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How the 49ers adjusted to the Rams and shut them down for the rest of the game

Credit to Saleh for his willingness to take a risk

Cleveland Browns v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

If you saw how easy things were for the Rams offense on the opening drive, you probably thought it was going to be a long afternoon for the 49ers defense. Here is how the first drive went:

Seven yards on a strong-side run to the 49ers B-gap.

Ten yards on a strong-side run to the 49ers B-gap.

Seven yards on a strong-side run to the 49ers B-gap.

Nine yards on a strong-side run to the 49ers B-gap.

Eight yards on a jet sweep to the weak side in the 49ers C-gap.

Five yards on a weakside run to the 49ers B-gap.

Eight-yard end-around to the weak side to the 49ers C-gap.

Explaining mid-zone

The Rams are a mid-zone team. The 49ers are very good on defense when it comes to containing opposing offenses and not allowing them to get outside. Mid-zone works as it gives the running back two options. The runners’ aiming point is the outside leg of the tackle. He’s looking to see if the end man on the line of scrimmage is “reached.” If so, the running back will bounce the run outside. If the end man on the line of scrimmage has the play contained, the runner will look for a crease to cut it back.

You aren’t getting outside of Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa. Those two are excellent at setting a hard edge. The 49ers plugged every gap on the opening drive. It’s not as if they were down a man in the box. It’s that Robert Saleh decided to play it “straight up.” When you don’t move upfront, you’re playing right into the Rams’ strengths. A “scoop” block is where the offensive line doubles your defensive tackles, and once the block on the tackle is secured, the line will work up to your linebackers.

The second play of the game is an excellent example of Los Angeles executing scoop blocks and what Mid-zone should look like. Ignore Armstead and watch the interior line and the linebackers.

Zone runs work because the offensive line takes you where you want to go. As you can see, the defensive tackles and linebackers react to the run, so naturally, they step play-side. The blocks will use your momentum against you, and that’s where the creases/running lanes come from.

The Rams did a good job of adding in motion, whether faking the jet sweep or using “ghost motion” to hold the 49ers backside contain players as well. On the play below, which is split zone, you’ll see that Kwon Alexander takes a false step reacting to the wide receiver, and that’s more than enough for the play to work.

This time, the 49ers are light in the box, as Jaquiski Tartt is playing back with Jimmie Ward. Watch D.J. Jones. That’s not his fault. He initially maintains his gap, but since the tackle is uncovered, he comes down and seals Jones, then works up to Warner. The tight end comes across the formation to cut block Nick Bosa, and the ghost motion holds Alexander.

The Rams were able to run it down the Niners throat the first drive because the defensive tackles started in one gap, and ended up in another gap. Plus, the linebackers were running all types of ways falling for the motion the Rams were using.

Saleh had his work cut out for him. Thankfully, a 10-play drive by the 49ers offense allowed Saleh and the staff to make adjustments.

Play to your strengths

The first drive the 49ers tried to win with power, and that didn’t work. The Rams were moving a ton, so having Jones on the field didn’t make sense. Saleh put DeForest Buckner at 1-technique and Solomon Thomas at the 3-technique. Instead of running right into the offensive line, the Niners used Thomas and his athleticism on twists and stunts. This is the first play on the ensuing drive. Watch how Thomas and Buckner’s slanting made a difference. The Rams line had no clue who to block, and their hesitation allowed the second level players to flow cleanly to the ball.

The 49ers have too much speed and athleticism for teams to run on them consistently. Jones wasn’t able to adjust to the Rams zone-blocking. Thomas thrived playing inside. He played 19 plays inside, even at nose tackle. Knowing the Rams were looking to cut it back, Saleh had his tackles slant back towards the weakside, against the grain, and it stifled the Rams running game.

Lots of Joes on the roster

Another reason for the 49ers’ success is they have a lot of good players. Their Joe’s are better than the other teams. On the play above, Buckner beats his man, and Armstead stands the tackle up. On most of the 49ers plays where they get stops, it’s because someone beats their man. When you have four legitimate threats on the line, and they’re getting 1-on-1 blocks, there’s a strong chance that somebody is going to win.

On the play below, as he did in the first GIF, Armstead knifed through from the backside to make the play. Thomas is at the 1-tech again and notice the difference. He’s attacking the scoop block doesn’t allow the play-side guard to work up to Warner. On the edge, Bosa drives the tackle back about four yards and is there to make the play as well.

Thomas had a sack in this game where he was too fast for the center to block. There were so many plays this game where the 49ers defender was better than the Rams offensive player. Tartt blew up a screen. Alexander and Warner beating players to the spot. Armstead, who was the best player on the field, winning wherever he lined up.

Credit Saleh for adjusting. The Rams punched the defense in the mouth, and the 49ers responded with a couple of jabs and landed a haymaker to knock Los Angeles out for the game, and, perhaps, the playoffs.