The Los Angeles Rams entered their clash with the San Francisco 49ers thirteenth in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, with 40.91 percent. By the end of Sunday’s clash, they were eighteenth. The 49ers’ defense recorded a clean sheet on third downs, denying the Rams on nine straight occasions. They backed that up by doing the same on fourth downs, stopping the Rams on a further four occasions.
Overall, the 49ers are fourth in the NFL in defensive third-down conversion percentage, allowing a meagre 29.51 percent of third downs to be converted. They are still trending up. In their last three games, they have allowed just 12.5 percent of third downs to be converted. This included their clean sheet against the Rams, a 9.09 percent conversion percentage against Cleveland, and a 25 percent conversion percentage against Pittsburgh.
Much has been made of the 49ers pass rush’s contribution to this improvement. The improvement of the pass rush has been an important factor. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan spoke about the need for finishers this offseason, and they believed Dee Ford and Nick Bosa would be two such finishers. So far, the additions have both been a resounding success.
Furthermore, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh displays real intelligence and variety in his game planning. Whilst the same core group of coverages and calls is utilised, the volume with which each call is utilised changes noticeably each week based on the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Against Los Angeles, Saleh played a significant amount of quarters coverage behind the team’s now-familiar wide 9 fronts. Unlike most of the Rams’ opponents this season, he did not play the 6-1 front, with cover 3 behind that the Patriots utilised in the Super Bowl.
Instead, he trusted his front 6 to control inside rushing lanes, which after some first drive adjustments, they did. The players behind them were tasked with rallying up and cutting off jet sweeps, which the Rams only used sparingly anyway.
In coverage, Fred Warner, who has become an elite coverage linebacker, and safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, were tasked with shutting down the deep crossers and dagger concepts that the Rams normally thrive on. They did so with aplomb. The 49ers’ quality on early downs contributed significantly to their third down success.
On third downs and second and longs, Saleh mixed things up more. He routinely caught the Rams off guard, with his play-calling. The trust he has in the players behind his pass rushers is clear to see; Saleh is willing to leave them on islands. This is also a product of his trust in the pass rush - he trusts it to get home. In 2019, Robert Saleh can trust his players to execute - the 49ers are reaping the rewards.
In holding Jared Goff to 78 yards and recording a clean sheet on third and fourth downs, Saleh’s defense reiterated their elite credentials.
Saleh combined quarters coverage with a sprinkling of cover 3, cover 6, cover 1, cover 1 blitzes and fire zones to keep Goff and the Rams offense off balance. Quarters was the 49ers’ base coverage on the day - something that has become a part of their repertoire increasingly. Cover 3 still features significantly, however.
For the vast part of Sunday’s clash, the 49ers’ coverages were incredibly sound and were paired with a dangerous pass rush. They forced Jared Goff to throws with a high degree of difficulty or release the ball quickly to check down options. They also eliminated Goff’s favorite target, Cooper Kupp.
Just after the 49ers had recorded a tackle for loss on first down, Robert Saleh dials up a fire zone blitz on second down, trying to press home the initiative. The Rams are able to pick it up, but the suggestion of pressure affects Goff, who gets the ball out quickly to Kupp’s out route. Emmanuel Moseley, playing palms technique, plays it extremely well, rallying up to make a physical, offensive tackle to keep the Rams out of comfortable third down territory. Saleh would dial up a call on the subsequent third down that became familiar as the game wore on.
Immediately after the fire zone blitz, Saleh called a cover 1 blitz. The 49ers had seen on film that the Rams liked to keep their running back in initially to help the offensive line. As a result, they felt comfortable rushing five players, safe in the knowledge that the Rams would keep six in to protect. The product of this was the 49ers could rush five players and still have a low hole player and a deep centre field player, with man coverage elsewhere. They trusted their defensive backs to shut down the Rams’ receivers with the inside help from Jaquiski Tartt and Fred Warner. This also prevented the Rams from double-teaming more than one 49er.
Jimmie Ward’s ability to cover wide receivers would prove invaluable as the game wore on. On this occasion, he could easily have been disguising his intentions, and the 49ers could have dropped into a zone shell. Instead, it was man coverage for Ward against Kupp. The coverage was tight across the field. In front of them, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford nearly sandwiched Goff between Rob Havenstein and Andrew Whitworth, with Ronald Blair eventually “sacking” the quarterback. Coverage and pass rush in perfect sync.
