Opening a season on the road is never easy. The 49ers stuck it out to beat the Rams in Santa Clara at the end of last season, making a return to Levi Stadium that much more meaningful for the Rams. As abysmal as the 49ers may be this season, the Rams have problems of their own and a few mishaps could spell trouble.
~ Special thanks to Jerod Brown for giving perspective on the 49ers for this preview ~
Rams Offense vs 49ers Defense
The Rams struggled to sustain an offensive attack in last year’s Week 17 battle. Tavon Austin made a few plays early on, but the offense tapered off and became stagnant, allowing the 49ers to inch closer and closer to victory. That being said, the Rams were without star running back Todd Gurley, who had been averaging nearly 100 yards and a touchdown in his twelve starts prior to the 49ers game.
The Running Game
Without question, Gurley will carry the offense against the 49ers (and for the rest of the season). The Rams have a few ways they could go in terms of Gurley’s usage in the run game. For the most part, the Rams employ a zone running scheme, but man and gap concepts are sprinkled in as necessary. Outside zone plays could be lethal versus the 49ers.
The 49ers defense has problems tackling in space and out near the perimeter. Granted, their defensive line should be a bit improved as Arik Armstead heads into his second season and rookie DeForrest Buckner adds a more explosive presence upfront, but that does not save the 49ers defense as a whole. San Francisco's cornerbacks are not going to cause problems for the Rams in run defense, meaning it is on the Rams interior offensive line to keep the 49ers defensive line pinned inside just long enough for Gurley to burst up the field. On outside zone plays, it will be on guards Jamon Brown and Cody Wichmann to not allow the 49ers interior linemen to force Gurley out too wide.
Considering the youth and lack of strength that the 49ers have in their front seven, the Rams may be better off rolling with more power concepts. It worked out for them when they faced the 49ers last season and there is no reason to believe it can’t work again.
Power out of the shotgun is a perfect concept for Gurley. He has the flexibility to adjust to tight angles when running out of the shotgun, while also being strong and fast enough to fly down hill behind the pulling guard.
Center Tim Barnes is a power running fiend. If there is anything Barnes is good at, it is blocking down hill and using his strength. Barnes should fare well versus the Niners front again this upcoming week. It is the two players to Barnes’ left and right that are worth questioning. Wichmann and Brown are listed as the starting guards, making them the focal points of this play.
If power is going to the right, the right guard is responsible for pinning the defensive tackle lined up over him back to the inside of the formation, which Brown did on the play above, while the left guard pulls around him. If power is going left, the opposite is true and the left guard must pin his defensive tackle inside, while the right guard pulls behind him. Wichmann and Brown can both operate in space, so asking them to find their man as the pulling guard should not be concerning. Rather, figuring out whether or not those two can consistently use their strength to pin players inside will be key to the Rams rushing success. The Rams should run power a few times early on and see if they can get something going.
On top of exposing the 49ers interior, power running would keep the Rams from running at outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. Though Lynch is known for being a speed rushy, he is deceptively dangerous as a run defender out on the edge. Lynch attacks linemen and set himself up to force plays back inside. He’s no slouch as a tackler, either, often using his long arms to corral ball carriers and, at the very least, slow them down. If the Rams want to run to the perimeter, Lynch will need to be taken care of. Keep an eye on Rodger Saffold to have his hands full with Lynch. That matchup will be critical to how well the Rams can run to the outside.
(Edit: Aaron Lynch is suspended for this game and the three following games, so he won’t actually be a problem this week.)
Play Action Passing
Gurley can and will also be used as a decoy for the passing game. With as lethal as Gurley can be as a runner, the fear of him carrying the ball can be used to the Rams advantage. The Rams were able to trick the 49ers with simple play action last year even without Gurley.
On this play, the Rams paired a quick screen with a run fake that looked like a ‘wham’ concept. ‘Wham’ can be run out of any blocking scheme, but the backside blocker being a player coming across from one side of the formation to the other is the core of the play. That then allows the backside lineman, the left tackle in this case, to block down hill, theoretically creating a cut back lane between the ‘wham’ blocker and the backside lineman. It is a concept that marries power with versatility- a great fit for Gurley.
Now, what makes ‘wham’ an interesting concept for a run fake on a quick screen is that it sucks in the edge defender on that side. When outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks sees tight end Lance Kendricks working back to block the back side, he quickly assume that it’s going to be a running play and that he has to close the cut back lane. With Brooks sucked inside, the Rams get a three-on-two (ball carrier included) situation on the outside, allowing the receiver to pick up a solid chunk of yards and move the chains.
The Rams have play action boots in their disposal, too. With Gurley back in the lineup to divert defenses from the passing game and rookie tight end Tyler Higbee providing an athletic pass catching presence over the middle, the Rams could have a deadly boot-action passing formula on their hands.
The route combo to the right side of the field is critical here. Wide receiver Bradley Marquez running up the sideline on a wheel route forces the outside linebacker dropping back in coverage to widen out in order to close the passing window. In doing so, the linebacker leaves a lot for room for the tight end crossing the field to work with between the right hash and the right numbers.
