When the San Francisco 49ers faced the Los Angeles Rams earlier this season, the offense only averaged 4.4 yards per play. It was the running game that couldn’t get going, as Tevin Coleman was limited to 45 yards on 18 carries. That was also the first time San Francisco trotted out Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill.
The Rams traded for Jalen Ramsey, and since then, their defense has been very good. Since Week 8, the Rams have the sixth-highest success rate against the pass. Los Angeles is 14th against the run. For reference, the 49ers are ninth and 28th respectively during that timeframe on defense. While the offense has had their fair share of big plays, the ground game has struggled on a down-to-down basis. San Francisco is 29th in rushing success rate since Week 8. These aren’t all running plays, but it highlights how the line has played:
Just a silly performance from Grady in Week 15. Straight up dominant. pic.twitter.com/5fSAF2ULLg— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) December 18, 2019
When the line runs into a skilled defensive lineman, they haven’t been able to slow him down. That’s why you hear so much about how throwing the ball is far more efficient than running it. So many variables can go wrong when you run the ball that is out of your control. When you throw it, you can scheme around a player, like doubling him, chipping him, using play-action, or getting rid of the ball under two seconds. There are more alternatives to throwing it. San Francisco has had far more success through the air since Week 8. Kyle Shanahan has shown more trust in Jimmy Garoppolo, and the 49ers have the seventh-highest success rate throwing the ball since Week 8.
All about separation
The question this week will be if the 49ers can separate against man coverage. Wade Phillips is going to come after you. The Rams don’t blitz heavily. They send an extra rusher 28% of the time, which is 16th in the NFL. The Rams are tenth in pressure rate, and we know where the majority of that comes from. Knowing that Aaron Donald and company will be breathing down your neck in a matter of seconds, that puts the onus on your wide receivers to separate early, or else bad things happen.
The Rams couldn’t slow down the Cowboy or Ravens. They were lights out against the Steelers, Bears, Cardinals, and Seahawks. The 49ers are closer to the former two than the last group. The biggest area the 49ers can exploit the Rams is through the air to the running backs. Los Angeles is 24th in DVOA at defending running backs. I’d look for something as simple as the trio of backs on a swing or screen pass out of the backfield. The three-headed monster has the advantage in the open field, and when you make someone miss in man coverage, big plays tend to follow.
Shanahan schemed Kittle open out of the backfield for an explosive play the last time these two teams met as well.
That route 7-route, or corner route, combination messes with the Rams quarters principles. As you can see above or any other time he has the ball, you’re not bringing Kittle down without a fight or a few defenders.
The Rams could be without their starting cornerback Troy Hill, who broke his thumb against the Cowboys on Sunday. Hill has been quite good this season, allowing only 45% of his targets to be completed. His success rate is 60% on the season, which is the same as Defensive Player of the Year to be Stephon Gilmore. His backup is Darious Miller, who has logged 107 snaps on the season. Miller’s success rate is 29%. You can guarantee he’ll have a bullseye on his back. Ramsey generally follows the other teams’ best wide receiver, so this has the potential for a breakout game for either Deebo Samuel or Kendrick Bourne.
Back to the basics
The offense is at their best when the ground game is rolling, and Jimmy G can thrive off play-action or make plays on the move. Most defenses are susceptible to play-action. With the style of the Rams, they are prone to giving up more yards than most. Los Angeles is 27th in the play-action differential. They are allowing two full yards more when there is a fake involved. This is an area where Shanahan needs to take advantage, whether the running game is working or not.
It’s been a strength of the 49ers, who have relied on play-action the third-most of any offense this season at 31%. The offense is averaging 9.5 yards per play, which is the fourth-most in the NFL. Play-action works for several reasons. It gives your quarterback more time to throw, your receivers more time to get open, and it opens up throwing lanes. Going against a team that runs as many man principles as the Rams do, Shanahan should rely on play-action, even more, this game.
This is a good matchup for what the 49ers want to do on the ground, though. The Rams are allowing 6.3 yards per carry on all rushes outside the tackle. This could be a game where the wide zone returns and the Niners are able to break a few.
Here’s a look at how the teams stack up against each other:
These five stats give you an idea of how the offense is moving the ball consistently, and if they are converting in key situations. San Francisco was 8-17 on third down, and 2-5 in the red zone in the first meeting. Those are the two areas the 49ers need to win this Saturday. If that happens, they should be victorious.
Win on first down—no team averages more yards on first down than San Francisco—convert on third and short, and don’t settle for field goals. Win.