Key Matchups: Rams vs. 49ers
This weekend’s Rams vs. 49ers game features teams with mirror image trajectories. The Rams are trending up, finding themselves in contention for the top seed in the NFC. While the 49ers are struggling to put 22 professionals on the field, much less making a play for the postseason.
The Rams are in first place in the best division in football. They have often looked like the most balanced team in the NFC. They are one of three teams that are rated in the top 10 in offensive and defensive DVOA. Their win over the Buccaneers vaulted them into the top seed in the NFC West but also showed they can beat good teams.
At the beginning of the season, the 49ers were the odds on favorite to win their division. After a veritable tsunami of injuries that spared no group on the depth chart, the Niners now find themselves in last place and on a three-game losing streak. They will likely stay in the basement and the rest of the division looks playoff-bound.
As good as the Rams have looked this season, they aren’t unbeatable and the 49ers are one of the teams that proved that in their Week 6 meeting. The 49ers’ defense was able to keep Jared Goff in check for much of the game, allowing only one touchdown in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Rams defense was unable to slow the 49ers. They scored 21 points in the first half. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they will be without many of the playmakers that so effectively moved the ball in that game. The players that made up 310 of the 390 yards of offense for the 49ers are currently listed as out, questionable, or are on the IR. More importantly, they will start backup quarterback Nick Mullens rather than the injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
In football, there isn’t much better than watching two geniuses square off. The McVay/Shanahan duel may be one of the best ever. Not only are they both bonafide offensive savants, but they also play at least twice a year and both are young. So we will get to enjoy this for years to come. Shanahan has a slight edge in the seven games they’ve played, which currently sits at 4-3 but the Rams haven’t beat the 49ers since 2018.
Week 11 was San Francisco’s bye, which certainly allowed the team some much-needed recuperation. More importantly, it gives Shanahan extra time to prepare a gameplan. Conversely, McVay is on a short week. McVay is 3-3 with short prep time. This record is either mediocre at worst or inconclusive at best.
In the first meeting this season, McVay’s first-quarter gameplan failed miserably. The 49ers scored on their first drive and McVay wanted to answer back quickly and explosively. He called six passing plays and two running plays. Goff wasn’t off to a good start. Usually, he has bad games in the face of pressure, but here it was on him. He missed two throws to open receivers in the quarter and only managed one first down.
This is a convergence of two themes that have led to bad outcomes for the Rams. When down, McVay wants to move the ball aggressively and gets stuck in the mind frame. Which is fine, but Goff needs to meet the moment and he has, but not in this game. And yet, McVay often won’t adjust.
In the second quarter, McVay did rely more heavily on the run and it was working. They put up 55 yards on the ground and they gained 48 yards on the drive that set up their first touchdown. By this time though, the Niners had put two in the end zone and would add a third on the next drive. The Rams were trying to play catchup the rest of the game, so running the ball was then out of the question and Goff ended the game with a 72 passer rating.
What McVay has failed to realize is the team can still move the ball and score without trying to swing for the fences when he’s down early in the count. Had he stuck to a modest gameplan and put some points on the board in the first quarter, a more balanced offense would have been feasible in the second half.
McVay will always come with a good plan, but his ability to adjust when Goff isn’t able to execute the plan will determine this game. It isn’t likely that Goff will have another bad game, but the 49ers can get pressure on him. They are third in the league in QB hurries per dropback and get pressure 24.4-percent of the time.
Shanahan faces an interesting scheming dilemma; How to move the ball when you have no one to move the ball. Tibetan Monks have contemplated this for eons. Shanahan may get Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel back, but as of now, they are labeled Questionable.
Last season, the 49ers’ running game was the driving force behind the offense. In the last three games, they have run for a combined 156 yards. Last season, they averaged 144 yards on the ground. And it isn’t for a lack of trying, the running game has just been rendered ineffective. Before these last three games, they were averaging 137.7 yards per game.
Partly, this is because they have been playing from behind and partly because the backs have been injured and partly because defenses don’t have to worry as much about Mullens. When Mullens is good he looks almost like a competent backup QB, but when he is off he is way off. Part of the problem is he has faced a lot of pressure. He has been under pressure on over 30-percent of his dropbacks with an average of only 2.3 seconds to throw.
Shanahan has to find a way to jump-start the running game and give his QB some protection. Whether it has been Garappolo or Mullens the formula is the same. Short, safe throws and rely on the receivers to get YAC. This has worked, but when none of the other aspects of the offense are firing, the offense looks flaccid and is one dimensional.
