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49ers vs. Rams NFC Championship Game Preview; A Win-Or-Go-Home Battle at Levi's South

By: Nathan Rogers



A confident 49ers team travels to SoCal to face their historical rival, the LA Rams, in the 2022 NFC Championship game on Sunday on Fox at 3:30pm PST.


The Niners and Rams have been enemies dating back to 1950 and provided the NFL with one of the most exhilarating divisional rivalries of all time in the NFC West during the 1970s (when the NFC West was formed). Although the Rams moved to St. Louis in '95, the rivalry still prevailed — barring geographical polarity. In more recent recollection, the Niners have dominated the last 6 meetings, winning them all by a score differential of +51. While a Hercules vs. Achilles allusion might be an appropriate comparison to the Niners and Rams' rivalry all time, this year's NFC Championship matchup will conclude what some people might say as the third chapter of theTrilogy of the Niners-Rams franchise.


The Rams have seen a massive roster turnover in the last several years. After finishing second to last in the NFC West and ranking dead last in offense production, the Rams drafted Jarred Goff 1st overall. Then Sean McVay got the ball rolling and took over as Head Coach, leading the new LA squad to 1st place in their division. Since then, the Rams have made it to the Super Bowl, the Divisional Round, signed the one of the best players in the whole league in Aaron Donald, traded Goff for Matthew Stafford, gave Jalen Ramsey a 5-year, $105M contract, and pulled in Odell Beckham Jr. via Free Agency, and are now in the NFC Championship facing their challenger from up North. They've also changed their logo, but let's not discuss that.


The Niners, on the other hand, have also seen a complete reversal in their roster and coaching staff over the past years. The Niners held last place in the NFC West for three consecutive years (2015-2017) going through almost four different coaches during that span. Jimmy Garoppolo packed his bags from New England and made his trip to the Bay Area in 2017. He quickly made an impact and won his first five starts in the Red and Gold. Shortly thereafter, John Lynch and Co. threw a zillion dollars at their new QB and signed him to a groundbreaking 5-year, $137.5M contract to stay in Santa Clara. Since then, they've made a run to the Super Bowl, finished last in the NFC West in 2020 due to being plagued with injuries, and are now in the NFC Championship game. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster for the 49ers on a recent year-to-year basis.


Both the Rams and Niners have made massive positive changes in the last several years and their coaches are pushing hard to prove a point, thus providing an interesting matchup to cap off a third meeting between Shanahan and McVay this season. The one thing, though, that drags these teams apart is that the Niners haven't changed their logo to something revolting. So, the Niners will probably come out of Sofi victorious tomorrow.



But, seriously, let's break down tomorrow's matchup.


Keys of the Game for the Niners:


1) Pressure, Pressure, Pressure

The pass rush has been a consequential part of success for the 49ers since John Lynch has taken authority in the front office. Although Javon Kinlaw has unfortunately been watching the games from the sideline due to injury this year, the Niners front office has found success in the drafting of Nick Bosa and D. J Jones, the picking up of Arden Key, and the locking up of Arik Armstead for 5 years.


In the last 2 meetings, the Niners have sacked Stafford 2+ times per game, and pressured him 48% of the time (h/t Akash Anavarathan- Niners Nation). Bosa, who has tallied 9 total pressures in the last two meetings with the Rams, led the D-Line to 13 total pressures last matchup. Stafford has a completion percentage of 50% and a 63.4 QB rating under pressure, ranking in the bottom half of the league. Even being double teamed, Bosa's ability to create pressure leaves holes in the opponent's O-Line for players like Arik Armstead. In week 18 against the Rams, he earned 2.5 sacks and 7 total pressures. Armstead has also racked in 6 sacks in the last 4 games. The Rams have allowed the 6th-highest sack percentage (4.88%).



Although Whitworth has a PFF blocking grade of 86.1, the guards in the O-Line have grades of around 68. If Demeco Ryans can scheme up some clever rushes and exploit the middle of the Rams' O-Line and create pressure on Stafford, they'll have a good chance of winning. Stafford has an average of about 2.4 seconds before facing pressure, he attempts the most 30+ and 40+ passing attempts in the league, and the Rams have never won this year when his QBR is below 100 (per NFL.com).


2) Run the Ball a Million Times


Running: Shanahan's bread and butter.

The 49ers rank 3rd in the NFL in Rush play percentage (48.75%), and top ten in rushes per game, rush yards per game, and rush TD's per game. Shanahan isn't shy of defying the odds when it comes to running the ball to his heart's desire. Consequently, the Rams allow the 5th-highest opponent yards per rush a game. The Niners need to take advantage of the availability of the running game, because the Rams' pass defense is elite. LA has not allowed a QBR above 100 since Week 10. I mean, just last week, they apparently retired Tom Brady.


