Monday night was a nightmare. It was fair to assume that there would be growing pains from a mediocre team moving halfway across the country, but this was more than that. The players were not prepared to execute and the coaching staff did a poor job of setting players up for success. It was not an entertaining, funny form of bad football, it was simply horrendous football.
Rams Offense vs 49ers Defense
There is too much to cover in one article. This could go on and on for about ten or twelve thousand words because of the abundance of incompetency, lethargy and unpreparedness. But I’m not going to do that to myself and I’m not going to do that to all of you. Before jumping in to the All-22 film, there are a few notes that should be brought up that are important, but do not quite deserve a full blown review.
- The right guard situation is an absolute mess. Cody Wichmann and Jamon Brown split reps, and neither of them knew their assignments or had the physical ability to hold up against the 49ers front.
- Aside from Rob Havenstein, who did not have a great night either, the entire offensive line was overrunning their assignments on zone plays. Too many defenders were able to slip through the A-gaps without much trouble. Center Tim Barnes was especially slow getting to the second level.
- Case Keenum might have had more passes hit the ground five yards away from his target than he had passes that were completed to Rams players.
Running Game (or lack thereof)
The ugliest aspect of all of the Rams ineptitude is how poorly the offense was set up to fool the defense. It was as predictable and vanilla as it could have been. Both the formations used and the way players were motioning were almost dead giveaways as to what the Rams were about to do on a given play.
49ers defenders followed the fullback or the motioned tight end in the running game, and they were right almost every single time. The Rams employed a fair amount of 21-personnel (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers) and 22-personnel (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) in the running game. If the Rams went to either of those formations, it was fair to assume that they were going to run the ball.
This play is the most obvious example of how well the 49ers were able to foresee the Rams plays before they happened. Inside linebacker Navarro Bowman sees fullback Corey Harkey sliding over to the weakside of the formation and knows that the Rams are going to follow him. Instead of waiting off the ball and letting the play develop just in case, Bowman acts on his instinct and demolishes the play immediately.
Co-offensive coordinators Rob Boras and Mike Groh called this sort of stuff all night. If the fullback was on the field, the Rams were running the ball through him. If the Rams motioned a player, they were running through him. The Rams did run one sort of counter play that bent to the opposite direction of the fullback’s alignment, but he was still the lead blocker. By and large, the running game was largely predictable.
The Rams play callers heavily favored 21 and 22-personnel when running the ball. In the few times they opted to run out of the shotgun, it was still easy to see the play before the ball was snapped. The Rams ran inside zone to the tight end’s side of the formation almost without any deviation. Nothing the Rams were doing from a schematic standpoint forced the 49ers to think. When defenders don’t have to think, they act and they make plays. The Rams can not allow that to happen every week, especially against better defenses.
Passing Attack (or... well you get it)
Much like the running game, the Rams passing attack was easy to read. Their favorite passing formations were trey sets and trips bunch sets, usually to the right side of the field. Between the Rams receiving personnel and Keenum’s lack of ability, there were only so many concepts the Rams could run and the 49ers defense knew it.
Differentiated by color, these are the two route concepts that the Rams ran out of trips/trey sets. The yellow route combination is a simple four verticals concept. It is as bland as four verticals comes. Granted, it can work with the right personnel and the ability to catch the defense off guard, but the Rams didn’t show either of those things in Santa Clara. With howe smoothly the 49ers were able to identify the route concept and pick everyone up, the Rams best bet was for the far boundary receiver to either win in 1-on-1 coverage over the top or on his option to break back to the ball for a comeback route.
In red is an even simpler route concept. The two outermost receivers burst up the field to force the defensive backs to respect an intermediate-to-deep threat, while the innermost receiver shoots out to the flats behind them, theoretically giving him some space to make a play. That was not the case on Monday night. The 49ers were all over the short route and sniffed it out time and time again.
The only real variation that the Rams made to this was to have the outermost receiver play farther off the ball instead of the innermost receiver. Of course, when doing so, all they did was run an inverse of the same concept, so then the outermost receiver was running under the two innermost receivers. A blind monkey could have seen these plays coming.
Again using a trey set, the Rams beat themselves on this play. Keenum made a nice throw and the offensive line did a good job of getting out into space to block for the screen, but Tavon Austin dropped the ball. But even then, a catch from Austin may have resulted in negative yardage because of Bradley Marquez. Marques was responsible for kicking out the outside cornerback, but he carried himself too far up the field and was hesitant in attacking the cornerback. As a result, the defender was able to shoot past him and put himself in position to tackle Austin (had he caught the ball).
Rams Defense vs 49ers Offense
Enough about the offense. For most weeks in the future, it’s fair to assume that the defense will be noticeably better than the offense, but that was not the case this week. As was the case with the offense, the defense was so poorly constructed that it was tough for the players to execute well, but the players also failed in their own rights.
