And then, there were two.
NFC West rivals square off Sunday with a trip — or at least a short excursion — to Super Bowl LVI on the line. When the Los Angeles Rams kick things off against the San Francisco 49ers, it will be the third meeting this year between these two franchises.
Unfortunately for the Rams and their fans, the first two meetings did not go their way.
Back in Week 10, the 49ers won in dominant fashion, topping the Rams by a final score of 31-10. That game was perhaps notable for how the 49ers began the game, putting together an 18-play drive that covered over 11 minutes of game time, nearly the entire first quarter, that gave the 49ers an early 7-0 lead.
San Francisco followed that with a Pick-Six of Matthew Stafford on the Rams’ ensuing possession, and things were trending in their direction early.
Then in Week 18, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dealing with a thumb injury and the 49ers needing a win to get into the playoffs, San Francisco pulled out a three-point win in overtime, setting the stage for their playoff run.
So how does the third meeting between these teams play out? Do the 49ers make it a perfect 3-0 against the Rams on the season, or does Los Angeles become the second-straight team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium?
Here is what the Rams have to do to beat the 49ers.
Force Jimmy Garoppolo into the grey.
(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
We begin with, of all things, a pop culture reference.
A recent discovery of mine, and something I have now begun forcing on friends and neighbors alike, is the show “For All Mankind,” streaming on Apple TV+. The show, which just finished airing its second season, is an alternative history that examines what things might have looked like if the United States and the U.S.S.R. were locked in a never-ending space race.
The finale of the second season, titled “The Grey,” has as an underpinning the idea that in space travel, sometimes there are not many black and white moments. There is a lot of grey involved, particularly when you are dealing with space shuttles with nuclear launch codes. Decisions are not clear-cut, and that can lead to some hesitation.
And now we transition to Jimmy Garoppolo.
As outlined in the companion piece, looking at how the 49ers can beat the Rams, one of Garoppolo’s strengths as a quarterback — and perhaps why he has an unblemished record against Los Angeles — is how quickly he makes reads and gets the football out of his hands. In his two games this year against the Rams, Garoppolo averaged 2.33 seconds from snap to throw, a blistering pace which neutralizes a strength of Los Angeles. Their pass rush.
Incumbent upon the Rams this weekend is to try and combat that, by forcing Garoppolo into the grey. Make him hesitate, or double-clutch, or feel the need to take an extra second in the pocket or work to a second or third read.
Take this play from their Week 18 meeting:
On this play, the Seahawks show pressure before the snap, putting safety Ugochukwu Amadi down in the box over the right tackle. But as the play begins, he drops into a deep half-field alignment, as Seattle rolls into an inverted Cover 2. Garoppolo opens to his right, perhaps expecting to throw quickly against man coverage, but the Seahawks have that curl/out combination covered. Garoppolo then resets to try and hit George Kittle on a backside dig, but never sees Quandre Diggs, dropping down into that pole runner alignment between the safeties. Diggs jumps the dig, Garoppolo throws it right to him, and Seattle has the football.
Another means of forcing Garoppolo into the grey? Rotating at the snap and changing Garoppolo’s pre-snap expectations. We saw that on the previous play, but defenses have traditionally been more successful forcing mistakes from Garoppolo rotating into single-high at the snap. On this interception against the Vikings, Minnesota shows a two-deep safety look before the play, but drop Harrison Smith into the robber role right at the s nap.
Garoppolo, despite opening to his left — where Smith is aligned before the snap — still manages to throw this right to the safety when he tries to hit the backside dig from Samuel:
If the Rams succeed in getting Garoppolo into the grey, whether by matching routes early in the down or rotating the safeties to force him to read things out right after the snap, they can perhaps force him to hold onto the football a little bit longer, giving their guys up front a chance to get home.
Or, they could bait Garoppolo into a big mistake or two.
Mind the gaps.
(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel receive a ton of praise for the schematic elements to the San Francisco offense. While it is all well deserved, where the two truly impress are when the 49ers keep the football on the ground. Their ability to manufacture extra gaps in the running game at the snap, or to turn three-man surfaces into four-man surfaces with the use of a fullback (or even four into five and so on), or how they create advantageous blocking angles or and even their use of Samuel as a running back are all worthy of praise.
