It was a simple case of the the hungrier team prevailing as the Los Angeles Rams traveled to San Francisco and lost to the 49ers 24-9 in prime time on Monday night. S.F. exploited the Rams weakness hot spots by too often playing pitch-and-catch, continually breaking tackles and driving/falling forward with extra effort. Defensively, they relentlessly pursued the ball and crowded the line, daring L.A. to go over the top. The Rams didn’t, or couldn’t.
The game could be viewed optimistically, after all it was a one score game until late. Even though the 49ers played better and earned the win, a home rematch looms on October 30. A 2-2 record is not the end of the world, it’s a four way tie in the Western Division. Looking forward there are at least six toss up games on the schedule, a sense of urgency is needs to displayed by coaches and players alike.
For Rams fans, some re-occurring flashpoints continue to seek attention, before they erupt and burn down the season.
Opposing defenses are giving the Rams a dose of their own schematic medicine, playing deep shell coverages and forcing them into disciplined, long drives. Paired with the L.A. defenses aversion to give up the big play, the pressure is on the offense to be successful in higher percentage of drives because there will be less of them.
This shorter, controlled attack is the offense that Sean McVay wanted to leave behind. After 2020, McVay moved to attack the field vertically. He jettisoned his system quarterback for a downfield gunslinger, started moving away from his outside zone roots, and the offense firepower is no longer distributed into many hands. Cooper Kupp is, and will continue to be outstanding, but having one go-to guy is much too easy to prepare for.
The 49ers blitzed the Rams 14 times on passes.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) October 4, 2022
4 sacks, only 50 passing yards and 2 first downs.
They were honestly the first team to beat the Rams with the blitz since Stafford joined the Rams.
Defensive coordinators across the NFL will want to watch that tape
Offensive line/tight end
Seven sacks is a bad enough stat standing on its own, but when five burst through untouched or without enough impediment to force the rusher to break stride, that is borderline outrageous. Stunts, twists, and blitzes are not some new defensive fad, they been used extensively for 50+ years and the counter measures, rotations and passing off, have been standard just as long.
Yes, the 49ers have a stellar defensive plan and their upper-tier linebacker play allows their pass rushers to be very aggressive. Athleticism and get-off make them a really tough matchup without the poor reaction by the Rams offensive line. And yes, injuries have forced much shuffling, causing cohesion problems,
But the problems are not new. After losing two starters, the Rams spent very little capital in off season line investment, even for backup roles. I am no expert, but Bobby Evans was a seive Monday night. He was the culprit in most of the pressures and looked like he was gassed and struggling to move, even to lift his arm for the silent counts. It was evident when he couldn’t handle preseason duties against lesser competition, that considering him as a backup was a bad decision.
At tight end, can Tyler Higbee last? And when he goes down, what’s next? I like his game better than most, he can catch and run. A good fit for McVay’s offense. But he’s not a physical blocker and all the players behind him, whether on the roster, practice squad, or suspended list, are just lesser versions of his skillset.
Stafford obviously chafes when forced to take the underneath stuff, but until he proves that he’s willing to be patient and take it, defenses won’t be forced to adjust. His throwing into coverage is irksome, but that is part of the deal with a player like Stafford, high risk/high reward.
So far, his performance has been hot and cold. When he, and the team struggle, a couple things are glaring. He doesn’t seem to want to come off his main receiver, if receivers are covered he never seems to just throw it away, and under pressure, there seems very little awareness of the outlet receiver. Another thing I noticed in the 49er game was that he didn’t change a lot of plays at the line. The ‘Niners were making shifts and rotations and Stafford didn’t seem to make many adjustments.
If you're looking for some positives for Matt Stafford and the Rams offense, he is 4th in passing EPA excluding INTs and sacks. Way too may mistakes though, last in combined EP lost to mistakes pic.twitter.com/HMXprK9Osw— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) October 5, 2022
Nothing changed for the Rams, they played their bend-but-don’t-break defense with shell coverages and large cushions. The defensive line couldn’t apply much pressure and allowed the 49ers and quarterback Jimmy Garopollo to play to their strengths.
