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49ers-Rams matchup preview: How the Niners will attack the Rams defense

We also take a look at the pass protection issues, where the 49ers can exploit the Rams on defense, and who has to win their 1-on-1’s Sunday night.

Los Angeles Rams v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are on their final game of a three-game homestand, and they’ll face a familiar foe in the Los Angeles Rams. Today, we’ll preview what to expect to see when the Niners are on the field. It starts with the protection upfront. Let’s get this out of the way: Aaron Donald will make plays against the 49ers. He does so against everyone. Los Angeles does a fantastic job of scheming 1-on-1’s for Donald, whether it’s using the Wide-9, blitzing, or lining up Donald on the edge:

Winning on early downs

If San Francisco is living in 3rd & 7+ all game, then the offense doesn’t have a shot. They’re not built to play behind the sticks. Through five games, the 49ers are 18th in EPA per play and 14th in success rate on early downs. Against the Dolphins, the 49ers had quite a few positive plays on early downs but shot themselves in the foot with sacks and turnovers. Turnovers are literal drive killers, but sacks are challenging to overcome.

The 49ers ran 19 plays on first and second down and averaged nearly six yards a pop thanks to a 37-yarder by Raheem Mostert. But that wasn’t the only explosive play. Six other plays went for double-digits. The best way to avoid the Rams pass rush is to win on early downs. Here’s a look at how the two teams stack up against each other:

As you can see, the 49ers have struggled on third downs, while the Rams have excelled. Those offensive numbers don’t resemble a Kyle Shanahan-led offense. We’ve spoken ad nauseam this week about the miscommunication from the offensive line, which has led to untimely sacks—not that allowing a sack is ever a good thing.

On Wednesday, Rams head coach Sean McVay had a great quote about pass protection: Your pass protection is the responsibility of all 11. The quarterback getting the ball out on time and in rhythm, guys separating and then the linemen being able to make their calls and then if backs are on blocks, being able to be on the screws and use the proper fundamentals and techniques.”

The 49ers have not been on the same page. On one play, an offensive lineman would go the wrong way. The quarterback won’t move in the pocket and take a hit or sack he shouldn’t have on the next play. There are plays where the receivers are at fault, or a running back failed to pick up his responsibility in pass protection. I charted Raheem Mostert with a sack in the Dolphins game Sunday, and he confirmed Thursday it was on him to the media.

This is an exotic look from Miami, making it easy to understand why there was a breakdown. The 49ers have seven blockers to block the six rushers. Assuming No. 53 was the “Mike,” Mostert should protect the first threat inside, which is No. 55, who comes unblocked. Mostert goes to the outside, and that’s how you end up with a free rusher. Mostert said he thought he heard one call, so he played it. Those are the miscommunications that are costly. The last thing you want against the Rams is No. 99, having a free run at Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Rams are 12th in the NFL in pressure rate, 25th in QB knockdown percentage, but when they get there, Los Angeles makes you pay. The Rams are third in adjusted sack rate and are tied with the most sacks of any team in the NFL. Conversely, the 49ers are 29th in adjusted sack rate and first in pressure rate.

Football Outsiders tracks down and distance by DVOA. The Rams are 16th on first down and 17th on second downs. On all third and fourth downs, they’re fourth. This week more than ever, the offense must stay ahead of the chains and out of long distance situations.

Where the 49ers should attack the Rams

Last week was a game to get your running backs involved in the passing game as well. That happened with Mostert, but the 49ers couldn’t establish him. Washington had two running backs with at least 40 yards receiving last week. There were screens, but Washington threw simple “swing” routes or check-downs to get the Rams linebackers 1-on-1 in space, and their running backs made the defender miss. If I’m Shanahan, I run the coverage off and let Mostert/Jerick McKinnon work underneath. The Rams are susceptible in coverage at the second level. Los Angeles has the second-worst DVOA to the short left portion of the field. Steer clear of Jalen Ramsey and attack those linebackers, Jimmy. Ramsey is playing more in the slot this year and moving around more in general. The Rams are going to give you “free yards” underneath. Take them every chance you get.

This should be a game where Mostert has 20 touches. Earlier in the week, Shanahan said that he felt the Niners are throwing the ball too much. That could be viewed as a shot towards the quarterbacks or the offensive line. Kyle wants to get back to his “roots,” where the offense runs the ball at will and throws platy-action off that. The Rams are 24th in DVOA against the run. They’re even worse in short-yardage situations.

The game against Washington got out of hand, so they couldn’t run the ball. Against the Giants, yes, the Giants, the Rams gave up 6.5 yards per carry on 21 attempts. The Bills ran for 4.8 yards per attempt on 21 carries the week prior. The Eagles ran for the same yards per attempt on 25 carries during Week 2, while the Cowboys averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 24 attempts in Week 1. In those four games, the Rams allowed 14 carries to go over 10 yards on 91 attempts. This season, Mostert has four carries over 10 yards on just 34 attempts. Ironically enough, there are plays where Donald wins “too quick,” which creates big rushing lanes. That happened against the Bills, and they ripped off a 16-yard gain. Later in that same drive, watch how the Rams were outnumbered on this play below thanks to motion:

With as much motion as the 49ers use, expect to see plenty of misdirection that gets Mostert/McKinnon to the edge. That’s where both Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey excel as well.

Winning on the outside

The offense has to take shots down the field this game to keep the Rams honest. If it has to be a max protection situation, then so be it. The last thing you want is Los Angeles loading up the box and sitting on all of your underneath routes. Ideally, Shanahan could scheme open Kittle down the seams, but you have to imagine the Rams will force the Niners to throw the ball outside of the numbers.

It’d be surprising if Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk didn’t combine for at least five carries in this game. They’ll likely have plenty of opportunities on crossing and over routes to run away from the Rams cornerbacks. If there’s a weak link in this Rams secondary, it’s Troy Hill. In the first three games, where he faced competent offenses, Hill allowed 20 receptions 22 targets for 217 yards. There will be a bullseye on his back Sunday night. Hill plays mostly in the slot but will bounce outside as well. The Rams run a lot of nickel defense, so No. 22 will be on the field. That’s who the 49ers should attack, and it’s a matchup where Aiyuk, Samuel, or Kendrick Bourne have to win.

Kittle told reporters on Thursday that he felt like the 49ers had their best practice of the year. Mostert said the team is locked in and is on their “Ps and Qs” for everything the Rams are going to throw at them, including being ready for Los Angeles’s pressure looks. The offense knows they were embarrassed last week. Look for the offense to bounce back in a big way on Sunday night.