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Why getting out to a fast start is the biggest key for the 49ers against the Rams

The Rams have been outscored by 22 points in the first half during the past nine

Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Everyone is aware of how 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has gotten the best of Rams head coach Sean McVay in five straight meetings since 2019.

What makes this five-game winning streak so impressive is that San Francisco had won four of those five games as underdogs, including the team’s most recent outright victory by 21 points when they were a 3-point underdog.

The 49ers will be underdogs once again against the Rams. They’re currently 4.5-point underdogs at DraftKings SportsBook, with the total on the game only 44.5. Vegas predicts this game will be in the ballpark of 24-20, which feels low.

Will Jimmy play?

That’s the question everyone is asking. Against a Rams defense that’s annually been one of the best in the league, Jimmy Garoppolo is 5-0 against the spread while completing 68% of his passes for 8.1 yards per attempt and eight touchdowns. Garoppolo has shown well against the Rams.

Deebo Samuel said on Thursday that, “Jimmy just looked like Jimmy to me,” while George Kittle said Garoppolo looks better than he did a week ago but acknowledged chipped bones don’t feel great.

Is this all one giant distraction to take the pressure off the third overall pick, potentially making his third start in a must-win game? Trey Lance looked like two different players in the first and second half against the Texans.

Out of nowhere, the narrative shifted from Garoppolo being publicly open about how much pain he’s in when he has to do his job to how well Jimmy is throwing the ball in 24 hours.

Let’s put ourselves in Shanahan’s shoes. He knows Jimmy’s consistency against the Rams. Shanahan’s game-plan with Garoppolo under center works when he goes head-to-head with McVay.

Could it work with Lance? Probably. But with a rookie quarterback comes variance. This is a nuanced situation where multiple things are true.

Leading up to the draft, I called Lance the most pro-ready quarterback entering the NFL. I feel validated after watching him during his second start against the Texans having watched the other rookie quarterbacks this year.

Lance can be well on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback while still being nowhere near ready to take on the 12-win and potentially NFC West champion Rams in his third start.

If you thought he was a bit jittery and unnerving early on against Houston, imagine when he looks across the line of scrimmage and sees Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey starring him in the face.

Shanahan came out conservative against the Texans with Lance. Could you imagine how limited the playbook would be to start on Sunday?

Shanahan wants the constant in Garoppolo, even if it means he’s 75%. If we’re thinking like Shanahan, Garoppolo’s experience trumps Lance’s ability to create plays off-schedule.

It’s hard to disagree with the logic. You have a 21-year-old quarterback who has started two games in two years. As much of a phenom as he may be, there aren’t a dozen quarterbacks in the NFL who thrive in a playoff-type atmosphere. You’d be naive to think Lance would.

To me, Garoppolo will do everything in his power to play, as will the team doctors. But come Sunday, the pain is simply too much for Jimmy to play through and we see Lance in what would be one of the most difficult spots for a rookie quarterback in a long time.

No matter who is under center, the biggest key for the 49ers remains the same. You have to start fast if you want to win. If the Niners score three points in the first half Sunday, we’ll be talking about free agency on Monday.

No time for slow starts

Lance’s passing success rate was only 36% in the first half against Houston. The 49ers scored on their opening drive the week prior, but Garoppolo threw a back-breaking interception in the end zone. The offense has mustered only 13 points on 11 possessions in the first half of their previous two games. That isn’t going to cut it against the Rams.

Lance bounced back in a big way in the second half against the Texans. He had the fifth-highest EPA per play in the NFL during the second half of Week 17. You could tell Lance was comfortable and confident.

This game, much like the previous five, won’t come down to the quarterback. Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel summed up why the 49ers have this five-game winning streak well Thursday: “At the end of the day, when we’ve played the Rams our best players have made plays, and we’ve found ways to score, not only on offense but on defense and special teams.”

Elijah Mitchell ran for 91 yards on 27 carriers the last time these two teams played. The Rams defense is tenth in defensive success rate since Week 10 and an even more impressive second in rushing EPA per play allowed.

When you dig a little bit deeper, the Niners running game is precisely the type (outside zone) that hurts the Rams. Los Angeles allows a 52% success rate on outside zone style of runs.

The offense had two double-digit play drives where they marched down the field to start the game against the Rams — mainly due to the success of Mitchell on the ground. The Niners punched Los Angeles in the mouth early, and they never recovered.

Kittle believes the team’s physicality will once again show itself: “I think it’s going to definitely show up this Sunday about who is the more physical team, and it’s going to be kind of a bodybag game, is my opinion.”

The Rams snail-like starts

For as critical as we’ve been about the 49ers offense during the first half in recent weeks, the Rams have been far worse for much longer. The Rams have been outscored by 22 points in the first half during the past eight games.

They’ve held the lead twice at halftime in those eight games. One came against Urban Meyer, and the other came against the Vikings without Dalvin Cook and with a quarterback who was likely sick.

Matthew Stafford has been horrific in the first half during this eight-game stretch. Some will cite Stafford battling through an injury. I don’t believe Sean McVay has been great to start games, either.

Turnovers, poor decision-making, and subpar play all-around are the reason Stafford is 36th out of 39 quarterbacks in the first half in a metric that combines EPA per play plus completion percentage over expectation.

Sony Michel has run the ball well, and the Rams will have their best runner in Cam Akers on the field, but that could be fool’s gold as you’d be hard-pressed to find a better run defense down the stretch than the 49ers.

Since Week 10, the 49ers are third in rushing EPA per play allowed and third in rushing success rate. Teams struggle to block the duo of D.J. Jones (first in run-stop win-rate) and Arik Armstead (third in run-stop win-rate), which helps keep the linebackers clean. You can thank the defensive tackles for Fred Warner’s recent resurgence.

Stellar team defense against the run is why the 49ers are second in the NFL in explosive run plays allowed since Week 10, per Sharp Football Stats. The athleticism along the defensive line and sheer aggression will give Stafford fits. And because the secondary is full of questions, the defensive line has to play at a high level.

Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp, and Van Jefferson are impossible to slow down for four quarters, but making the Rams one-dimensional and letting your defensive line take advantage of the Rams weak link — their slower, not as physical offensive line — is how the Niners come close to bottling the Rams up.

It’s imperative San Francisco gets off to a hot start offensively and limits the Rams in the first half because the sleeping giant wakes up in the second half. Stafford’s numbers are top-10 across the board in the second half during this 8-game stretch.

They’re reminiscent of the 49ers in a lot of ways. Much like the Niners, the Rams offense goes on a tear when they feature their best players.

It’d be ideal, while unlikely, for San Francisco to hold another 14-point lead heading into halftime against the Rams. The 49ers' defense and offense are both built to play with a lead. In a must-win game, it feels like the fate of this game will be determined early based on how each team has fared during the past two months.

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