At his best, Garopollo is a game manager and rhythm thrower who likes to work the middle on short/mid slants, crosses, and turn-ins. His accuracy and efficiency drop when he is forced to throw outside and work through his reads. The Rams allowed him the former. The cushions, also made the bubble screens a weapon, letting an open-field playmaker like Deebo Samuel get the ball cleanly with a few yards to maneuver, is tough to neutralize.
It is hard to fault the defensive backs. Playing 8-10 yards off the ball without a strong pass rush leaves them vulnerable. Against San Francisco, it was the poor tackling poor angles that allowed Samuel a 57 yard touchdown and good offensive scheming to get Kyle Juszczyk wide-open down the sideline for 35 yards. Other than that, considering the cushions and lack of pass rush, the secondary played pretty solid. My only real complaint, other than the cushions is the safeties emphasis on peeking in at the quarterback. They are very susceptible to double move, whether hard or eye fakes, None of them have reaction or speed to make it up.
Zero sacks and one quarterback knockdown. That’s it versus the 49ers and Aaron Donald got both. Not much pass rush production is expected from Greg Gaines and A’shawn Robinson, they mostly have maintain and gap hold responsibilities to let Donald freelance, but Leonard Floyd, Justin Hollins, and Terrell Lewis are a different story.
For the first four games, the trio’s combined stat line is one sack, zero hurries, four QB knock downs, and six pressures. Floyd played most of last season injured, had off season ankle surgery, and has been in and out of training camp with minor ailments. Hollins is a nondescript edge with two previous NFL starts in his three previous years. Lewis has some potential and seems to have conquered his injury past, but has not yet put it all together on the field. The AD effect alone should account for more than they are delivering.
Can these potential fires be doused?
Some can and some can’t. Sean McVay is sharp enough to tweak the offensive schemes into success. He will have to stay in Matthew Stafford’s ear about distributing the ball around and taking the check downs. A run game HAS to be established. In the redzone vs. S.F., the Rams ran the ball on 3 of 13 plays and continuing to pass at a 66% clip (so far in 2022) does not bode well for success, particularly in light of the defenses they are facing.
How @NextGenStats expected rush yards vary by @PFF coverage type— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) September 23, 2022
• 2 deep safeties (Cover 2) gives up highest avg expected rush yards (5.10 per carry)
• 1 deep safety tends to yield handoffs with lower expectation (4.3 per carry), but higher variability (e.g, bigger risk) pic.twitter.com/D0UsVFzjqO
On defense, I’m not so sure what can be done considering the philosophy and approach. Overall it a been pretty good, but the basic problem is the same. Teams with better coaching and quarterback discipline are going to be successful against the Rams soft defense. Without strong pass rush, it is toothless. L.A. is already blitzing 31.3% of snaps, their highest rate in the McVay era.
The time to fix the holes at edge, tight end and on the offensive line was in the off season and training camp. The Rams braintrust decided to not put much, if any, effort into upgrades. The answer could be in castoffs, poaching the opposing practice squads, or one of Les Snead’s trades. Only the third option seems viable.
On the offensive line, any one on the roster would be better than Bobby Evans. Oday Aboushi is big, strong guy, Chandler Brewer had a solid preseason against backups, and Jeremiah should improve after being tossed in the frying pan.
At edge, Hollins and Lewis are basically splitting the snaps opposite Leonard Floyd. With the Rams showing more four down fronts, the addition to the pass rush game could come in the form of a defensive tackle. Maybe the return of Bobby Brown will infuse the pressure. Backups Marquise Copeland, Jonah Williams, and Michael Hoecht must not be the answer with 56 snaps amongst them and both Aaron Donald and Greg Gaines playing over 90% of snaps.
Tight end is the head scratcher. Higbee is solid, but has played with numerous injuries. He’s had knee, ankle, hand, elbow and chest problems. Kendall Blanton and Brycen Hopkins have both been around the Rams roster awhile, but save a couple of games last year, have been mediocre. More to the point, they are poor blockers. On the practice squad, it’s a couple development guys (Roger Carter and Jared Pinkney) who didn’t really impress in preseason action. Tight end, particularly blocking TE, is a place where a cost effective addition could be found.
These longstanding flashpoints have started to smolder, if not spark. Can the Rams keep it from becoming a blaze?