Similarly, Kendricks crossing the formation behind the line of scrimmage and leaking out to the flats does its part in sucking in the linebacker, leaving plenty of space to throw over the top of him. Quarterback Case Keenum then just has to complete the one-on-one throw, which he does on the play above.
With Keenum at quarterback and the absence of a true No.1 wide receiver, the Rams will have to rely on running the ball and executing on play action, as well as operate out of a lot of two tight ends sets with Kendricks and Higbee. The 49ers defensive back group is atrocious, so it is possible that we see Austin or Kenny Britt slip by them once or twice for a deep reception, and we will likely see more successful intermediate passing to the boundary than we will for the rest of the season, but that should not be something the Rams count on for this game or at any point this season.
Rams Defense vs 49ers Offense
In Week 17’s game last year, the Rams ran a lot of man coverage versus the 49ers. Considering how much pressure they were able to generate with four or five rushers, it made sense to play a more aggressive style of coverage throughout the game. The problem, though, is that man coverage leaves the Rams exposed against hiding wide receivers in stacked sets.
Right before the snap, San Francisco motions the outside receiver, Anquan Boldin, to be the middle man in a trips set, rewiring who covers who for the Rams defense. Instead of Boldin being the outside receiver and Trumaine Johnson’s responsibility, Quinton Patton becomes the outside receiver and, in turn, Johnson’s man. Patton releases and cuts inside of the inner most player in the trips set, Blake Bell. Doing so gives Patton about eight yards between himself and a trailing Johnson, making for an easy pitch-and-catch for Blaine Gabbert and Quinton Patton.
Johnson is normally quite reliable, though, and the Rams defensive failure on the play above is more a product of great offensive play design than Johnson’s shortcomings. The real concern is with the rest of the Rams cornerbacks. With E.J. Gaines not fully readjusted to the game, it is likely that the Rams roll with some mixture of Lamarcus Joyner and Coty Sensabaugh as the second cornerback. Considering neither of them looked good in the preseason, expect the 49ers to try picking on them early and often.
Thankfully, the cornerbacks should have plenty of help. The 49ers offensive line is still a major question mark, giving the Rams defensive line to tee off on them. Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Dominique Easley make for a terrorizing trio of defensive tackles that the 49ers will have to deal with. At any time, the Rams will have two of them on the field at once (maybe even three, as Easley can play defensive end) and will give the 49ers no chance to breathe.
Due to the ferocity of the interior defensive line and defensive end Robert Quinn’s prowess on the edge, the Rams should have no problem generating consistent pressure with four rushers. Rushing just four defenders then allows the Rams to drop seven players into coverage and close off Gabbert’s passing lanes. Gabbert will have to deal with immediate pressure and heavy traffic in coverage. That is a disastrous recipe for any quarterback, let alone one as skittish as Gabbert.
Being Aggressive Against the Run
Largely due in part to former Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis, the Rams defense lacked the aggression from their middle linebacker that they needed.
The Rams front seven needs to function like the Carolina Panthers’ front does. The Panthers have a nasty defensive tackle duo that allows their linebackers to sprint at plays as soon as they see them, instead of having to wait for the play to develop for a moment.
The Rams are built the same way. Some combination of Brockers, Donald and Easley will disrupt every run play and force running backs to scramble. When runners have to scramble, the only thing that ever saves them is when a linebacker is waiting on the play to come to him instead of the linebacker attacking the play. The Rams linebackers need to attack the line of scrimmage.
Mark Barron will have no issue attacking the line of scrimmage. Barron is a headhunter. Even when he was forced into an unfamiliar role last year, he proved that he could play fast and hit hard. The question mark is Alec Ogletree, who missed most of last season.
Ogltetree can be aggressive, but he has moments of uncertainty and gets his feet stuck in the mud. Granted, he did it far less often than Laurinaitis did, but it was still a problem. In 2016, he will need to be more aggressive and decisive because he has a defensive line that is fully enabling him to do so. The season opener versus the 49ers will be Ogletree’s first game back and he will have the opportunity to prove that he can be an attacking leader for the defense.
This will almost certainly be a low scoring game. The 49ers have a miserable offense being lead by Blaine Gabbert, who stands little to no chance versus the Rams bevy of pass rushers. For the same reason Gabbert will struggle, the 49ers running game will struggle to get going. Carlos Hyde is a fine running back, but the 49ers offensive line is going to get beat down by the Rams front. The 49ers best chance at success is hoping that Torrey Smith can get behind the Rams’ safeties- which is quite plausible- but even if he does, counting on Gabbert to complete a deep throw is a last resort.
On the flip side, the Rams should have enough offensive firepower to outscore the 49ers. Gurley is arguably the best running back in the league and, against a shaky 49ers defensive line, the offensive line has to be merely serviceable in order for Gurley to have a good game. Keenum will likely open the game with a handful of screen throws, which is a great move considering how poorly the Rams defended Austin last season. Beyond that, Keenum needs to simply protect the ball, a task he should be able to handle given San Francisco’s lack of playmakers at cornerback.
Even if the Rams win, it’s going to be an ugly game, folks.