The 49ers' improbable run has brought them to the doorstep of a familiar foe as they prepare to battle the Los Angeles Rams for conference supremacy. While history can’t directly affect the outcome of Sunday’s matchup, it certainly can help paint a better picture in regards to what to expect when these NFC west heavyweights duke it out for a chance to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The Rams haven’t beaten the 49ers in their last six tries, with their last win over San Francisco coming in December of 2018. The 49ers have yet to lose a game to the Rams with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, winning all six games he has started against them going back to 2017.
So what exactly has led to this dominance against one of the better teams in the NFL over that span? The same team that’s 31-12 against teams NOT named the 49ers since the start of 2019.
For starters, we can fall back on the classic “throw the records out the window” when divisional opponents match up. There is a certain level of familiarity that exists when you play an opponent twice every season, and in this case, it is amplified even more due to the connection between both head coaches after spending years together on the same staff. There isn’t really much one side can do to surprise the other at this point.
Now, more specifically, what has caused this particular matchup to lean so heavily in the 49ers' favor? I’ve said it a bunch in recent weeks, but “styles make fights” really does apply so well here. It really does come down to the fact that no matter how star-studded this Rams roster is, they simply do not match up well with the 49ers.
For a moment, let’s forget the meetings in 2019 and 2020, and take a look at where exactly has this 49ers team had the advantage in their two meetings this season.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has been at his best this season when he has faced a blitz from the opposing defense, posting an impressive 9.3 yards per attempt with a 74% completion percentage, as well as a 15-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
When teams have opted to send extra bodies at Stafford, he has torched them. Fortunately for the 49ers, they are a team that is built to get pressure while only rushing four, and as a result, are far less reliant on the blitz than most teams.
In their two matchups this season, the 49ers have managed to pressure Stafford on an eye popping 41% of his dropbacks while only blitzing 14% of the time. In those two games, the 49ers' defense has recorded 38 pressures on Stafford and sacked him 7 times.
Stafford has also committed four turnovers in those games, throwing multiple interceptions in both of his meetings against the 49ers this season. If the 49ers are able to regularly get pressure with four at the rate they did in Week 18, it could end up being a long day for Stafford and that Rams offense.
On the flip side, the 49ers' offense has done a good job at attacking the weak links on a Rams defense that has arguably two of the top five defensive players in the entire NFL in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. That weak link would be the linebacker position, which the Rams have objectively overlooked while constructing this team, and more specifically the defense. With all due respect to that linebacking corps, they just don’t stack up with the defensive line and secondary that the Rams have built.
The 49ers have been able to exploit this weakness as much as any team in the NFL, regularly putting these backers in conflict and making them take on the responsibility of being the force player on a given play call. The 49ers have run the ball 75 times for 291 yards in those two meetings, logging over 30 carries in both contests.
We saw the Rams defense slowly get worn down against the run in their week 18 meeting, surrendering 125 yards on the ground in the second half and overtime, after holding the 49ers to just 10 yards on the ground in the first half. The other way the 49ers have exposed this weakness with the Rams linebackers is through the air, scorching them in the passing game over the middle in both of their meetings.
The 49ers have posted a stat line of 29/36 for 320 yards and 3 touchdowns when throwing over the middle vs. the Rams this season. That is an 80% completion percentage and over 8.8 yards per attempt. Again, this is a prime example of something the 49ers do very well (I would argue throwing between the numbers is Garoppolo’s greatest strength), coinciding with something the Rams seemingly struggle with (their linebackers have struggled in coverage).
The deciding factor in this game might ultimately come down to whether or not the Rams can do something that they have not been able to during their six-game skid against the 49ers, particularly in the last two seasons. Stop Deebo Samuel. Take a look at Samuel’s averages in his last four matchups against the Rams
97.75 receiving yards
13.95 yards after the catch per reception
5.35 yards per carry
Samuel’s physicality has posed major problems for the Rams as well, as Samuel has recorded over 25 yards after contact as a rusher in both meeting meetings this season. In their week 12 matchup in 2020, 83 of Samuel’s 133 scrimmage yards came after contact. Until the Rams display an ability to contain Samuel, I have no reason to believe that they will. (Let’s not forget Samuel also threw for a touchdown in their last meeting as well).
So we’ve gone over why this particular matchup favors the 49ers, but how exactly have other teams fared historically when looking for a three-game season sweep vs. an opponent? There have been 21 meetings in NFL history between teams that have played three times in one season with a chance for a sweep. The team that went 2-0 in the regular season has won the third matchup 14 of the 21 times.
Four times the team that swept the regular season has been a road underdog (which the 49ers technically will be, despite the likely pro 49ers crowd that will populate SoFi Stadium on Sunday), and in those four games, they have gone 2-2.
The Rams are an extremely talented team, and beating any team three times in one season and seven times in a row is a tall ask. But who else better to rise to the occasion than that special six seed from San Francisco.