This is the first intra-division conference championship in the NFL since 2013. However, the San Francisco 49ers are on the road this time around and will hope for a different result.
The Rams are technically the home team, but nearly half of the tickets purchased for Sunday’s contest are from northern California, per StubHub. That’s in addition to losing to the Niners six times in a row, including two with Matthew Stafford.
Why do the 49ers have the Rams number?
We’ve heard all week long about how Kyle Shanahan owns Sean McVay. You won’t hear why that’s the case outside of the winning streak. The 49ers' success against the Rams starts with familiarity.
McVay is running the same offense the Niners see every day in practice. So the insight Shanahan and the offensive coaching staff can provide the defensive staff during Rams’ week is invaluable. DeMeco Ryans knows the counters, wrinkles, and potential curveballs McVay will throw at him.
How the teams are built and play off their principles is another reason the 49ers have seen so much success against the Rams. Shanahan is a coach who relies on 21 personnel (2 running backs/1 tight end) and loves to run the ball with a smashmouth style.
The Rams were built on the foundation of Brandon Staley defensively. This new-age thought that “we’re going to give up yards on the ground as it’s not as efficient through the air. So we’ll play with lighter boxes and dedicate more bodies to stop the pass.”
On 30% of snaps for the offense this season, Shanahan has used a tight end and a fullback. As a result, the Rams play with “light-boxes” more than any other team in the NFL. Add in the physicality element for San Francisco, and that’s how you end up with a drive that has 10 straight running plays, as we saw in Week 18.
Furthermore, Shanahan and the 49ers use pre-snap motion at the league’s highest rate. That benefits Jimmy Garoppolo the most as motion pre-snap forces the defense to tip their hand. Now, you can see what they want to do in the secondary coverage-wise and whether or not there’s a blitz on the way.
So, how does this tie into success for the Niners? Per TruMedia, the Rams disguise their coverage post-snap more than any team in the NFL. Los Angeles showed a specific coverage pre-snap and ran the same coverage post-snap 53% of the time.
The last time these two teams played, the Rams used their superstar cornerback Jalen Ramsey to shadow Deebo Samuel in high-leverage situations. Shanahan simply motioned Deebo away from the formation, took Ramsey out of the play, and now the 49ers had Brandon Aiyuk 1-on-1 or Jauan Jennings with a two-way go in the slot against Los Angeles’s fourth-string cornerback.
Von Miller, Aaron Donald, and Leonard Floyd can only do so much when the ball is coming out quickly, especially over the middle of the field. The Rams neglected the middle of their defense. That’s where the 49ers' offense lives.
The motion only adds to the conflict in which defenders are put in when facing this offense. Linebacker Troy Reeder played 88% of the snaps last week against Tampa Bay. He’s likely this week’s “mark.” Reeder allowed 78% of his 38 targets to be completed on the season.
If starting safety Taylor Rapp can’t go, Rams backup safety Nick Scott only was targeted 12 times during the season but allowed nine receptions for 12.8 yards per target. Last week, he was a star and played over his head as he had an interception and a pass breakup. I’d look to make the former 7th round pick prove he can repeat last week’s performance, this time, against Kittle.
The 49ers run the ball more than any team in the league on early downs at a 57% clip. In Week 18, even when they were down 17, Shanahan ran the ball 73% of the time on early downs.
Shanahan is going to run his offense. He can afford to do so against a team like the Rams, who aren’t necessarily looking to stop the run. The play-action, three-step drops, and the quick passing game remain the primary part of the passing game, but it’s all based on what the Niners do on the ground.
Now, Los Angeles has stars all over who are good enough to erase what we’ve seen in the past six games and hold up for a one-game sample size. There’s enough evidence schematically, how these teams are built, and how each team plays on the field, to walk away thinking this was the last matchup the Rams wanted.