on that Monday reel is based on the events of that particular week. And like Payton told us in November, some is based on who the coach on that tape is. Just like Payton, McVay has his list.

“I watch the Chiefs, the Patriots, I usually watch the 49ers,” says McVay. “When you really look at it over the last handful of years, the Patriots and the Saints have been so consistent offensively for such a long period of time, I’ve always studied those guys. And then having worked with Kyle [Shanahan], since we haven’t been working together anymore, whether he was in Cleveland, Atlanta or San Fran, I’ve always studied his tape because he does such a nice job. And then I’ll obviously watch Washington film as well because of Jay [Gruden].”

There’s a humility in all this—a coach implicitly conceding he doesn’t have all the answers, and someone might know better than he does.

“There’s probably not a single play in our offense that I made up,” McVay says. “Some are a result of adjusting it and adapting it to some of the things we’ve done, and then being able to see these great teams and coaches or around the league or even in college that are doing things that are creative and you feel like fit within the framework of your philosophy and how you operate offensively.”

Of course, you have to know how to teach it, and know when to call it. There’s much more that goes into getting this practice right than calling up a bunch of plays that worked for someone else. But the root of it is pretty simple: Smart people taking ideas from other smart people, and guys like Payton and McVay, thriving at the top of their profession, understanding that continuing to evolve is the key to staying there.

And it doesn’t hurt if the guy with the clicker genuinely has a passion for it, like McVay and Payton do.

“I’d probably do it if I wasn’t a football coach,” McVay says. “You absolutely love it and there’s always that constant challenge of making sure you’re getting better and staying up with what’s going on. But really, I just like seeing good football and learning about it. It’s that never-ending process of learning. … I always look forward to coming in on Mondays and looking around the league.”

BENOIT:Will the Rams’ Play-Action Game Be Enough to Stifle the Saints’ Defense?

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The rundown for the conference title games…

1. Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata has been a huge part of New Orleans’ success on that side of the ball this year, and his presence is even more important now with Sheldon Rankins out. Onyemata will be deployed as Rankins has been.

2. The Rams’ health has been off-the-charts tremendous in 2018. Cooper Kupp is the only starting-level player who will miss the NFC title game, and they’ve had two months to adjust to his absence (with players like Josh Reynolds taking the reps), which hasn’t been easy. There isn’t a single player on their injury report.

3. Chiefs S Eric Berry is expected to be a go for Sunday, after the Chiefs played it safe last week. I’m told he looked like himself, and practiced without limitation this week. The veteran’s heel injury has limited him to two games in 2018, and this matchup is an interesting one because of the history here. The last time Berry played against the Patriots, his assignment was Rob Gronkowski—he held the future Hall-of-Famer to two catches and 33 yards in the 2017 opener, and you could argue Gronk isn’t the player now that he was then. Of course, Berry might not be either.

4. Two things I heard about the Colts’ experience in Arrowhead last week that apply here: One, they figured the conditions might neutralize the Chiefs’ speed, and it didn’t. Worse, the turf there caused the Colts defense problems that actually accentuated K.C.’s big-play ability. Second, Andy Reid tweaked his route concepts, and that threw Indy off. The Patriots can expect the same sort of thing today.

5. In the seven games since their Week 11 bye, the Patriots have run the ball 36, 39, 30, 19, 47, 30 and 34 times. They controlled the Chargers’ pass rush, and prevented Gus Bradley from moving Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa last week by running the ball effectively and using quick-game passing to stay out of long yardage. This is why you draft an offensive lineman and running back in the first round, and this is a different Patriot offense. By the way, the Chiefs have sixth-worst run defense in football, and are one of two teams to allow 5.0 yards per carry this year (the Rams are the other). That K.C. defense is also first in the NFL in sacks. So it’s fair to guess Sony Michel will be getting a lot of work in order to a) Keep the Chiefs’ offense off the field, b) Exploit a K.C. weakness, and c) Stay out of third-and-long, which would take away the Chiefs D’s greatest strength (that pass rush, behind Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones). Stylistically, the Patriots may not look much different than they did last week against the Chargers.

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