Back in the summer, this game was circled in most fans’ calendars. The other good team in the division was coming to town, the 49ers were wearing their throwbacks, and Dwight Clark was being honored. Whilst the latter two reasons for excitement remain the same, it would be fair to say that the seriously good team in the division are coming to town, to play a 49ers team that isn’t as good as they hoped to be.
Still unbeaten, the Rams have been fueled by their extraordinary offense, as Sean McVay brings the online Madden offense to the NFL, operating out of 11 personnel and recycling similar concepts ad infinitum despite whatever defenses do to stop them. The running back barely gets subbed out, just to add to the video game-ness of the offense.
Nevertheless, the Seattle Seahawks ran them close in Week 5, running a defensive scheme similar to the 49ers. Though they gave up big plays (and were fortunate not to give up a number more) these were often a result of busts from personnel; their overall approach caused the Rams some serious problems. The key tenets: Make the Rams on field personnel beat you, minimizing the impact of Sean McVay’s genius.
The Bear front
The Bear front has been in football a while. Combining two wide 9s, two 3-techs and a 0-tech, it covers all the offensive linemen. This in theory allows the off ball linebackers to run freely to the ball, reacting to where the gaps open up in the same way as a running back, hopefully meeting the back in the hole. Even when using a tight end, one of the 3-techs and/or the 0-tech can normally eat up a double team, still delaying or entirely preventing the offensive line from getting to the second level.
Furthermore, it can enable to defense to minimize the need to recognize a strong and weak side of the offense, provided they have good interchangeability at the wide-9 and 3-tech spots.
Normally run out of base personnel, the Seahawks responded to the Rams running threat out of 11 personnel by using the bear front out of nickel. This had two benefits - outlined above. They covered all the Rams’ offensive linemen, allowing their ‘off-ball linebackers’ (LBer Bobby Wagner and SS Bradley McDougald) to run free to the ball. Furthermore, they didn't need to move around a lot up front as the play clock ran down if the Rams were motioning - they essentially set up left and right once they settled into their stances. Success was mixed, but that was due to player error than the Rams outmanoeuvring them.
Bear style front gets all the O line covered, delaying their path to the 2nd level. Off ball LB & SS are required to flow to the ball through the traffic. Here, McDougald is slow to process & allows the gain. Jaquiski Tartt is a v impactful run defender, fast to process & close pic.twitter.com/6PuiiXc3V7— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
The D line does a good job as well blowing up the front side and creating traffic. Wagner is able to run free but he picks the wrong hole to fill. Playing like this puts more emphasis on the LB & SS's decision making but may be the best way to handle this run game pic.twitter.com/BSrTjkCfXm— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
Here it works extremely well. The DL does a great job, allowing Wagner to flow freely to the ball. He peaks inside the left A gap, forcing Gurley to carry through the right A gap, where Wagner meets him for a short gain pic.twitter.com/o6i2otUPVW— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
Very few (if any?) quarterbacks are better under pressure than when kept clean in the pocket. Jared Goff is no exception to this.
The Seahawks blitzed Goff a significant amount, and did a good job limiting his production and accuracy. The aforementioned bear front was useful in covering up the Rams’ offensive linemen (ensuring all those players were included in the pre-snap blocking assignments). Those players could blitz, but the Seahawks could also send other blitzers who often came free or at least free enough to pressure Goff. It often forced Gurley to stay in and block, a massive win for the defense.
The Seahawks also majored on blitzing Goff. Unsurprisingly, he is worse under pressure than when clean & the Bear style front let the Seahawks cover up all O linemen & then send blitzers from elsewhere. Crucial here, is that Gurley is forced to stay in & block with Wagner coming pic.twitter.com/BOOpC7ycTu— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
Another cover 1 blitz with a bear style front. Gurley has to stay in and block, Hawks have tight man coverage downfield & it's nearly an interception on an overthrow. They really squeeze the pocket here and make Goff uncomfortable. Do the Niners have the personnel to do this? pic.twitter.com/H36r3yLJyp— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
Additionally, the Rams’ bunched sets can work against their offensive line’s blocking assignments. By bringing more players closer to the LOS in the box, more players can blitz. Robert Saleh hasn’t been shy of blitzing creatively, and I expect him to take advantage of the opportunity to blitz when able to line up 9 players near the LOS down to down.
Blitzing creatively (something Saleh has been good at) is made easier by the Rams' bunched formations. Whilst they have their benefits, it also makes it easier to disguise blitzers, w/ more players close to the LOS. Shaquem Griffin blitzes off the corner here, nearly coming free pic.twitter.com/pVVLOMljqM— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
Make the Rams’ skill position players beat you
We all know about Todd Gurley, and this game could well hinge on how well the likes of Jaquiski Tartt, Reuben Foster and Fred Warner shut him down. Whilst talented, the Rams’ other skill position players are not on Gurley’s level.
The Seahawks recognized this and played a lot of man coverage, daring the Rams’ skill position talent to beat them. It already showed up on the cover 1 blitzing above, but the ‘Hawks also utilized it without blitzing.
Clearly, Gurley isn't the Rams' only threat, but he may be their only elite player. The Seahawks ran plenty of man coverage, daring the Rams' talent on the field to beat them on occasion rather than their head coach's scheme. Good man coverage combined with pressure -> incomplete pic.twitter.com/IcajyDVIPn— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) October 21, 2018
If the 49ers are disciplined and varied in coverage, they have a decent shot at forcing Jared Goff to make tight window throws and adjust to post-snap rotations with pressure hopefully in his face. That leads to incompletions
All of these points are essentially variations on the same thing: make the Rams’ playing talent beat you. We know how good McVay is — how good are his players? The Niners need to force the Rams offensive line to block one on one; they need to force Goff to make tight window throws, throw against pressure and diagnose post-snap coverage rotations quickly; they need to force the Rams’ receivers to beat man coverage; and force Todd Gurley to beat players who deal with him decisively.