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6 Niners’ keys to victory: Can Garoppolo keep cashing in on third downs?

Breaking down all things 49ers-Rams ahead of Sunday’s NFC Title Game.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay prepare for their second NFC Championship Game, the path to this inflection point began exactly 12 months before they face off for a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. (DraftKings Sportsbook has the 49ers as 3.5-point underdogs as they face the LA Rams for the third time this season.)

After both the 49ers and Rams had been eliminated in the 2020 season, both coaches spent the start of their offseason in the NFL’s hottest vacation spot: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

While the two offensive-minded head coaches of division rivals had been relaxing in the same international hotspot, they had also been vying for the same quarterback via trade: Lions’ Matthew Stafford.

McVay’s Rams fell short in the NFC Divisional Round vs. Green Bay, but a roller-coaster season for Jared Goff had put a nail in his coffin. Meanwhile, Shanahan’s 49ers could never get off the ground as injuries piled up early in the year, including that of Jimmy Garoppolo’s.

As both coaches pondered an upgrade, the Rams made the aggressive move that reflected their team’s ethos by trading in Goff and a pair of first-round picks for Stafford.

Much to Shanahan’s dismay, he would have to look elsewhere for a quarterback upgrade, while McVay decided to go the established veteran route.

The Rams became the sexy offseason pick from that point due to the thought of Stafford’s uber-talented physical gifts in McVay’s quarterback-friendly offense. Everyone expected Los Angeles to be in this Sunday’s game, given their bold move last January.

It wasn’t as easy for San Francisco, aggressively trading up for the untapped potential of rookie Trey Lance while re-assembling their 2020 roster. Their season didn’t get off to a smooth start, facing a 3-5 hole. But eventually, they found their footing and entered this game as the NFL’s hottest bunch, closing the season 9-2, including three-straight road, wins over 12-win teams as underdogs.

The story of the two coaches will forever be intertwined, from being on the same coaching staff in Washington in 2013 to being hired by division rivals in 2017. Both have been to the Super Bowl, each losing to an all-time great head coach and quarterback duo.

Yet, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers have managed to beat Sean McVay’s Rams six straight times across three seasons despite two different quarterbacks and three different defensive coordinators for McVay.

It was so personal for the Rams’ head coach that he was caught celebrating in the end zone, as the Rams went up 17-0 over the 49ers three weeks ago, with their sights set on eliminating the 49ers from the playoffs and demolishing the streak that hangs over Los Angeles like the smog on a sunny day. Of course, we all know how that story ended, with Ambry Thomas intercepting a Stafford pass in overtime as the 49ers punched their ticket into the postseason.

But can the 49ers do it again? It’s the question that’s been on everyone’s minds this week, leading up to the heavyweight fight between these two star-studded teams.

Seven times in a row? Seven? That’s unheard of.

As we get set for the NFC Championship game, here are some of my observations of different facets of the game based on the two previous matchups, along with my game prediction.

Three times in one season?

While most fans are trying to determine if the Kyle Shanahan-led 49ers can beat the Rams seven straight times, a lot are wondering if they can defeat Los Angeles thrice in one season.

“It’s hard to beat a team three times” is a phrase that’s commonly stated, but does the data actually back that up?

There have been 21 meetings between opponents who’ve played three times in one season in NFL history. The team that was 2-0 going into the matchup has won the trifecta 14 of the 21 times (66 percent).

San Francisco will look to be the 15th team to go ahead and do that on Sunday vs. Rams.

Matt Stafford vs. Pressure/Blitz?

Since joining the Rams, Matthew Stafford has played his best two-game stretch over the last two weeks in high-pressure, must-win games vs. Cardinals and Buccaneers. The second game was even more impressive, getting off to a hot start and then finishing off Tampa Bay with a beautiful deep ball to Cooper Kupp while knowing he was going to get drilled by Ndamukong Suh.

Stafford has absolutely eviscerated defenses when they send extra rushers to pressure him in the backfield.

