January 27, 2022

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How 49ers Spoiled Rams’ Hollywood Ending

5 min read
How 49ers Spoiled Rams' Hollywood Ending

NFL Week 18 – When the San Francisco 49ers fell behind the Los Angeles Rams 17-0, I got pessimistic. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had just thrown an interception under pressure, and being down 17 seemed like a hole too big for the Niners to pull themselves out of.

Then something odd happened. Kyle Shanahan looked at his playbook, and called lead zone toss.


… and over…

… and over again. The Niners roared back from 17 down on the legs of Elijah Mitchell, Deebo Samuel, and a ferocious pass rush, and they enter the playoffs riding a massive wave of momentum. How did they get there? Well, the Niners did what they do best: run the ball and create misdirection.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has a diverse run game that throws a lot at the eyes of second-level defenders. Jet and orbit motion takes linebackers’ and safeties’ eyes away from the tackle box, and the Niners punish teams for being too overaggressive or not aggressive enough. This seems to always work against the Rams for a huge reason: the Niners force the Rams defensive backs to tackle. The Rams’ entire defensive philosophy is playing light tackle boxes, leaving gaps open for safeties to come down and fill. The downside of that is you’re pulling smaller guys into the box to take on linemen or running backs. The Rams tell teams to be patient running the ball and the Niners happily agree, while also putting the Rams’ second-level defenders in the Phantom Zone.

In the passing game, the Niners did a great job of playing to Garoppolo and their receiving weapons’ strengths. Garoppolo is better at throwing over the middle of the field, and the Niners top receiving weapons are amazing after the catch. Shanahan ties all of this together by horizontally stretching the defense and pulling defenders away from the middle of the field. That was evident on the touchdown to Jauan Jennings late in the game. The Niners run Deebo Samuel in orbit motion to the strong side of the field, which pulls two defenders into the flat—basic coverage bust. Brandon Aiyuk runs a deep curl and Jennings runs an in-breaker in the vacant part of the field behind him. Easy touchdown by drawing the eyes away from the action.

Where this game really took off, however, was on the defensive side of the ball. To simply put it, the Niners’ defensive line took over, and Matthew Stafford doomed the Rams with costly turnovers. The first of those was a head-scratching interception against Cover-3. Rams wide receiver Ben Skowronek runs a corner from the slot, but the Niners have it covered. Stafford tries to fit this ball in and it gets intercepted in double coverage. The worst part is that it’s first-and-10, and there’s a checkdown available. Stafford didn’t need to try and make this play, but he forced the issue and got picked off.

The Niners defensive line came alive in the second half, consistently getting pressure from the interior. D.J. Jones (93) and Arik Armstead (91) made massive plays against the run and the pass, consistently taking advantage of the weaker part of the Rams offensive line.

The 49ers defense made big plays throughout the second half, helping the Niners clinch their playoff spot.

Where The Game Swung


Qtr Down Distance Position Time Description GWC
OT 1 10 LAR 38 2:00 M.Stafford pass deep right INTERCEPTED by A.Thomas at SF 20. Tackled by at SF 20. +46.5%
OT 3 6 SF 42 7:30 J.Garoppolo pass short right complete to SF 45. Catch made by J.Jennings at SF 45. Gain of 34 yards. Tackled by T.Howard; D.Williams at LAR 24. +19.8%
4 2 14 LAR 22 7:55 J.Garoppolo pass short middle INTERCEPTED by J.Ramsey at LAR End Zone. Tackled by G.Kittle at LAR 8. -18.3%
4 2 5 SF 38 0:54 J.Garoppolo pass deep right complete to LAR 37. Catch made by D.Samuel at LA 37. Gain of 43 yards. Tackled by J.Ramsey at LAR 19. +15.3%

The game-ending interception by Stafford was another confusing one, as well as a great play by defensive back Ambry Thomas. It also hammers home how small the margins for victory are for the Rams with Stafford at quarterback. He gives you the big plays, but he can also take away. The Niners are built on yards after the catch, and two plays here are large examples of that, both Jennings and Samuel taking short passes and turning them into huge gains.

By the DVOA

LAR 0.4% 5.4% 12.8% 7.8%
SF 33.7% -24.2% -0.9% 57.0%
LAR -9.6% 18.2% 12.8% -15.0%
SF 23.4% -12.8% -0.9% 35.3%

Going by the DVOA, this was a much larger victory than the score indicates. The Niners put together one of their best offensive performances of the season. For the Rams, the numbers indicate that this is a fluke, but I see a more concerning trend, especially with Stafford.

Hollywood Endings?

These teams enter the playoffs feeling two completely different moods. The Niners go into the postseason as one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC because they have a formula that can catch a team on a bad day: they can win up front with their pass rush, and they know how to get their best players the ball. Deebo Samuel has had a career year as a running back and as a wide receiver, and some of the Niners’ most explosive run plays have come with him carrying the ball. In addition, they have George Kittle, who is a matchup problem for any passing game. Shanahan gets them into these favorable positions by moving the linebackers out of the middle of the field. The Niners offense is based on misdirection and fooling linebackers, so if they catch an overly aggressive defense (cough-cough, Dallas) at the wrong time, they could be in trouble. Oh yeah, and they get Trent Williams back for the playoffs.

Flipping it riverside, the Niners can get after every team in the league with their pass rush. Nick Bosa deservedly gets the most attention, but Arden Key, Jones, and Armstead all have played well this season and can take advantage of one-on-one matchups. This team is scary going into the playoffs.

For the Rams, I am a bit concerned. Their run defense is going to be a serious issue if they continue to play these light boxes. They need defensive tackle Greg Gaines to play better in that department, as well as linebacker Troy Reeder. That will take a lot of pressure off of the defensive backs to come up and make tackles near the line of scrimmage.

However, this team will go as far as Matthew Stafford goes. Sometimes he’s lighting up the scoreboard, and sometimes he’s throwing boneheaded interceptions … sometimes in the same game! Stafford cannot continue to make those bad decisions in the playoffs, because the margins for error get a whole lot smaller in the postseason, and a turnover is the difference between a win and a loss.

The Rams will open the playoffs against the Cardinals, who are fourth in the NFL in turnover margin. If Stafford can’t take care of the ball, the Rams’ Hollywood season will burst into flames.