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Film room: How the 49ers defense can suffocate Jared Goff and the Rams offense

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To beat the Rams, the 49ers should consider using a 6-1 front against the run and sending as much pressure at Jared Goff as possible.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Something is off with the Rams offense. Aside from occasional explosive plays and the tendency for head coach Sean McVay to scheme players wide open, the offense isn’t as consistent as it was before the bye last season. Since that time, quarterback Jared Goff has thrown 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions (this includes the playoffs last season). Since then, they’ve rushed for less than 100 yards in seven of those games as teams have seemed to figure out a blueprint for limiting the Rams rushing attack.

The Rams defense is clearly the strength of the team, as they’re currently ranked 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA. You might be wondering why considering the outcome of the Buccaneers game. The Buccaneers scored four touchdowns off of four Rams turnovers. Goff threw three interceptions, all of which gave Tampa Bay great field position. Goff then fumbled late in the game, and the fumble was returned for a touchdown, circumstances out of the defense’s control.

Of course, the Rams also lost Rodger Saffold this past offseason as well as John Sullivan, but even before then, the Rams were not able to effectively counter the fronts they saw after their bye week to get the running game going. Todd Gurley was hurt as well but they did not see a dip in production with CJ Anderson. Gurley is presumably fully healthy this year but his carries have been limited.

Regardless, there are a few ways teams have bested the Rams, and we’re going to take a look at three of those ways specifically. 1) Playing a 6-1 front against the run and 2) pressuring Jared Goff.

6-1 defensive front

The Rams came out of their bye week expecting to cruise into and through the playoffs, and for the most part, they pretty much did. But down the stretch, their opponents began to figure out the front to use to stop their zone running scheme.

All the rage right now is the 6-1 defensive front, but it’s not a cliche or meaningless football terminology. The 6-1 front is actually called a 4-3 “tilt.” Most every team that plays the Rams are playing this front and installing it for just one game to slow down the run. And the Rams have made little adjustments to counter it. And the Rams have none other than Bill Belichick to thank for the heavy usage of 6-1 fronts the Rams are currently seeing.

Source: Nick Saban 1997 Michigan State defensive playbook

The tilt front is an old defensive concept designed to stop the run-heavy teams of the ’70s and ’80s, and it was exclusively in use by Nick Saban in the 1990s at Michigan State. There is a lot of overlap between Saban and Bill Belichick.

The Patriots played the 6-1 front numerous times throughout the 2018 season against zone running scheme dominant teams. The above front is the first play of the Rams’ first offensive series against the Patriots in the Super Bowl last season. Every gap is accounted for along the offensive line.

In passing situations, the stand up ends played by Patrick Chung and Kyle Van Noy would widen and cover the flats. The front itself is backed up by cover-4 quarters coverage behind, allowing the safeties and corners to read and react to the run as it develops and allowing them to come up in run support relatively untouched.

Notice how the Patriots played the run to the strong side. There is nowhere for Todd Gurley to go as every gap is clogged. Since the run goes to the strong side, linebacker Dont’a Hightower is free to roam and help rally to the ball since there is no threat of a cutback into the weak side B-gap.

The secondary is also there should Gurley somehow manage to squeak through the defensive front. Since the front allows the defenders to control all gaps, they only have to worry about penetration into one gap. Notice that any kind of penetration immediately stifles the run.

Since then, the Rams have seen the 6-1 numerous times as they’ve tried to establish their running game. And it’s been very effective at limiting their base run, the mid zone.

The 49ers dabbled a little bit with the 6-1 front against the Rams rushing attack last season, and it worked with a bit of success early in the week seven game.

The alignments are different in various ways, but one common theme sticks out in the ways teams play the 6-1. To the strong side, the 49ers, like the other teams, two-gap the front, meaning the technique on the defensive lineman’s rush is square to the line of scrimmage until the running back hits the point of attack all the defenders to that side slide to the gap and get penetration in the direction of the run. The weak side 1-gap’s the front and plays the gap they are head up in.

Since week three, they have not totaled 100 yards rushing in any game. The Rams ran for 166 and 115 yards respectively in weeks one and two, but some of their long runs did not come against the 6-1 front. When the Rams do counter, they have been very effective, but they have not run their adjustments to the 6-1 all that often because they have not needed to install any serious adjustments to their running game since Sean McVay took over. I expect the 49ers to do the same or something similar to their defensive front on Sunday.

Pressure Jared Goff

Goff currently ranks 22nd under pressure per Pro Football Focus’s advanced stats. He’s never ranked higher than 19th in his career and does not play well when facing pressure or the blitz. One thing the 49ers have been very good at this season is generating pressure and sacks. The 49ers rank fifth overall in team pass rush grading, and they’ll be facing a reworked interior offensive line that saw the departure of Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan.