Against the blitz, Stafford has a completion percentage of 74 percent, a touchdown to interception ratio of 15 to 1, and PFF’s top grade.

However, when he’s under pressure — but not blitzed — Stafford only completes 50 percent of his passes, has a touchdown to interception ratio of 10 to 7, and PFF’s 19th-best grade among qualifying passers.

The last two weeks, Arizona and Tampa Bay, have been extremely blitz-heavy against the Rams, sticking to the identity of how their defenses are constructed. The Cardinals blitzed Stafford on 42 percent of snaps, while the Buccaneers sent extra rushers 39 percent of the time.

Per ESPN, they were two of the top-three blitzing defenses in the NFL during the regular season.

So how will San Francisco attack Stafford? Their defense has been built to play a quarterback like the former Lions’ signal caller because their front four can get to the passer without needing to blitz often.

The 49ers blitzed the fourth-fewest in the NFL at only 19.8% of the time vs. Rams. In Week 18, the 49ers blitzed only 16 percent of the time but applied pressure on Stafford on 48 percent of dropbacks — which is the highest rate of pressure Stafford has seen all season long.

Kris Kocurek’s unit has been tailor-made to face a quarterback like Stafford, and they’ll need to answer the bell on Sunday and force Stafford into sacks or errant throws — like he’s done in the two matchups during the regular season.

Rams’ running game vs. 49ers’ defensive line?

While one would think that a Stafford-led Rams’ offense would be pass-heavy, Sean McVay still likes to maintain a good offensive balance in order to preserve his offensive line and not put his defense in harm's way.

They had a ton of success on the ground two weeks ago vs. Cardinals, rushing for 140 yards, but didn’t fare as well last week vs. Buccaneers.

Los Angeles had 64 yards rushing vs. 49ers in Week 18, with one of Kupp’s carries going for 31 yards. Take that out, and the Rams’ running backs rushed for 53 yards on 25 carries.

The latter half of the season, D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead have been run-stuffing machines for the 49ers, especially eating up double teams to allow the 49ers’ linebackers to make every tackle.

The 49ers have the top rushing defense in the NFL since Week 10 based on: EPA per play, Success Rate, DVOA, and Explosive Runs Allowed. I’d imagine that trend continues on Sunday, as the 49ers’ defensive line will look to limit Cam Akers.

San Francisco hasn’t allowed 100 rushing yards to an opposing rushing attack since early November, and I don’t think that streak breaks on Sunday.

Jimmy Garoppolo attacking the middle

San Francisco’s passing attack under Jimmy Garoppolo has been predominantly attacking the middle of the field. Combining Garoppolo’s quick release and accuracy over the middle, along with the vacant holes left by linebackers thanks to play-action, the 49ers have eaten up teams in that area.

Unfortunately, the Rams have also been deficient in covering opposing pass-catchers in the middle of the field. Check out this graphic from PFF’s Timo Riske, who shows the heat map for the Rams’ pass defense and the 49ers’ pass offense side by side. Red indicates more passes relative to the average, while blue indicates fewer passes relative to the average.

Look at the red areas for the Rams’ pass defense the 49ers’ pass offense — it’s the same zone: the middle of the field.

Against the Rams in two matchups, Jimmy Garoppolo’s completing 80 percent of his passes over the middle for 320 yards, including three touchdowns and a game-tying one in Week 18 to Jauan Jennings.

If the 49ers can get their running game going, I’d expect Shanahan to be able to vacate the middle of the field for Garoppolo to hit quick strikes. He’s the master of creating holes over the middle for Garoppolo — especially against this Rams’ defense.

Arik Armstead’s adjustment keying the 49ers’ pass rush

Much was made about the DeForest Buckner trade and choosing to keep Arik Armstead. The former Oregon defensive lineman has been subject to a ton of criticism over the last few seasons due to his expensive contract.

After Javon Kinlaw had an injury this season, Arik Armstead slid inside and became a dominant defensive tackle. His combination of speed and size has unlocked this run defense and pass rush during the second half of the season.