The 49ers dialled up the same call on a crucial third down in the third quarter. Once again, the 49ers could have easily dropped into a zone shell based on this look, but once again it was tight man coverage. Goff’s first read is Kupp in the slot, but Warner in the low hole and D.J. Reed combine to blanket him. By the time Goff attempted to reset, Ford was already making use of his one-on-one with Havenstein to bull the offensive tackle into Goff. Ward has also blanketed Everett’s route, showing wonderful patience to stay square, not overplay initial stem and break the pass up.
On the very next play, Saleh makes the same call. On this occasion however, it’s Warner who blitzes and actually gets the pressure on Goff, barrelling through the running back. Again, this could be a zone look, with Richard Sherman lined up over tight-end Everett out wide. This call would not be possible without a safety would could cover wide receivers. Saleh is able to trust Ward to cover Kupp, Goff’s favourite third down option. Ward played the route brilliantly again. He understands he has inside help from Alexander so he does not overplay the initial in-break, staying square and patient before breaking the pass up.
Having played a lot of quarters and cover 6 on third downs, it appears Saleh called cover 3 here (based on how K’waun Williams, Sherman and Tartt played this*). The 49ers showed cover 6 pre-snap: It appeared Ward was playing over the top of Moseley on the palms side to the boundary, whilst Tartt and Sherman were playing sky quarters. This would have placed Kupp one-on-one with Warner. However, the 49ers actually spun to cover 3, with Ward making a Rita (Right-Inside) drop. He and Warner expertly bracket Kupp. Sherman, Tartt and Williams bracketed Woods and Cooks. Arik Armstead was able to turn the corner on Havenstein and pressure Goff. Moseley meanwhile, was left one on one with Josh Reynolds essentially, which is where the 49ers forced Goff. However, that was a favourable matchup for the 49ers too. Moseley was easily able to top Reynolds’ post route before squeezing it after the break to record a clean PBU.
The 49ers did play cover 6 on this play. To the boundary side, Sherman and Tartt are playing palms whilst to the field, Ward and Moseley are playing sky. The Rams attempt to attack Warner with two routes going through his zone - a curl from Kupp and a deeper over route from Everett. Warner initially takes the curl, before smoothly switching to the deep over route. By the time Goff attempts to force the ball away, Ford has flown past Havenstein and forced a fumble.
This is more phenomenal coverage by Warner. McVay dials up his favourite dagger concept on third down. The 49ers are in quarters coverage. The risk here is that by playing the proper technique, the safety (Tartt here) will be run off by Kupp. The cornerback then loses his inside help against in-breaking routes. Tartt easily handles Kupp. Warner drops brilliantly into the dig window, replacing Tartt as Moseley’s inside help. As Goff wound up to throw the ball, Armstead and Ford combined to sack the quarterback.
For the most part then, the 49ers coverage was absolutely superb, dovetailing perfectly with the pass rush. The team looked in sync and completely at ease in their assignments. There were two occasions when it was not perfect, notably on the final Rams play of the game.
The 49ers are playing cover 6. Moseley and Ward are playing palms to the top of the screen, with Sherman and Tartt playing sky. As a result, Tartt is responsible for Kupp vertical, and Sherman is responsible for the tight-end Everett. Sherman is just too aggressive. He clearly reads the combination, understanding that the Rams likely intended to run him off with the tight-end to open up Kupp on the deep out against the safety. As it was, Tartt covered Kupp superbly and likely would have at least recorded a PBU had the ball gone Kupp’s way. But Kupp was not the target of Goff’s pass. The Rams may have schemed Sherman up here, playing to his aggressiveness. Everett came open for a consolation touchdown, and Goff missed him terribly.
Overall, the 49ers’ defense played a superb, complete game against the Rams. They shut down the Rams’ rushing attack before eliminating their potent passing threat. Behind their potent pass rush, an assortment of sound coverages forced Goff off his primary targets and into tight-window throws, which he simply was not capable of completing. Saleh dominated Sean McVay schematically and has deservedly received much acclaim for his performance. Long may it continue.
*Williams playing with outside leverage is a good indicator that this was cover 3 - if it were quarters he’d likely attempt to keep the number two receiver out of the post by playing inside leverage. Furthermore, Sherman plays “zebra” technique, which is mid-pointing the number 1 and 2 receivers. Tartt meanwhile, mid-points 2 and 3.