Except for Andrew Whitworth, the other offensive linemen have grades of 53 or lower. The 49ers should have no problem generating pressure on Goff. One way they can do that is with the use of creeper pressures, which I have mentioned here before in recent weeks. But it’s because they have worked for the 49ers in generating pressure and turnovers.

Tampa Bay forced Goff into an errant throw, utilizing a creeper pressure, which was subsequently picked off, his second of three interceptions in the Buccaneers game. The pressure itself didn’t force Goff off his spot, but it confused him with what he was seeing. The creeper pressure is a rush designed to bring four rushers from anywhere on the field other than the traditional defensive line spots.

The quarterback must account for every possible rusher when they are crowding the line of scrimmage, a process that likely speeds up his decision-making, which can, in turn, force him to make a terrible decision. Buccaneers linebacker Lavontae David is up on the line of scrimmage but drops back into a rat technique where he robs the slant route behind him. Goff never sees the drop into that zone, is not under duress, and still forces a pass into a spot he shouldn’t have.

The 49ers have run similar pressure packages that have led to turnovers on two occasions. The first came in week one when the 49ers ran a similar pressure to LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s “Brady 3” creeper pressure.

The SAM linebacker Dre Greenlaw inserts on the rush while Solomon Thomas drops into a week hook zone down the hash. The rest of the defense is playing cover-3. Greenlaw’s rush confuses the offensive line, who don’t slide to pick him up, leaving him with a free run at quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston hurries his throw, and cornerback Richard Sherman is sitting in the flat waiting to pick it. He returns it for a touchdown.

The 49ers usage of another creeper similar to the diagram above, “spike 1 rat,” also generated a turnover for them in week three against the Steelers when quarterback Mason Rudolph fumbled on a strip sack by defensive end Dee Ford.

The simulated rush of linebacker Fred Warner confused Rudolph as he dropped back. When Warner peeled off underneath and took away the shallow routes, Rudolph scanned to his left, but ran out of time.

Saleh has also been a master at generating pressures off the blitz as well. He shows here how simple adjustments to get the best players side by side can completely shift the pass protection.

The 49ers have a variety of ways they can get to Goff, and one way they can is by simulating pressure from one area and bringing it from another, much like the creeper pressures can do. Dee Ford lines up in the B-gap next DeForest Buckner in the A-gap with Kwon Alexander on the line of scrimmage in the opposite B-gap. At the snap, Ford drops in coverage as the left guard checks for his rush. It’s not there, so he slides to pick up Buckner with the center.

At this point, the protection should’ve slid over to account for Alexander, but having Buckner and Ford on the same side presented a problem the Browns could not account for as they were expecting the blitz to come from their left side. Instead, Alexander blitzes through B-gap while Warner rushes the A-gap. Warner and Buckner draw three blockers, giving Alexander a free rush. Also, here comes K’Waun Williams on a delayed blitz. Both Alexander and Williams meet at the quarterback for the sack.

Quarters coverage against trips

A favorite formation of the Rams is the trips 3x1 or trips bunch. Out of this formation, they like to run the dagger concept, which is a deep dig route behind a deep over route. In the trips, the third receiver is running a shallow cross route. The deep over and the shallow cross route work in tandem to laterally and horizontally stretch a defense.

The Browns play cover-4 against trips, as many teams do, but they have a fatal flaw in their scheme. The weak side safety does not look for a possible vertical route by the “final 3” receiver. If the number three receiver runs a vertical, it’s normally angled deep across the field, and a majority of coverages would have that weak safety pick it up. Here, the Browns don’t, and, Goff hits Brandin Cooks for a 21 yard gain.

To counter this, the weak side safety needs to have “final 3” responsibility for any vertical route beyond 10 yards. Under 49ers’ new defensive passing game coordinator, the 49ers are playing more two-high and cover-2/quarters coverage pass defense and have built-in checks that allow the weak safety to rotate and look for the vertical by #3.

Here, the Browns are in a trips formation to the left running two deep dig routes into the middle of the field by the number one and number three receivers while the number two is running a vertical route between the two, designed to pull the strong side safety away from the in-breaking routes.

The coverage works, however, as Fred Warner, the strong hook defender, locates the dig by the number one and the weak safety Jaquiski Tartt locating the dig by the number three. Quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambles to find a receiver, throws the pass, but it was ultimately overturned to an incomplete pass.

Outlook

The 49ers defense could potentially have its hands full against the Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday. Todd Gurley’s status is questionable, and whether or not he plays is up in the air as of head coach Sean McVay’s Friday afternoon update. I have a tough time envisioning three straight losses for the Rams, but the 49ers appear to be getting better each week, and the Rams appear to be stalling out. Whatever the case may be, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is likely to have a few more tricks up his sleeve.