Armstead has generated six sacks in the last three weeks, including two critical third-down, drive-killing sacks, vs. Aaron Rodgers last week. The former first-round pick has been pivotal, rushing against interior offensive linemen and driving them right into the quarterback.

Against the Rams in Week 18, Armstead generated seven pressures, including a key sack on 3rd-and-1, as the 49ers trailed 17-0 late in the first half. A momentum-turning play ultimately led to a 49ers’ field goal before the half.

San Francisco’s pass rush has been unreal over the last 10 weeks or so but has completely turned it up to another level in the postseason. In Week 18, the 49ers pressured Stafford on 48 percent of dropbacks (season-worst for Stafford). In Week 19, they pressured Dak Prescott on 48 percent of dropbacks (season-worst for Prescott). Then, last week, they got to Rodgers 35 percent of the time (third-worst for Rodgers). Sensing a pattern, here?

Kris Kocurek and DeMeco Ryans are consistently putting their linemen in the best positions to succeed by hunting for one-on-one matchups along the defensive line and letting their players go to work.

Stafford has struggled under pressure and did so in a major way in the second half vs. 49ers in Week 18. San Francisco’s defense will need to bring that type of intensity on Sunday in order to disrupt McVay’s offense.

49ers’ offensive success on third down

The 49ers’ offensive plan against the Rams has been pretty simple: run the heck out of the ball, execute on third down, limit mistakes and wear down the Rams’ defensive front.

In Week 10, it worked like a charm, as the 49ers leaned on the Rams’ defense, rushing for 156 yards on 44 attempts. In order to have that type of rushing volume, Jimmy Garoppolo has to be efficient on third down. In that first matchup, they went 9-of-16 on third and fourth down, which allowed San Francisco to continue drives.

In Week 18, their offense went 11-of-18 on third and fourth down. While they didn’t have as much success rushing the ball, Garoppolo’s drop-back passing success in the second half carried them over the hump.

When the 49ers have won, they’ve generally been extremely good on the money down. Luckily, they’ll face a Rams’ defense that’s 23rd in third-down success rate allowed and 25th in third-down drop-back success rate.

Garoppolo, Shanahan, and the 49ers’ offense will again need to hold serve on the money downs on Sunday in order to execute their game plan fully.

Slowing down Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, and Aaron Donald

The Rams went out and have spent a pretty penny beefing up their defensive line this season, re-signing Leonard Floyd to a big deal while trading for future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller.

A line that features Miller, Floyd, Donald, and Greg Gaines is deadly and can completely disrupt offensive game plans, but the 49ers have really done well in limiting these star players in their two matchups.

Donald has yet to sack Jimmy Garoppolo this season and has really only generated a handful of pressures. A combination of a run-heavy formula and Garoppolo’s quick release has really helped neutralize the Rams’ strength — their pass rush.

Tom Compton struggled this past week vs. Packers’ Rashean Gary, getting consistently beaten or pushed back. The Rams will likely try to highlight him one-on-one in pass protection and attack that matchup.

Shanahan will likely have to counter by using George Kittle or Kyle Juszczyk to chip pass rushers on Compton’s side.

Prediction: 49ers 27, Rams 23

Styles make fights.

The Rams are extremely talented, well-coached, and capable of beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. They came very close in Week 18, blowing a 17-point lead at home.

That being said, I think the 49ers are built to defeat a team like the Rams. They can rush the passer with four and stop the Rams’ rushing attack. On the opposite side of the ball, their physical rushing game should have success against the Rams’ front, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s quick release should help mitigate the Rams’ pass rush.

Kyle Shanahan has had Sean McVay’s number in the last three seasons, winning six straight times. Jimmy Garoppolo has the best winning percentage of any NFL quarterback as an underdog, and he’ll be one this weekend in Los Angeles.

If McVay is a king, Shanahan is the kingmaker, and I’ll take the 49ers in a close battle on the road for the NFC crown and the legacy points.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.