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The NFC championship game will be decided in the trenches

The Rams OL was dominated by the 49ers in Week 18. Can they bounce back?

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Houston Texans Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

There may be no bigger take away from the Los Angeles Rams’ post-season performance so far than the debilitating effects of great defensive line play.

LA dominated Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals in the wildcard round, making them look silly under the Monday night primetime lights. In the week following the game the Cardinals were given as much credit for being dysfunctional as the Rams were given for their commanding defense. At the time it seemed fair to chalk up Arizona’s collapse to a lack of experience - it was the first playoff game for both Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

But then Los Angeles followed up that performance by completely frustrating the best quarterback to ever play in the NFL - jumping out to a 27-3 lead over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Similar to Murray, Brady made mistakes in the divisional round that you almost never saw from him during the regular season. He was bouncing passes off the grass and throwing at guys’ feet. Even when the Rams didn’t get pressure on Brady, the ball was still coming out quick - at times earlier than the receiver was expecting or before the play was able to develop.

And something that has gotten lost over the course of the week after the Bucs were able to mount a comeback attempt and give LA a scare: Von Miller sealed the game for the Rams by forcing a strip sack on Brady. Matthew Stafford and the offense had possession in Tampa Bay territory, but center Brian Allen prematurely snapped the ball for a turnover and a 30-yard field position flip. It was a fluke play at the most inconvenient time, because the Buccaneers’ hopes were all but dashed without it. The defense had already won them the game, but LA let it slip through their grasp.

Now the Rams are preparing for not only round three of the playoffs but round three versus their arch nemesis and NFC West foe in the San Francisco 49ers. Just as the previous two battles in LA’s playoff run, the NFC championship game will be decided in the trenches.

How do the Rams and 49ers matchup on both sides of the ball? Let’s dive into it:

Rams OL vs. 49ers DL

In the most recent battle between these two familiar foes, the Rams OL was absolutely dominated by an emerging 49ers defensive unit in both the run and pass games.

Los Angeles never got much going on the ground in Week 18, running the ball in total 27 times for 64 yards (2.4 average). 18 of these yards were earned by receiver Cooper Kupp on a jet sweep, which means LA’s running backs only accounted for 46 rushing yards and a 1.8 yards per carry average. It’s almost certain that the Rams will have more production from the rushing attack this time around, as it really can’t get much worse than what they had in Week 18.

As spectacular as Cam Akers has looked in the playoffs after returning from his Achilles injury, he was a non-factor during the regular season matchup. Can he give the offense a boost this time around? An adequate running game that can move the chains and take weight off of Stafford’s shoulders would certainly tilt the scales in LA’s favor.

The Rams OL will also be looking for redemption in terms of pass blocking, as Stafford was consistently under pressure and sacked 5 times - 2.5 times by Arik Armstead alone. Keep in mind Stafford injured is toe late in this game, which Sean McVay later cited as a reason they could not send the quarterback on designed rollouts or move the pocket as they normally would in such situations.

The result of a predictable drop passing game combined with a poor outing by the offensive line was an immense amount of pressure - Armstead, Samson Ebukam (former Ram), Nick Bosa, Arden Key, Kentavius Street, and DJ Jones all recorded at least three pressures individually, and Armstead led the defense with 8 of his own.

The bottom line is that this was one of the offensive line’s worst performances all season for Los Angeles, and they will almost certainly need to be better in order to give Stafford and the offense and fighting chance in this game. If the Rams can control the line of scrimmage and be productive in the running game, they should be in the driver’s seat on their way to the Super Bowl.

49ers OL vs. Rams DL

The elephant in the room for this matchup is the health and status of LT Trent Williams. While Williams and head coach Kyle Shanahan have indicated the left tackle will play, Williams has not yet practiced this week (through Thursday). If Williams is out, you can fully expect the Rams to move around their stars to take advantage - as they did versus Tristian Wirfs’ replacement, Josh Wells, a week ago.

But most likely it will not be that easy for Los Angeles, and the Rams defensive line will have their work cut out for them.

And that’s unfortunate for LA, because the 49ers are outstanding at preventing the Rams from doing what they do best - rushing the passer. San Francisco is one of the most run-committed teams in the NFL, and they are adept at running the ball in unique ways such as the inside toss plays that turned the tide in their favor during the last matchup. The 49ers rarely put Jimmy Garoppolo in third and long situations, which mitigates the ability of Miller, Donald, and Leonard Floyd to pin their ears back and force mistakes.

Garoppolo has been especially good on third and fourth downs in recent games versus the Rams, but he’s not good enough to convert these situations at a high level of frequency. In other words, sure, the 49ers have made the situational plays in previous matchups, but the more often they are forced into those situations the more likely it is to eventually work in the Rams’ favor. Over a larger sample size, the two teams will approach the true levels of their talent; on a fewer number of occasions the 49ers can hide their quarterback’s deficiencies and win on the fringes. This is where the Rams’ edge at quarterback with Stafford over Garoppolo will start to pay dividends, because Los Angeles is better in obvious passing situations.

It will be important to get San Francisco off schedule - and that starts by stopping runs in the backfield or for no gain. In order to do that, Los Angeles must win consistently along the defensive line.