The Los Angeles Rams are starting Eric Weddle at safety in the 2022 playoffs and it’s hard to reconcile that as anything other than “this season is built different.”
The 37-year-old made headlines simply by being surprise signed to the practice squad on January 12th but the real shocker is that the story has shifted to how Eric Weddle is playing arguably better football today than he did during his stint with the Rams in 2019. It may just be that he is rested and because the defense isn’t asking him to do too much, he’s practically able to freelance towards the play that will help him do the most that he can.
Weddle went from an expected locker room presence and emergency option because of multiple injuries at safety to playing in 100-percent of the snaps in the NFC Championship and helping L.A. stifle the San Francisco 49ers in the second half in ways that they weren’t able to over the last three years.
Perhaps Raheem Morris is also being blessed by Weddle’s late stage career presence and the injuries that have forced the Rams to go to Plan E at the most critical point of any season. The focus of criticism throughout the season — most of it unfair if for no other reason than the fact that Los Angeles has had an insane amount of turnover on that side of the ball between 2020 and today — Morris orchestrated new tactics against the Niners.
The result was five forced punts, an interception, seven defensive drives that went for 40 yards or less, and the Rams were able to stop the 49ers in the second half en route to a comeback; San Francisco had just 28 yards in the fourth quarter.
As pointed out by Next Gen Stats, the L.A. Rams used a single-high safety on a season-high 63-percent of their defensive snaps and loaded the box to stop the run on a season-high 49-percent of the snaps.
The #Rams defense broke tendency in their NFC Championship win over the 49ers by showing more single-high safety looks, and loading the box to stop the run (i.e. box defenders > blockers):— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 1, 2022
63% Single-High (season-high)
49% Loaded Box (season-high)#SFvsLAR | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/oBbiqyZzps
As brilliantly noted by Derrick Klassen at FootballOutsiders, Morris put his players in the best position possible to shutdown the Niners run game.
Run fits can also be simplified when the defense is not playing outnumbered the way the Rams usually are, which meant linebacker Troy Reeder in particular was able to play downhill a tick faster than usual and get after all of San Francisco’s lead blockers. The added bodies in the box, the confidence to fit faster into a gap, and the Rams’ outside linebackers always being aligned to handle the “widest of the wide” meant the Rams were essentially able to funnel plays onto the shoulders of Aaron Donald and A’Shawn Robinson in the B- and C-gap areas. Morris deemed that the best approach against a 49ers offense that loves to attack the perimeter with stretch runs and the C-gap area with pulling plays, and he was right.
Klassen also notes that the Bengals won’t have the same offensive gameplan as the 49ers did, so Morris will probably not use this same strategy in the Super Bowl.
It is no secret that the approach against Cincinnati will have to look different. The Bengals are not as run-heavy as San Francisco to begin with and are far more willing to push the ball down the field. That said, it is still encouraging that Morris could so perfectly craft a game plan against one of the league’s well-designed offenses and get his players to execute at such a high level. Whatever schematic necessities the Super Bowl brings, last week’s win is a good sign that the Rams can figure it out.
The 49ers rushed for just 50 yards in the NFC Championship after averaging over 140 against the Rams in the regular season. Los Angeles has only given up 162 rushing yards in three playoff games and whether it is Cincinnati’s number one priority or not, stopping Joe Mixon will be something the Rams will want to do—and probably can do.