A lot of these problems can be boiled down to injuries, but in order to be competitive in this game, Shanahan will have to protect Mullens. A tall order against Aaron Donald and Company.
Over the last three games, the 49ers saw greater success in 21 and in 22 personnel packages. The extra protection of additional backs and tight ends give Mullens more time in the pocket and it gives him shorter, easier throws to make.
If they are able to protect Mullens, they can then capitalize on Shanahan’s signature pre-snap motion and play-action plays. While the Rams are good on many aspects of defense, they struggle against play action. The 49ers have run play action the sixth most in the league. The only team that the Rams have played that runs it more is the Bills.
Jared Goff vs. The World
As noted above, the last time Goff played the 49ers he had a bad game. It isn’t a great problem to have, but even the best QB’s lay an egg. Goff also hasn’t had a mistake-free game this season. That isn’t something that happens to top-tier quarterbacks. The closest Goff has come to was Week 11 against the Bucs. The game was on his shoulders and he rose to the occasion. He went 39-of-51 for 376 with three touchdowns. He was the prime mover on the scoring drives and came up with big plays when he had to. But… he also threw two interceptions, one of which allowed the Bucs to get back into the game.
In football terms, a win is a win and everyone in Ramsland is high on the victory. But despite the big win, no one is gushing over Goff’s performance. The reason why is because Goff hasn’t answered the question that’s hung over his head for most of his career; Can Goff lead a team to a Super Bowl win?
Luckily, this game isn’t the Super Bowl. But, it will be a good game for Goff to make a statement. Good teams, Super Bowl teams, beat the teams they should. The Rams should beat the 49ers this week. They are 7.5 point favorites at home. There is no reason that Goff shouldn’t have a nearly perfect game against this defense. The 49ers are 17th in the league against the pass by DVOA. He should also be coming into this game desperate to redeem his last performance.
The Rams still have four divisional games, so the stakes couldn’t be higher to win the NFC West. The standings couldn’t be tighter for the top spot and there is still a chance that the Rams could be knocked out of the playoffs.
At this point every game matters, Goff can’t afford to have another game with unforced errors or multiple turnovers and that starts with this game.
Rams Running Backs vs. Fred Warner
Fred Warner’s stock has been rising for the past few years. If you are looking to buy, it’s too late. Everyone is in on him. After games against the Packers and later the Saints Aaron Rodgers to Sean Payton both had high praise for the third-year linebacker. With several key pieces missing from the 49ers’ defense, Warner is finally getting the attention he deserves. His speed and superb tackling (He has 79 tackles with only 4 missed tackles) have helped the 49ers remain stingy against the ground attack this season. They are seventh in rush defense DVOA.
The Rams running game has served as a strong backbone to their offense this season. Not only are they running the ball a lot, but they have also been doing it well. According to sharpfootballstats.com, the Rams running game has a 57-percent success rate, picking up 4.3 yards per carry. This makes them second only to Seattle in rushing success, but it must be pointed out that the Rams run the ball the eighth most in the league and Seattle rushes ninth least from a play percentage standpoint.
The Rams have really only struggled on the ground against the Giants and the running backs powered the offense against the Bears, who are currently ranked third in rushing defense DVOA. They opted not to run against the Buccaneers who are ranked first against the run, per DVOA. The Rams attempted only 18 running plays. They average 28 attempts on the year.
The Rams have done a good job utilizing their three backs, Darrell Henderson has gotten a bulk of the touches this season with 110 carries, but Malcolm Brown isn’t far behind with 84 and rookie Cam Akers has 50 despite missing time due to injuries. They are all averaging four yards per carry or better. What is extraordinary about these running backs is how incredibly consistent they play. None of them are flashy in terms of yards after contact, breaking tackles, or big explosive plays. They are used in the right situations and pick up the yards and execute over and over again.
In the last game against the 49ers, Henderson led the rushing attack. He rushed for 88 yards at a bruising 6.3 yards per run. The running game was the one thing that was clicking for the Rams. They kept Warner very busy. He made seven tackles in that game, his season-high. They also picked on LB Dre Greenlaw who made 8 combined tackles.
Warner is a good run defender, but his real talent is in coverage. The more the Rams can coax Warner to chase tight ends into the backfield the better. They can then go after the Greenlaw. Greenlaw isn’t a soft target by any means, but easier to evade than Warner.
If the Rams can pound on the ground, then Warner will be forced to cover the run. This will give Goff a much better shot in those middle-distance passes and in the red zone.
In this case, the Rams should approach the 49ers more like the Bears than they did the Buccaneers.