This Sunday, the St. Louis Rams - the youngest team in the NFL - will try to end road game woes that have haunted them all year. Battered by three straight losses, the Rams last two game were painful indeed. They came against the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, and in those games, the youth of the Rams was telling indeed. They were shown first hand how two of the NFL's best teams - led by Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady - win by taking advantage their opponent's flaws. The 49ers, while not all that dominant on offense, have an elite defense that seeks to control what opposing teams can do. For the third week in a row, the Rams will be auditing a graduate level course taught by the "elite".
I spent most of Saturday studying game films of the 49ers, and with only two exceptions (Vikings and Giants), their defense bordered on '85 Bears awesome. They don't sack quarterbacks as much as you'd think a great defense would, but that's almost by design. Their front three (or four depending on how you want to interpret their packages), seeks to remove the run option, while their All Pro inside linebacker duo of Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis react to the ball. They use their outside linebackers - Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks - to penetrate a couple yards to seal the edges. If the play is a play-action pass, these two transition to pass rushers in the blink of an eye. Teams have tried to take advantage of Aldon Smith's pass coverage on running backs when they try to release, and at times its worked to a small degree. Bowman and Willis break to the outside to help in coverage, and they've been outstanding at limiting running backs in short coverage.
The 49ers secondary is solid. Their corner backs - Carlos Rodgers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver - play solid, physical coverage. While Rodgers gets the most press, I think Culliver is their best single cover corner. They all cover receivers tight and their safeties are disciplined as routes move into their zones. What this unit does best though is tackle, and they may be the best ever in that regard. Yardage after catch isn't something an opposing team should count on.
If there is a weakness, it's that the secondary and LB/DL units act almost separately. The three units (DBs, LBs and DL) play down hill in support of the unit in front of them. Because of this, while I studied the game film I saw opennings just behind the linebackers. They've had problems covering solid tight ends in the 8 yard zones. The Rams' Lance Kendricks has spent most of 2012 pass blocking, and his pass catching skills are suspect. How St. Louis' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will attack this zone is anyone's guess.
While this may sound rather nuts, after watching seven San Francisco games, I believe the Rams should quite literally run the ball down the 49ers throat. I'd attack Aldon Smith specifically. He and the Rams' Robert Quinn have something more in common than their draft class. Both have a tendency to swing wide or sell themselves hard on an inside move. The armchair offensive coordinator in me would play a two tight end set, and pull one across to seal Smith or hit Bowman at the second level. Then I'd pound Steven Jackson straight at the gap outside of defensive tackle Justin Smith. Altering Daryl Richardson with Jackson at this side will create timing issues too, but I honestly think this game is where Jackson can prove naysayers wrong. This attack, if successful, will do two things. First, the Rams will control the game clock. Second, if they can break out on top and make the 49ers play catch up against the clock, they'll have found the one weakness this team has that could limit it in 2012: They don't play catch up well.
If I saw anything in all the games I watched, it's that the 49ers have a team that rely on the opposition to fail more than San Francisco tries to succeed. It takes a special team to do this, and they do it well. They win by teams challenging each of their defensive units as a whole. If you try to pass a great deal, the secondary will beat you. If you try and attack all across their defensive, they'll beat you. But in every game the 49ers lost or struggled, teams attacked individual players to varying degrees and force the 49ers to change to fit a circumstance over the entire game, not just on one or two plays.
On offense, San Francisco is a run team, pure and simple. Quarterback Alex Smith has been called a "game manager", and I think that's an apt description. He excels throwing short out routes, or passes to running backs in the flats. His arm strength is limited to under 50 yards. Because of the 49ers rushing attack, the Rams will be in man to man coverage in almost every defensive package. Zone coverage doesn't work well against the 49ers due to the number of short check-down passes Smith throws to running backs. Letting Vernon Davis loose in the short zone will cost the Rams. Davis has been virtually shut down in some games by being checked hard at the line before being passed off to tight man coverage. Smith doesn't pass down the middle of the field much. I think this has more to do with what I perceive is a slow check down list by Smith.
