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Rams vs. 49ers preview: How Sean McVay should attack Shanahan’s Defense

Breaking down the 49ers tendencies

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers make final preparations to battle in the NFL Championship Game this Sunday at SoFi Stadium, record setting sales and controversy swirls around LA’s ticket selling policies.

But the game is played on the field and while time slowly ticks down to opening kickoff, it gives fans a chance to weigh in on how the Rams can win. In their two previous meetings this season, the Rams offense has averaged 272 yards, 213 passing and 59 running versus the 49ers. These numbers pale compared to LA’s season-long per game numbers of 372 total yards, 273 passing, and 99 rushing.

So how can the Rams improve their offensive showing, win the game and earn a trip to the Super Bowl?

Defensive line

The 49er defensive line reads the opposing backfield and reacts. If the QB shows the ball as if to hand off, they stop their penetration, hold their gaps and react to where the running back breaks. This group seems to stack up blockers and let the linebackers clean up ball carriers.

If the QB drops straight back, these guys come on like gangbusters. Pass rushing is their forte. San Francisco has 10 sacks in their two playoff games and 58 overall. Nick Bosa leads the unit with 18.

How to attack with the run: Pound them. The ‘Niners line is relatively small and built on quickness and athleticism. Mix the inside zone with some wham schemes and let the LA offensive line move vertically on more occasions. Aggressive, active defense’s have always been susceptible to reverses and misdirection.

How to attack with the pass: The simple answer is for the Rams offensive line to give Matthew Stafford enough time to throw the ball down the field where SF is vulnerable. But quick hitches, slants and bubble screens are obligatory means of slowing down a fierce pass rush. Traditional screens can be useful, as well.

Linebackers

In their base and nickel packages, the ‘Niners backers eyes are also on the QB, if it’s a run they charge up and fill in between the linemen. In essence, it becomes seven man front that creates a numerical advantage for SF. Just too many bodies and not enough blockers to create consistent holes.

If the opposing QB drops straight back, the LB’s do a good job of mirroring the drop and getting good depth into their zone area. Stay away from screen and drag passes off of play action, these guys are too active.

How to attack with the run: Get outside with quick pitches out of bunch sets, use quicker developing inside zone plays, and use the counter jet sweep off the outside zone. With so many players in the box, it makes the 49ers linebackers sift their way through traffic to fill, not allowing them to just charge into the gaps.

How to attack with the pass: Use play action to throw over the LB’s. Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair allow 80% of passes completed and a QB rating of 106.0. On straight drop backs work the soft middle, keep pressure on the edges with swing passes, and be willing to take the check downs.

Secondary

San Francisco plays a lot of one and two-deep zone without much pressing of opposing wide receivers. Quite similar to the Rams but more aggressive underneath. They like to give a one-deep look and and rotate into the two-deep just before the snap. The 49ers blitz out of the secondary quite a lot, cornerback K’Waun Williams is tied for the team lead 28 regular season blitzes and the defensive backfield chalked up 75 amongst them.

When the ‘Niners pass rush can’t get home, the secondary is open to big plays. According to Sharp Football Analysis, SF is 23rd in the league in defending explosive pass plays. There are not many interceptions, only nine over the season. Of the 49ers 99 missed tackles, over half come from the secondary.

How to attack with the run: Of course, it’s easier said than done, but get them one-on-one in space. The missed tackles speak for themselves.

How to attack with the pass: The Rams WR’s have a marked advantage and it all boils down to the pressure on Matthew Stafford. LA beat the 49ers corners deep twice in the last meeting but Staff underthrew them both culminating in interceptions. As with the Rams coverages, the soft zone makes SF prone to middle of the field thrusts, short hook patterns, and the area along the sideline between the up backs and deep safety.

Conclusions

The Rams and 49ers know each other well, they share similar schemes and match up very well. Don’t allow the aggressive ‘Niners defensive scheme to set the tone, punch right back at them.

Sledding will certainly be tough when running the football and navigating the ‘Niners pass rush. According to ESPN Analytics, SF has the 5th best pass rush win rate and the 3rd best run stop win rate. Who is the top team in these two categories? It’s the LA Rams, with a 53% pass rush win rate and 35% unstop win rate.

On the ground, go right at the 49ers with quick-hitting, vertical blocking as well the outside zone scheme, show some propensity to run outside, and mix in some misdirection. Stay with the run game, don’t become one-dimensional.

Through the air, throw the ball down the field. San Francisco is prone to giving up explosive plays, but do not force it, take the check downs when given. Get the ball to Odell Beckham, this is the stage that he lives for.

It will take four quarters of attacking on multiple fronts for the Rams to advance to the Super Bowl. But could it really be any better for Rams fans, playing your arch nemesis for all the marbles?