After the Cardinals game, it was evident that the Rams are still figuring out who they are on offense. The Broncos game taught us that San Francisco is in the same position. Both teams came into the season with high expectations and neither has lived up to them. No one can quite put their finger on either team. This game can aid that process. Hotly contested divisional games bring out the best in teams. They force identities because facing a loss like that cuts differently than the rest. They reveal who is a contender and who is still stuck in the mud.
A look at which matchups will define this defining game.
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Rams vs 49ers Matchups: Injured Offensive Line vs Opposite Defensive Lines
Both teams have seen significant injuries to their offensive line. For the Rams, they will be without center Brian Allen and guard Alaric Jackson. The 49ers best lineman (and perhaps the league’s best), left tackle Trent Williams, will be out for several weeks with a high ankle sprain. He will likely be replaced by 2021 fifth-rounder Jaylon Moore. On the other side, right tackle Mike McGlinchy seems to be playing through a knee injury suffered in the preseason.
The defensive lines have been polar opposites. The Rams have 15 pressures per Pro Football Reference which are good for second to last. The 49ers have 35, the fifth best in the league. Nick Bosa has as many sacks as Aaron Donald has pressures, four. Donald leads the Rams in pressure.
The Bills pass rush destroyed the Rams game plan in Week 1 and as far as the numbers say, the 49ers are a better pass rushing team. The 49ers have eight more pressures than the Bills.
Bosa leads the 49ers in both sacks and pressure. He has typically lined up on the left side, so he will mostly be going up against right tackle Rob Havenstein. But Bosa can also rush from the opposite side which would pit him against Joseph Noteboom. Havenstein hasn’t been good this season allowing seven pressures and two sacks per PFF, but Noteboom has been worse. He has allowed 12 pressures and three sacks.
In the last two weeks, the Rams have faced poor pass-rushing teams. Atlanta is 30th in pressures with 17. The Cardinals have the same number of pressures as the 49ers, but only have two sacks, plus they blitz at a high rate. Blitzing generates pressure, but does so inefficiently, as you lose a man in coverage. The 49ers blitz at the third lowest rate in the league, behind the Bears and the Bills.
Not having to go up against Williams is good news for the Rams, but this doesn’t seem like the game that they will turn around their pass-rushing woes.
But! The Rams front seven have been very good against the running game this season. The Rams are fourth in rush defense DVOA. They held Cordarrelle Patterson to just 41 yards in Week 2. He’s averaged 130 yards per game in his other two games. Not only that, but the Falcons have a very innovative running game. The 49ers also have an innovative running game. They are sixth in rushing yards and have picked up over half their first downs on the ground.
It’s no secret to the Rams that they have to stop the run to beat the 49ers. In their losses last year the 49ers ran for 146 per game and in their win the Rams held them to just 50 rushing yards. In San Francisco’s four games that they were held to under 100 yards on the ground, the 49ers were 0-4. Not having Williams will definitely affect how successful they will be running the ball.
The 49ers have also seen injuries to several running backs, but Kyle Shanahan has a way of making any back look good.
The Rams defense will have to be stout against this rushing attack to come away with a win and their offensive line will have to mitigate the damage the 49ers pass rush can bring.
Rams vs 49ers Matchups: Cooper Kupp vs Charvarius Ward
Cooper Kupp is averaging 3.4 yards per catch less than he did last season. What that works out to so far this season is a lack of 95 yards. Kupp’s 28 catches this season leads the NFL. His 280 yards is the sixth most among pass catchers. The extra 95 yards would put him in first place ahead of Stefon Diggs by 31 yards. Looking a little closer at his receiving stats shows that Kupp’s average depth of target (ADOT) is actually up, a little under a yard per target deeper but his average yards before the catch (YBC/R) is down, 1.6 yards less per catch and his average yards after the catch (YAC) is down by 1.8 yards per catch.
This shows that Kupp has been less successful on deeper targets and he is getting less cushion and less separation, therefore, limiting his yards after the catch. According to NextGen Stats Kupp’s cushion has been reduced by a full yard from last year to this year. This has helped contain Kupp so far this season. More accurately the Cardinals were able to limit Kupp. The Cardinals were able to limit his separation to 2.8 yards per catch. He averaged 3.6 yards last season.
Last week was the first time Kupp didn’t lead the Rams in receiving for the first time since Week 9 of 2021. Kupp caught 24 passes for 236 yards and 3 three touchdowns in the first two weeks. So the Bills and Falcons both had their issues with Kupp. Arizona limited him to four catches for 44 yards.
Vance Joseph said the key to defending Kupp was employing a variety of looks, switching between press-man coverage and doubling him when in zone coverage. Joseph has actually done a good job against Kupp since taking over as Arizona’s defensive coordinator. His defenses have held Kupp to 75 yards per game, on average. That said, the Cardinals have won once in his tenure.
On the other hand, the 49ers have not kept Kupp from hauling in passes and picking up yards. In the three San Francisco games last season he averaged 10 catches, 127 yards, and a touchdown. Of course, that didn’t guarantee a Rams win. That took one of the best performances of his historic season. In the NFC Championship game, he caught for 142 yards and two touchdowns; his fourth-most receiving yards in 2021.
The 49ers have tried to address this by revamping their secondary, specifically adding Charvarius Ward to lead their cornerback room. His addition has already made a big impact. Last season the 49ers were 30th in DVOA against number 1 receivers. So far this year they are 5th. What has made Ward so good has been limiting yards after the catch, which is, of course, one of the big reasons Kupp is so dangerous. Ward has only allowed 10 yards after the catch. 170 of Kupp’s yards against San Francisco last season came after the catch.
By in large, the 49ers play in zone coverage and Ward is by far a much better corner in zone coverage. Emmanuel Moseley has been better in man, so the 49ers could switch to him when they want to make Kupp work at the line of scrimmage, but Kupp’s route-running prowess could very well put either guy into a blender.
Then there is the fact that Kupp has only spent about 45 percent of his time on the outside. Ward has played exactly one snap in the slot. The Rams should expect fifth-round rookie Samuel Womack or second-year Deommodore Lenoir to cover Kupp when in the slot.
They have both been decent at the position this year, but neither has had to face Kupp yet in their short careers. Even experienced and more talented nickel backs have struggled with Kupp. As Dan Patrick always said, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” The philosophy the Niners may take with Kupp is he’s going to get touches, we just can’t let him beat us.