One of the many wrinkles the Rams will need to be ready for is San Francisco’s variation on the toss play, which instead of attacking outside with man blocking elements instead aims inside with zone blocking. Here is that design against the Rams from Week 18:
On this play, the 49ers align presnap with three receivers on the left, and just Aiyuk alone on the right. Samuel aligns in the backfield. The Rams respond with 3-4 personnel, and have Rapp down in the box over the Kittle. But not only do the 49ers send running back Jeffrey Wilson in motion from left to right at the snap, but Kittle comes across the formation as well, and the two players lead Samuel to the right side.
The combination of Wilson and Kittle coming across the formation right as the play unfolds turns the two-man surface the 49ers had at the snap (the right guard and right tackle) into a four-man surface. Since this happens right at the snap, the Rams cannot move bodies over in time, and the defense does not have enough defenders to account for the extra gaps that are created.
But sometimes, that extra body in the box does help the defense account for all the gaps, as you see on this play from Week 18:
Safety Jordan Fuller, who is already lurking down near the box, comes ever-so-closer to the line of scrimmage when fullback Kyle Juszczyk slides in motion right before the snap. San Francisco tries to run a toss to the right side, but the defense is able to account for all the gaps, even with the fullback sliding into the picture, and stop this play.
The 49ers are going to throw a lot at the Rams from a run-game perspective, including creating some extra gaps — and as a result some numbers advantages — at or after the snap. If Rams respond by bringing a safety down into the box, that can serve the dual goal of perhaps baiting Garoppolo into a mistake or two, as well as equalizing the numbers in the running game.
Give Matthew Stafford enough time to attack secondary windows.
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
We start the final portion of this preview with a reading from the gospel according to Bill Belichick:
This snippet, relating to a Belichick press conference from 2015 and posted on the New England Patriots’ website, comes to my mind anytime the “pass rush versus coverage” debate rages during a given off-season. Instead of trying to figure out which is more important, it might make more sense to realize that both matter, and how they work in concert is critical.
In studying the 49ers defense over the past few weeks, they have been relying on zone coverage schemes to take away routes in the middle of the field, help the cornerbacks on the outside by not leaving them on islands, and then giving their pass rush time to get home. The talented Seth Galina, who covers the NFL and college game for Pro Football Focus, walked readers through this idea in this meaty piece for PFF that is worth your time.
At the heart of the 49ers defense is linebacker Fred Warner, who helps relate to routes in the middle of the field in the San Francisco zone coverage schemes, taking away those options and forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere, often with safety help along the sidelines or deep. But the 49ers defense as a whole does a tremendous job at closing out options in the middle of the field and either forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere, or punishing him when he does not. Watch how Warner and fellow linebacker Marcell Harris work in concert here in the middle of the field, passing off routes to each other in zone coverage and creating an interception from Davis Mills:
Not that there are many plays in the playbook for 3rd and 16, but here you see Warner drop and eliminate the dig route from Cooper Kupp, forcing Stafford to look elsewhere. He targets Ben Skowronek, but Moseley combined with safety help are able to make the play for an interception.
By eliminating the middle of the field, the 49ers are looking to force the quarterback to attack other areas of the field, or into secondary windows. What they are also doing is taking away quicker reads and throws, and forcing the quarterback to hold the football a bit longer, giving the pass rush more time to get home.
Tying the coverage and what the 49ers can do up front together, as outlined by our own Laurie Fitzpatrick. As Galina pointed out in his piece, the 49ers are still managing to generate pressure on opposing passers even with these zone coverage schemes behind them. “The 49ers pass coverage is holding up their end and the pass rush is cleaning up. Over the course of the regular season and playoffs, the 49ers hold the fifth-highest team pass rush win rate mark while playing zone coverage (58.5%).”
Here is what that looks like on film:
On this third-down conversion, the combination of Warner and Jimmie Ward, dropping down into a buzz technique in this Cover 3 scheme, take away where Stafford wants to go first, which is the intermediate over route from Kupp. But given time to step up in the pocket, Stafford is able to hit that secondary window, the deeper dig route from Jefferson, to move the chains.
If Stafford has the time to hit those secondary windows, he can find success in the passing game on Sunday.