WOW. What a football game. Before I get into this article, I want to touch on a couple of things.
I am focusing this article on the defense because I feel like there will be plenty of discussion about Deebo Samuel, Jimmy Garoppolo, the late touchdown drive, etc. I just want to make sure that the 49ers' defense gets the recognition it deserves for the immeasurable impact they have had on not only this game but this season as a whole.
- No matter what happens in the playoffs, I feel like getting to double-digit wins and making the playoffs is something that should be celebrated, particularly given how uncertain that outcome seemed on many occasions this season.
- I simply cannot pass up the opportunity to give credit where it is due on the other side of the ball. As frustrating as the volatility can be, Jimmy Garoppolo rose to the occasion in a momentous way. To go 88 yards in a little over a minute, needing a touchdown to keep the season alive, all while having no timeouts, is truly the stuff of legend.
The receiving corps was phenomenal today as well. Deebo Samuel continued what has effectively been one of the most impressive individual seasons in NFL history. In addition, Jauan Jennings had a career day with six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns, and Brandon Aiyuk recorded his first 100 yard game of the season.
Elijah Mitchell gave the rushing attack life and finished one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent 49ers' memory. All around, this offense got hot when it needed to and will look to carry that momentum into Dallas next weekend.
Now, onto the defense. It has felt like the performance of this unit has been overlooked all season, particularly with the lack of depth at corner and the attention paid to untimely penalties that accumulated over the course of the year. But make no mistake about it. This has been an ELITE unit this season by almost all metrics and measures. Not adequate, not serviceable, but a bonafide top-tier defense.
The 49ers finished the 2021 season ranked 3rd in total defense while also being the only team in the NFL to finish top 10 in both rushing and passing defense. It was an absolutely masterful performance for a first-year defensive coordinator in DeMeco Ryans. It gets even more impressive when you account for the fact this was accomplished despite the revolving door at cornerback and the injuries sustained at the linebacker position.
So having said that, let’s break down Week 18 against the Rams specifically. The Rams ended up scoring points on their first three drives, quickly amassing a 17-0 lead midway through the 2nd quarter. There were some positive takeaways early, as the 49ers' defense held up very well against the run (remember this for later). The problem was that they failed to get off the field on 3rd down, as the Rams offense started this game by converting six of their first eight 3rd down attempts.
Now in all fairness, one of those touchdown drives for the Rams started on the 49ers' own 13-yard line, but even so, allowing your opponent to convert on 3rd down continuously is still a recipe for disaster. What impressed me the most about this 49ers' defense was how well they responded after falling behind by three scores in the first half, and I’m going to break down just how remarkable this performance was to close out this game.
The Rams took their 17-0 lead with 6:44 remaining in the second quarter. Up to this point, the Rams had converted 75% of their 3rd down attempts, and their quarterback Matthew Stafford had only been sacked one time and had yet to turn the ball over. From this point on, the 49ers' defense only allowed 7 points while also holding the Rams to only 151 yards of total offense. When the chips were down in a crucial game, this unit rose above and beyond, doing their part to keep the 49ers in this game and, as a result, keep the season and their playoff hopes alive as well.
The defensive line was a force to be reckoned with, regularly getting pressure in Stafford’s face, registering four sacks, and helping force a pair of interceptions (including the game-sealing interception by rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas). After Los Angeles started out red hot on third down, the 49ers defense held the Rams to a 44% conversion rate for the remainder of this game.
The 49ers' tremendous defensive line depth was also on full display, as six different players recorded at least three pressures in this game. Arik Armstead led all 49ers defenders with eight pressures and 2.5 sacks, while Arden Key and Samson Ebukam continued their recent hot streaks with fantastic games of their own. Five different players contributed to a sack in this game, and the 49ers hit Matthew Stafford an eye-popping 13 times.
This is even more impressive when you account for the fact that the Rams offensive line has been one of the best pass-blocking units in football, entering this game ranked first in the league in pass block win rate. As this game wore on and physicality reigned supreme, the 49ers' defense absolutely dominated in the trenches while winning a war of attrition that the Rams were simply incapable of matching when it was all said and done.
This was especially true in the run game as well (remember when I mentioned how good they looked against the run, even as they went down 17-0?). The 49ers did a particularly great job keeping the Rams running backs in check, as Sony Michel was held to just 43 yards on 21 carries, while Cam Akers carried the ball five times for 3 yards himself. The only objectively explosive run in the entire game came on an end-around to Cooper Kupp that went for 18 yards.
If you strictly isolate the run defense against the running backs, the 49ers held the Rams to a paltry 1.7 yards per carry on 26 attempts. That number is absolutely astounding, and their ability to win on 1st & 2nd down by stonewalling the run allowed them to tee off rushing the passer on third down regularly. Even when you factor in the lone rushing attempt for Kupp, the Rams offense was held to 64 yards on 27 total carries, which is only 2.4 yards per carry.
The 49ers defense hasn’t allowed a team to rush for over 100 yards since Week 9 vs. Arizona after they started the season, allowing seven of their first eight opponents to eclipse the century mark on the ground. As a result, they now boast one of the most effective and dominant rushing defenses in the entire league (which will prove invaluable as they prepare to take on the Dallas Cowboys).
So as the 49ers look to make a run through the NFC playoffs, I just want to take this time to say one more time how fantastic this defense has been all year and how so much of the success is due to players whose contributions feel like they have been a little overshadowed. As lucky as the 49ers are to have players like Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, they wouldn’t be in the position without players like Jaquiski Tartt and DJ Jones.
This is a unit that has been top 5 in total defense for three years running, and while playing on the road in the playoffs is less than ideal, there are two things that have historically led to success for road teams in the postseason—being able to effectively run the ball on offense, and the ability to rush the passer on defense. Two things the 49ers have shown they can not only do but do at an elite level when they are firing on all cylinders.
So buckle up and prepare for the Dallas Cowboys because this 49ers team is more than capable of playing the role of spoiler in the coming weeks.