The wounds from the last Rams/ 49ers game are still fresh and losing out on Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco only pours salt on those cuts. There is a salve for the Rams coming off their bye week though. The Rams get a slew of players back from injury. They also found creative ways to generate a ground threat against the Panthers. They used four different receivers to rush the ball resulting in eight yards per carry and a touchdown. A huge improvement from the 3.4 yards they currently average on the ground.
This allowed the Rams to run the most play-action plays of the season and get more vertical targets. Matthew Stafford went 13 for 13 with 11.2 yards per completion from play-action. That’s more than three yards more than his season YPC average of 8.1.
What teams have learned about the mighty 49ers defense is that an effective running game is its kryptonite. The Falcons were able to put up 28 points on them with only 121 passing yards. The Cheifs scored 3 touchdowns on the ground against them. Part of the reason is that the 49ers have been without Arik Armstead, their behemoth defensive tackle and chief run-stopper. They will be without him for this game as well. The question is, can the same game plan work against the 49ers?
Running your wide receivers out of the backfield is not a sustainable way to run the ball. Case in point, Deebo Samuel has carried the ball 25 times this season and is again on the injury report and will miss this game.
But with Cam Akers refusing to play and Darrell Henderson struggling to find yards, the Rams will have to continue rushing wide receivers, especially in this game. Brandon Powell who leads the team in non-running back rushes tweaked his ankle in practice this week and was limited and is listed as questionable heading into the weekend.
The Rams Forever Evolving Offensive Line
Most importantly, the offensive line is also getting healthier and better. Brian Allen has returned to practice and will play in this game. There is also a chance that their veteran offensive linemen Oday Aboushi and Matt Skura will be worked into the fold this week. The improvement along the interior of the offensive line will go a long way against the 49ers, but most of the pressure the 49ers generated came off the edge, specifically from Nick Bosa.
Alaric Jackson will be the main one responsible for keeping Bosa in check this week. Jackson has been a rare beacon of hope among the linemen. He moved to left tackle last week when Joseph Noteboom sustained an injury.
The Rams held Carolina’s respectable pass rush to 8 pressures. Carolina has averaged double that (16) on the season so far. More than half of the Panthers pressures came from interior pass rushers and not from star edge rusher, Brian Burns. Which is definitely a feather in Jackson’s cap. Assuming that Jackson is not a flash in the pan, there should be a marked improvement over the Week 4 matchup when Noteboom allowed eight pressures alone.
The Rams may very well trot out a nearly completely revamped offensive line. Rob Havenstein might be the only player to will play the same position in the two games. Given the performance of that first lineup, a change was needed and these changes should give the Rams offense a chance to create positive plays. It’s doubtful that the improvements will completely nullify the 49er pass rush, but they won’t be absolutely bulled over like they were in Week 4.
Van Jefferson’s Return
Van Jefferson is designated to return from his stint on the injured reserve and Coach Sean McVay said he anticipates a normal workload for him but they will monitor him throughout the game.
Last season, Jefferson was the Rams most consistent (and sometimes only) deep-threat receiver. So his return certainly helps the Rams in that aspect. But in reality, that might not happen much for this iteration of the Rams. Stafford has completed only 4 of 17 passes of 20 yards or more. Compare that to last season when he had a 46 percent completion percentage on those throws. Of course, the completion percentage is highly affected by who is being targeted.
Adding Jefferson back into the fold will help that but Stafford hasn’t had nearly enough time to let deep plays develop. His average depth of target is down 2.2 yards this year over last year. He is attempting about the same amount of deep passes per game, but the pressure is having its effect.
Where Jefferson might be most important will be in the intermediate passing game. (Passes between 10-19 yards) Stafford’s completion percentage is up from 2021 in this aspect. They account for only 15.6 percent of his completions but for 23.3 percent of his total passing yards. While they are not the explosive plays the Rams became accustomed to last season, they are very important plays that lead successful drives, mainly because they keep the chains moving. The Rams are 23rd in the league with 19.2 first downs per game.