For whatever reason, the Rams rid themselves of linebacker Akeem Ayers. Ayers was supposed to be the team’s strong side linebacker. He was the best linebacker on the Rams in terms of taking on blocks, holding the line of scrimmage, and being able to flex out to the edge and be able to hold down the fort over there. But now he’s gone and his lack of presence was felt on Monday night. The Rams desperately needed a strong side run defender. Though, as I did earlier, I’d like to knock out a couple of quick notes before digging deeper into things, like the absence of Ayers.
- Aaron Donald was the only consistently good run defender over the course of the game. Cam Thomas stepped it up in the second half, but Donald was the only reliable player in that aspect all game.
- Michael Brockers had an off night. He was playing abnormally aggressive and guessing wrong too often. He took himself out of too many plays. Thomas outplayed him.
- The second half was better for run defense overall. Players made better run fits and better run blitzes were being called.
- Mark Barron and Lamarcus Joyner - while liabilities in the run game - were surprisingly effective in coverage for most of the night. Each of them had a blunder or two, but they were largely impressive and Joyner almost had an interception at one point.
Defensive Structure: Run Defense
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is outsmarting himself. Over the past two or three years, defenses have gotten smaller up front, namely at the linebacker position. The Arizona Cardinals fetishized this idea and the rest of the league tried to follow suit. While that fad has had its moment, the league is slowly creeping toward countering smaller second level players with more interior running and the rejuvenation of the fullback position. If you run at these smaller linebackers who are best served in space, you put them in a situation that most of them are not equipped to handle.
Defenses have a response for that, though. Around the league, teams are slowly starting to use more ‘TNT’ fronts. ‘TNT’ fronts have defensive linemen lined up over both guards and the center (tackle, nose guard, tackle; hence ‘TNT’). In theory, this blows up interior running plays and plugs up the A-gaps entirely, allowing linebackers to flow into the wider gaps and make plays there.
Here is an example of the Cardinals using a ‘TNT’ front. Right off the snap, they are able to get 300 pound bodies in all of the interior gaps and takeaway interior rushing. After that, the defense has to count on players moving over to fill those gaps and for the edge defender to force the play inside, and Arizona’s defense does that on this play.
The Rams have two small players in their front here (Lamarcus Joyner and Mark Barron) along with Alec Ogletree, who struggles with play strength despite his size. The appropriate way to mask with would be to clog the interior and hope that the smaller, weaker second level players can get out into space and make plays there. Instead, Williams spreads out the defensive line and forces the smaller players to hold their own over the middle of the field. That’s poor common sense.
Similar to the still shot above, the Rams used a spread out defensive line here and expected the small, weak second level players to handle power. The Rams were wrong to do so. Barron got killed by the pulling tight end. Ogeltree got ran out of the play by left tackle Joe Staley. Joyner was kept away from the play by a tight end. On this particular play, only Barron showed any sort of aggression, but he was not strong enough to handle the pulling blocker at all. This play was a disaster and opened up a running lane that not even Trent Richardson could have botched.
Coverages and Pass Defense
Coverage does not get any simpler than this. Williams called for a basic Cover 2 zone with four down linemen being the only pass rushers. The cornerbacks have the flats areas, the linebackers have the middle of the field and the two deep safeties cover the back end. Coverage can not get an easier to execute, but the Rams players still messed it up.
On the far side of the field, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (who had a miserable night in coverage) carried up the field immediately without accounting for the possibility of a running back leaking out of the field. A running back did, in fact, leak out of the backfield into Sensabaugh’s vacated area, but the struggling cornerback was bailed out by an even more egregious error from the three defenders over the middle of the field.
Seeing as the slot receiver to the left is coming from Joyner’s side, it should be his responsibility to carry the receiver up the field. Instead, Joyner passes the receiver off, likely because he thought there was a centerfielding safety behind him instead of split coverage. Whatever the reasoning was, it was a critical error that would have been a big play if Blaine Gabbert were even a sort of competent quarterback.
No matter the coverage, the Rams pass rush was failing to get home. Donald was creeping closer and closer to the quarterback as the game went on, but he was ejected before he got his opportunity to finish a play. Fellow defensive tackle Dominique Easley also provided some nice pressure, but could not finish the job. The edge rushers, whoever they may have been on a given play, were not able to get around the edge and get to Gabbert. Even Pro Bowl caliber defensive end Robert Quinn had a rough night matched up against Joe Staley. The Rams ended the game with zero sacks despite their defensive line and pass rush being their most heralded area.
The Rams were bad on Monday night. The stress and instability of moving cities certainly played a part, but they were a bad team in every sense of the phrase. There is too much talent, especially young talent, on the Rams roster for them to be getting shutout 28-0 by a miserable 49ers team.
It’s tough to determine how much of this is reality and how much of this is the illusion of a team that is relocating. The coming weeks will spill the truths to all of us, but the Rams did not start the year off by displaying much reason to believe in them for this season. The Rams may have a very, very, very long season ahead of them.