The 49ers have quite simply the best offensive line in the NFL, and they're getting better each week. Their two offensive tackles are flat out stellar. Joe Staley and Anthony Davis control the edge in pass protection better than anyone else. Chris Long has the best chance to make an impact though. He'll be up against Davis, and in the games I've seen he's beatable, but only after three of four yards into the back field. In the games I watched, anyone trying to bull rush him failed miserably, but he doesn't appear to have staying speed the farther his block is stretched. The addition of outside linebacker pressure in the pass rush on Long's side would be interesting to see.
Frank Gore in many ways runs like Rams rookie Daryl Richardson. While Gore has greater lower body strength than the Rams 7th round draft choice, both hit a hole decisively. There is no mystery when Gore hits a gap, and it's his power running style that makes first tacklers miss. Rams' middle linebacker James Laurinaitis needs to move up closer to the line than he has been playing. Allowing Gore to get up a head of steam after contact in the line is going to cost the Rams. He has be hit at the line and quickly gang tackled. The 49ers have gained more yardage in between the guards than any team in the NFL this year. They use very simple - but effective - cross block pulls with the guards and center. The center blocks the defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense, and the guard pulls around in back of him to hit the second level linebacker. A less talented offensive line would fail, but they take this blocking scheme straight out of Pop Warner football and make it an art form.
The San Francisco wide receivers are talented, make no mistake about it. They are limited by Smith to a certain extent though. I can honestly say I saw a boat load of similarities to the Rams "dink and dunk" offense that's led to Sam Bradford being maligned by more than a few fans. Free agent acquisition Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are the closest thing the 49ers have to "slot receivers", but they don't run "slot" routes all that often, or at least it seemed that way to me. They run short posts, come-backs and "outs". Here again, I think routes are limited by Smith's check down speed and time in the pocket. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has created a full passing scheme inside of a 20 to 25 yard window to fit his quarterback's skill set. It makes for a crowded zone underneath the safeties, and it's why I think the Rams need Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl back in coverage. Their receivers are physical, but each has their little titches. One example is Michael Crabtree. While watching him play, I noticed he really doesn't like getting hit. He signals for replacement every time he takes a whack. Randy Moss can still run, but he appears to have lost some of his great leaping ability. Mario Manningham seems to have the most polished skill set, but it's Kyle Williams the Rams should worry about today.
Williams survived the slings and arrows following his miscues in the NFC Championship game earlier this year. He's a really talented young guy, who has the best yard after catch ability of any of the 49ers receivers. He's fast, strong and not afraid to take a hit. Look for Williams in short posts from right to left straight at Dahl.
Alex Smith makes good choices, but turnover opportunities exist when he throws wide to the right. The Rams have to be physical in coverage. They have to play WRs at the line and seal the inside, forcing Smith to "touch pass" high to the outside. In every game I watched, this was Smith's weakest pass type.
Whatever the Rams do, that can't become intimidated by 49ers defense. The offensive line has to be physical on every play. I timed pass protection in the New York Giants game and Eli averaged just over 4 seconds in the pocket. Sam needs to stand tough in pocket. Center Turner or Wells has to stay home and not help the guards in pass protection. Bowman and Willis like to do a delayed cross blitz up the middle. The center has to pick up at least one of them every time.
Passes in red zone are something the Rams may be able to take advantage of, but they won't be pretty. Short, cutting slant passes can work for 3 to 5 yards, and may be perfect for Brian Quick who they'll think will go to the corner of end zone.
I honestly think teams study film of the 49ers, and see what they want to see. Any team that approaches the 49ers with the idea of attacking a sector or group will fail. On film, they look close to perfect as a group. Positions are filled with some of the NFL's best. But if I've learned anything after all the years I've watch the NFL, it's that there simply isn't a player who isn't vulnerable to the wiles of scheming coaches. The Arizona game showed me you can attack a guy like Patrick Peterson to great effect. I think teams with stellar players lack the latitude to provide help to their stars. Whether that's based on their disbelief that a guy like Peterson can be beat I have no idea. What I do know is that teams who try to attack the entire 49ers team have all failed. The teams that pick their battle, and focus on select players seem to do very well though...
Enjoy the game!
Ed. Note: It's not too late to pick up St. Louis Rams tickets for today's game if you're in the Bay Area.