Key Matchups: Rams Vs 49ers Part III
When comparing the Rams and the 49ers the most glaring mismatch is the Rams receivers going up against the 49ers secondary. But outside of Cooper Kupp, the Rams pass catchers have failed to take advantage. A part of this could be on the play calling and on Matthew Stafford. One out of three passing attempts against the 49ers have gone to Kupp. Also, nearly 40 percent of Stafford’s passes have been thrown to the middle of the field at short and intermediate distances.
There are a few reasons this hasn’t worked against the 49ers. One, while throwing to Kupp has yielded amazing results, at that high rate passing to Kupp runs the risk of becoming predictable. Also, the 49ers are very strong throughout the middle of the field. Fred Warner and others in the linebacking corp are fast and good in coverage. Their slot corner covering Kupp is K’Waun Williams. He is one of the better nickel corners in the league. They also have Jimmie Ward, one of the hardest-hitting safeties lurking around, waiting for a defenseless receiver to cover over the middle.
Where San Francisco is vulnerable is on the outside. Their strongest outside corner is Moseley, but he is also only graded 31st by PFF. Although, since returning from an injury in week 13 his level of play has been better than that.
Sean McVay has preferred using Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp early in games to get Stafford into a rhythm. Then they will take some shots downfield to Odell Beckham Jr or Jefferson. The 49ers haven’t allowed that particular scenario to play out. Even in week 18 when they took the first half by 17 points, the Rams did so by playing a very different style of football. They were running the ball successfully and stuck with it. The drawback was Stafford’s rhythm was never established. Then in the second half, the Rams tried to pound the gas pedal and the rest is history.
Beckham is definitely having his moment and will certainly be a key in the game. But Jefferson could be the ace in the hole for the Rams. He is the team’s truest deep threat leading the team with a 14-yard average depth of target and 16.5 yards per reception. He is also third on the team in first downs. But for the last few weeks, he hasn’t seen his average target share. With outsized attention being paid to Kupp and Beckham, Jefferson has the opportunity to get open against the other 49ers corners and make plays. When Moseley is lined up against Beckham on the right side, keep an eye on Jefferson on the left side.
The Rams have not been able to stop Samuel this season. He has a combined 293 all-purpose yards in two against the Rams. His yardage accounts for 36 percent of San Francisco’s total yardage from the previous matchups.
The truth is, the Rams are not alone. No team this season has effectively stopped Samuel. He is fifth in the league in receiving yards and first in yards per reception. The big difference between Samuel and the rest of the top wide receivers is his average yards after the catch. He leads the league in that category as well, but he also has one of the shorter average depth of targets of a number one receiver. If he can even be labeled as a “number one receiver.” He has created his own category.
For instance, compare Samuel and Ja’Marr Chase. Chase finished with 1680 yards at 17.7 yards per catch. Samuel finished with 1487 with 17.9 yards per catch. Chase achieved those numbers with a 13.1 average depth of target and an average of 8.1 yards after the catch. Samuel’s average depth of target was 8.1 yards and averaged 10.4 yards after the catch.
Those differences make Samuel’s performance all the more impressive. Chase is catching passes deep, with only safety, and maybe a corner, to beat. Samuel is catching short passes with several players attempting to tackle him. Deebo forced 24 missed tackles while catching the ball and 26 on the ground. 60 percent of his yards this season against the Rams have come after the catch or after contact.
Rapp is the team’s best tackler and the 49ers are filled to the brim with tackle breakers. Samuel is just the tip of the spear. Whether or not Kyle Shanahan is or is not “in” Sean McVay’s head, the lack of good tackling is first and foremost the reason the Rams have lost twice to the 49ers this season. Pro Football Focus graded the two San Francisco games the worst tackling performances of the year for the Rams.
Rapp conversely had his best games of the season. PFF graded him an 87.3 and 82.9 in those two games. He is on a good stretch of solid tackling, having not missed a tackle since week 13 and allowing only an average of eight yards a catch. His average on the year is 11.1.
Rapp has missed the last two weeks while in concussion protocol and has been limited in practice this week, but will likely play this week.
While he was sidelined, Nick Scott, Terrell Burgess, and the formerly retired Eric Weddle held down the fort at safety. Although it should be pointed out that ALL the Arizona wide receivers that played in the Wild Card game had a total of 23 missed tackles forced for the entirety of the 2021 season. The Buccaneer’s receivers had 15.
Sound tackling is not an individual effort and furthermore, it hasn’t been the Rapp or the Rams safeties to blame in the Rams tackling deficiencies. The Rams have a combined 119 missed tackles on the season. That’s the 24th most in the league. Yes, Rapp will have to yet again have a great performance, but it will take a team effort to corral Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Elijah Mitchell. The four have a combined 134 forced missed tackles. That’s more than some teams have across the board.
The team that gets more pressure without blitzing will win this game. To quote Hobie Doyle from Hail, Caesar!, “Would that it was so simple.” Over the last few weeks, these defensive fronts have been overwhelming. Certainly, each of the team’s pass rush is a large reason they got through the divisional round and they both did it against two of the best quarterbacks ever.
But the Rams and 49ers did it differently. The Rams sent 5 or more pass rushers 16 times against Tom Brady. The 49ers blitzed Aaron Rodgers just three times. Brady was pressured 19 times and sacked three times. Rodgers was sacked five times and pressured 12. Both Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo are good quarterbacks when blitzed. Stafford is the fourth best-graded quarterback by PFF when blitzed and Garoppolo is the eighth.
Of course, on these two teams, there are the usual suspects when it comes to pass rush prowess. Aaron Donald and Nick Bosa will be the main bout in this matchup. But in order to get pressure rushing only four the rest of the line will have to contribute.
Floyd has been a consistent contributor, but hasn’t had many standout performances. In the games against San Francisco this season he has zero sacks and three hurries. Since the first 49ers game in week 10, he has collected only three of his 13 sacks.
Key has 11 sacks in his career. Eight of which have come in weeks 9-18 of this season. 49ers defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, is receiving high praise for turning around several members of the San Francisco defensive line, several of which are having career years. Key’s turnaround and subsequent consistency may be the biggest turnaround of the lot. He is currently tied for 14th among defensive linemen in PRP. A PFF formula that combines sacks, hits, and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer. His PRP of 8.6 puts him .3 points behind Joey Bosa and .1 behind Chris Jones. It also puts him 1.6 points ahead of Floyd. That said, Key has struggled to make the same impact in the playoffs, producing only three pressures against Dallas and zero against Green Bay. That was the first time he had gone without a pressure since week 12.
Both Floyd and Key have proved they can get to the quarterback, but have done so differently. Floyd has been dependable spanning beyond just this one season. Key hasn’t proved he is anything but a flash in the pan at this point. But what is true for each is that this is, so far, the biggest game of their careers and either one could be the difference in the game.