Jefferson will help diversify Stafford’s options in this area of the field. He will also take pressure off Robinson and Kupp by adding a deeper layer that defenses will have to respect.
It’s hard to say how thoroughly he will be mixed into the game plan against the 49ers after missing seven weeks of play and a few weeks of training camp. But if McVay does give him a full workload, Jefferson will inevitably be a factor. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they uncork a few to him at some point just to see how it shakes out.
Containing Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey put up 158 yards of total offense against the Rams less than a fortnight ago. In that game, he was pretty much the entirety of the Panthers offense, accounting for almost 78 percent of their total yardage. Now it has to be said that that offense was in complete disarray. They have put up league-worst yards per game with 272. Not to mention, they were on their third-string quarterback with an interim head coach in his first game who kicked one of their few offensive weapons off their own sideline. All that said, the 49ers are in a much better place than the Panthers were.
According to his record, Kyle Shanahan isn’t an elite head coach, but he can dial up an innovative offense from time to time.
No one needs me to tell them that McCaffrey is one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the NFL today. That’s why the Rams went after him. But that ship has sailed and it’s now the Rams job to try to contain him in his new and improved offensive system.
It’s hard to tell exactly how the 49ers plan on using him. He played in only 29 percent of offensive snaps against the Cheifs and didn’t play at all on third down. Even in those limited snaps, he put up 62 yards.
Looking at how Shanahan has schemed his offense this season, they have relied heavily on 21 personnel which they run at the league’s third-highest rate. This is interesting because the 49ers have been so injured at running back, but Shanahan has continues to trot out two running backs at a high rate regardless of skill level. But they have added a very good running back to that mix, which will make this grouping more potent than it has been.
That said, Kyle Juszczyk is often featured as one of the two running backs when they run 21. He has been ruled out of this game with a broken finger. So this grouping won’t have him as a lead blocker, which definitely takes out one of the grouping’s sharpest teeth.
A big difference between the Panthers and the 49ers is the amount of motion they use. Motioning a player like McCaffrey has the potential to create havoc within a defense. This is where having a veteran like Bobby Wagner will help contain McCaffrey. Not only is he great in pursuit of and in tackling elite players, but he is also the defense’s lead communicator. You could absolutely envision a play in which McCaffrey starts in the backfield then motions to the slot, then is sent back across the formation. The Rams defense will have to know who is covering him on all those moves. Not something they had to do against the Panthers.
In Carolina Ernest Jones was the Rams best answer and it worked much of the time. It seemed that Jones was playing with a massive McCaffrey-shaped chip on his shoulder. He racked up a season-high six tackles, two of which were huge hits on McCaffrey. If Jones has a personal vendetta against him for whatever reason, the Rams should turn him loose.
Mostly, the Rams will have to ensure that they are in a position to stop him with the ball in his hands. They allowed him 102 yards after the catch on receptions and 52 yards after contact on runs. The Rams have largely cleaned up the tackling issue that plagued them last season. They have the second-fewest missed tackles in the league, but they missed seven tackles in this game alone. Previously they averaged just over three missed per game.
There was also a noticeable deviation from Shanahan’s normal game script against the Chiefs. The 49ers have used zone runs 71 percent of the time this season. With McCaffrey, they ran him in gap schemes for 75 percent of his rushes. Recently, gap runs have proved to be more successful than zone runs. It’s no coincidence that the Browns run the 3rd most gap scheme runs and have the league’s highest EPA per rush. But you also need a back that can be as physical as they are fast. McCaffrey offers that to the 49ers. So the preparation for the defense has to include plans to stop both, which is unusual for this matchup.
There are still many lingering questions even now that the Rams are getting healthier. And this is the last game the Rams can use to assess those questions. The trade deadline is about 47.5 hours after this game kicks off. There is still time to add players but the cost will (likely) only go up as the clock ticks down.
We will see just how capable the improved offensive line is this week. On the other side of the ball, Troy Hill is also set to make his return, which only pads an already staunch backfield. But the pass rush has proven to be ineffective and they have no answers on the roster.
The NFC West is still anyone game, but the Rams need to find their way and do it fast to stay in contention.