Jimmy is the deciding factor on the Niners offense. Although the O-Line in front of Jimmy has been top notch in the regular season, they allowed 4 sacks and 7 QB hits against Green Bay. Jimmy has an above-average completion percentage under pressure, but has the 4th-highest INT percentage in the league when facing pressure. In addition, the Rams rank 3rd in the NFL for opponent interceptions thrown per game with 1.2, per Team Rankings. In order to limit turnovers and allow for the offense to produce 3rd-down conversions, Shanahan needs to use the run game to its fullest extent, especially with the uncertainty of Trent Williams' availability (although I think he is going to play).


3) All Eyes on Kupp


Demeco Ryans has done an exceptional job of locking down the other team's number one option at wide receiver. The 49ers defense held Devante Adams to 90 yards on 9 receptions, containing Amari Cooper to 64 yards, and kept Cooper Kupp to a modest 120 yards the last two meetings.


Kupp had the game-winning TD against the Bucs last week. The Niners secondary is banged up injury wise — holding Dak and Rodgers both under 100 QB rating and under 235 yards per game — but can they keep that up against the NFL's receiving yards leader?



Keys of the Game for the Rams:


1) Limit Jimmy G; take advantage of O-line

As I stated earlier, the Niners O-Line may face a Rams D-Line with the highest pass rush win rate in the NFL (53%) without Trent Williams. Last time Aaron Donald faced a team with the absence of one of their best offensive players, he dominated against the Bucs last week. Donald has had 1+ sack in the last 6 games, and paired with Leonard Floyd — who has earned 50 sacks (3rd in NFL) and the 13th most QB hits in the league — they will cause havoc up front for Jimmy.

In Week 18, Jimmy G had a passer rating of 50.3 and threw an interception when blitzed. The Rams haven't allowed a QBR above 100 since Week 10. Shanahan likes to scheme short, fast, and over the middle passes for Jimmy. The Rams should look to exploit a possible big loss up front for the Niners and get to Jimmy as fast as possible.



2) Shadow Deebo

Deebo Samuel, the most versatile player in the NFL right now (in my Bay Area opinion), is the biggest weapon Shanahan has on offense. He can line up in the backfield, the X, Y, or Z positions and even take snaps at QB and throw for touchdowns.


Although the Niners are No. 1 in the NFL in pre-snap motion, the Rams are also No. 1 in post-snap coverage shifts (h/t Akash Anavarathan - Twitter). They need to utilize Jalen Ramsey and shadow Deebo. Shanahan utilizes the blocking ability of both Kittle and Juszczyk to disguise Deebo's routes, so Rams should look to do their best to limit the production of Deebo, especially over the middle of the field (see below).


3) Turnovers

The Rams aren't inexperienced when it comes to taking the ball away on defense as they have forced the 10-highest number of turnovers, led by their 3rd-highest total of interceptions.


But, on the other hand, the Rams almost lost the game last week against the Bucs due to a lack of consistent ball security with Henderson as he had 4 turnovers. They've also ranked in the top ten in the NFL for average giveaways a game.


Not only do the Rams have to force turnovers from the defensive side of the ball, along with having ball security on offense, but LA needs to acknowledge the X Factor the Niners have coming off last week: Special teams.


The Niners had a blocked field goal and a game-changing blocked punt that ending up basically winning the game against Green Bay.

If the Rams want to win the game of possession, they need to limit the turnovers on all sides of the ball.



Conclusion


The Niners are underdogs but that doesn't merely bother Shanahan's team as much as people may think. The 49ers are 9-7 against the spread and Jimmy is 14-4 against the spread all time and 13-5 outright as an underdog, the best record in the Super Bowl era, per ESPN.


Shanahan has dominated McVay in his career and has beaten him 6 times in a row, 2 times already this season. Shanahan's going to run the ball until his running backs' legs fall off, Trent Williams will probably play and contain Aaron Donald along with the rest of the Rams pass rush, and Demeco Ryans knows how to pressure Stafford from the past couple of meetings.


Shanahan and Jimmy have a lot to prove during this game, and I expect them to make the Super Bowl and beat the Rams 31-28 in a stadium that is expected to have around 65% Niners fans attending.


As Kittle said in 2019 after losing in the Super Bowl, "I will be back here. And I will be back with vengeance". I think Shanahan and Co. will do everything they can to fulfill that promise.





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