It feels as if the 49ers' defense relishes in the fact that they need to be flawless to win. After each loss, despite playing as well as you could ask in today's NFL, each defensive player that came to the podium put the onus on the defense for not getting a stop at a specific time or allowing one, read, one, touchdown in a game.
Defensively, the 49ers currently sit first in success rate, third in DVOA, and fourth in EPA per play allowed. Digging a bit deeper, looking at how a team does based on a per-drive basis gives you a better idea of who they are as a unit. San Francisco is second in yards, points, and plays per drive. They are also second in drive success rate.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that DeMeco Ryans' unit is elite across the board. But how will they fare against the reigning Super Bowl champs? Let's get into the matchup that'll decide the game.
Stick to the script
Ryans doesn't need to venture out and watch other teams to find the blueprint for how to stop the Rams. But Los Angeles's Week 1 loss to Buffalo was a carbon copy of how you slow down Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford, who finished with a measly 5.9 yards per attempt on 41 attempts, including three interceptions and a fumble.
The Bills did not blitz Stafford once yet pressured him on 38% of his dropbacks. Getting pressure with four rushers in king in the NFL, and it's something the 49ers have hung their hat on over the past few seasons.
Unsurprisingly, the Rams were a disaster offensively in Week 1 as they couldn't protect their QB or run their offense. As a result, Los Angeles finished with the second-worst DVOA of the weekend, and it was nearly two times as worse as the Niners' output in a monsoon at Soldier Field.
Nothing has changed this season. Per Sports Info Solutions, the 49ers lead the NFL in pressure rate on non-blitzing dropbacks:
- 49ers: 52.1%
- Commanders: 43.7%
- Packers: 43.0%
- Patriots and Bucs tied at 40.6%
The Rams' offense allows a 28.8% pressure rate on non-blitzing dropbacks, which ranks 19th in the NFL. When San Francisco faced the Rams in 2021, they blitzed Stafford 13.2% of the time in three matchups. That was down from their season-wide blitz rate of 21%.
Life got a bit easier for the Rams during the next two weeks as they didn't have to face a defense with a pass-rushing threat. But in Week 1, as a team, Buffalo generated 27 total pressures, an incredible ten sacks, and hit Stafford six other times. So, if you're wondering why the 49ers are favored, there's your answer.
The advantage upfront for the Niners is significant in this matchup, but close won't cut it. On Denver's touchdown drive last week, Nick Bosa had a sack that Russell Wilson ran out of. It felt like there were 2-3 opportunities the defense let slip through their hands.
Bosa is in the top five in total pressures this season. Samson Ebukam is 25th. The edge duo has to dominate the Rams' tackles that have allowed five sacks and six quarterback hits on the season.
In 2021, the Rams were this high-flying offense who felt like they took a shot play down the field once a drive. Stafford has attempted ten passes over 20 yards this year, which is one more than Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush.
Whether it's Stafford's health or lack of an explosive option, that's not who the Rams are this year. Their offense consists of "throw it to Coper." Kupp has the most receptions in the league at 28 and is averaging 93.3 yards per game. But he's only averaging ten yards per reception, down nearly 3.5 yards from a year ago.
Kupp leads the team with 35 targets. Tight end Tyler Higbee is second with 22. After that, its wide receiver turned fullback Bennett Skowronek with 13 and the ghost of Allen Robinson with 12. Only Robinson's average depth of target is double digits.
Here's a look at Kupp's target distribution this season:
As you can see, everything is underneath.
That bodes well for a San Francisco defense that is first in DVOA in short passes. The Niners have a hilarious -47% DVOA on short passes. For reference, Denver is second at -34.6%.
This shows up in the run game more than anything, but the secondary has been outstanding tacklers. Mooney Ward is fourth on the team in "stops," with Emmanuel Moseley right behind him. Talanoa Hufanga is second. In his first start, Deommodore Lenoir had two stops himself.
They play with a level of physicality and ferociousness on this side of the ball that's impossible to mimic in practice once you factor in the team speed of the 49ers.
This won't be a game where Mooney gets to shadow Kupp, who has lined up 87 times in the slot this season compared to 86 times out wide. It'll be interesting to see if DeMeco doubles Kupp when he lines up on the outside and forces another pass-catcher to beat him, ala the Packers in the playoffs last year.
Stafford will Stafford
Stafford will give you a chance as a defense. He’s thrown five interceptions already this season and has the third-highest interception rate after Mac Jones and Justin Fields. What makes it worse is Stafford’s average throw depth is three yards shorter than the other two quarterbacks.
I feel confident in blindly stating opposing defenses have probably dropped an interception of Stafford’s during the first three weeks. The last time these two teams played, the 49ers had a golden opportunity for a pick on Stafford. An interception in this game could be the deciding factor.
The Rams have underwhelmed on offense, much like the 49ers. They rank 20th in EPA per play, which tells you they aren’t getting the same types of explosive plays down the field. They’ve been afforded the second-best starting field position through two weeks but are only 11th in points per drive.
I’m sure Los Angeles will figure it out. Of course, when McVay is your coach, you usually do. Still, they are not there yet, and this unit resembles a Jared Goff type of offense more than a Stafford one.
The 49ers' goal should be to hold the Rams to 13 points, force two turnovers, and have four sacks. We’ll revisit this after the game, but the home team should prevail if those three things happen.