How 49ers Spoiled Rams' Hollywood Ending

San Francisco 49ers RB Eli Mitchell
San Francisco 49ers RB Eli Mitchell
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


16 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2022, 7:49pm

2 I agree

I agree that it should be.  Maybe the writer preferred covering two teams still alive, over two teams that are done.

8 I guess I can see that…

I guess I can see that reasoning, but I feel rendering them irrelevant is itself relevant. 

The Steelers would not be relevant if this had not happened, nor all the tie drama from last sunday night.

4 The DVOA advantage for the…

The DVOA advantage for the 49ers makes a ton of sense if you just look at the yardage numbers, 449 to 265 in the 49ers favor, and yards per play, 6.7 to 4.1. This game was close because of turnovers, penalties, and 3rd and long conversions by the Rams. The 49ers probably should have won that game by 10+ points. Same thing could be said about multiple games this year. When the 49ers play a clean game they are probably the best team in the NFL. They never play a clean game though. Their pass rush, offensive line, QB, receivers, and rushing defense are better than they were in 2019. There secondary, running game, and special teams are worse. I think they have 2011 Giants potential with a higher floor. They could easily get thrown out of the playoffs in round one via turnovers, DPIs, and broken coverage against Dallas. They could also go on a dominating run and win the SB. The Bengals are the dollar store version of the 49ers on the AFC side. A ton of teams have a chance this year and it is awesome.

5 I agree with pretty much all…

I agree with pretty much all that. The only NFC team I'm willing to write off for winning the Super Bowl is the Eagles. AFC I can't see PIT, LV, or CIN keeping it together for 4 games. I'll list the records against playoff teams (since I think I have them all) because those certainly color perceptions of teams even if they have been shown to have very little predictive value for playoff success. That being said I really think the top 6 NFC teams have legit shots at winning and 4 of the AFC teams could pull it off as well. So yeah there are 10 teams that I think could legit win it all and that should make for some good playoff games. Though the AFC bracket has a high chance of multiple bad match-ups. As long as PHI doesn't get the miracle win I don't think there are any bad NFC potential match-ups.

Part of the NFC advantage is because the AFC bracket is guaranteed to knock one of their best 3 teams in the first round. So chances of the crazy happening and the AFC getting a weaker team to the SB is higher that helps whatever team comes out of the NFC. Even if things go by seed or DVOA chalk, the NFC contenders all being in the 10.9 - 30.9 DVOA range means that even the top 3 AFC teams in the 17.5 - 27.7 range will have a tougher opponent than most of what they will face in the AFC side which makes it harder to win that last game for them. I'm also willing to grant a healthy TEN a DVOA in the 15-20% range if you want to argue that (but I'd claim healthy GB is in the 20-25 range too). But the worst of the NFC (outside PHI) is still a good, if not great, team by pretty much any metric you like. The AFC could send an average or poor team by just about any metric you like. They probably won't, but they could.

Eh I've got time I'll skim all the teams.

NFC (in seed order)
GB. I love my flawed Packers, they could lose to anyone (though it's hard to see the Eagles beating them). The advantage of the bye (only needing a 3 game vs a 4 game win streak) and the three Pro-Bowl and All-Pro caliber players they are getting back along with arguably their #2 WR (Cobb) after not having them for most of the season gives them a big enough boost to close the DVOA gaps with the other teams. Would not be surprised to see a team crush the run defense and take advantage of the bad special teams to knock them out. Would not be surprised to see the defense play closer to the week 6-10 version (i.e. like 8th in the league level) and Rodgers and friends do what they do. 5-1 vs the playoff teams.

TB. Is Tom Brady still playing? Yes? Then I'm never counting the team out. Do they still have the ability to pressure the opposing QB? Yes? One more reason I'm not counting them out. They aren't as good as they were last year, but I will never rule out a repeat. 4-1 vs the playoff field

DAL is a really good team that tends to beat itself not lose to the opponent, not always, but it does seem to feel that way. I don't think the refs have been as bad against them as some of the complaints but penalties do matter with this team regardless of legit or bad reffing. It shouldn't be hard for anyone to see how they could win it all. It also shouldn't be too hard for anyone to see how they could get knocked out. 3-4 vs the playoff field

LAR been solid most of the year have playmakers that can take over a game. But how much trust do you have in Stafford to not screw up over 3 games? They've won despite big Stafford mistakes though. So yeah can see them making the run can see Arizona kicking them out. 2-5 vs the playoff field.

ARI has not been playing great lately but I still remember how good they were earlier in the year and I can see that spark coming back, that team could beat anyone. 5-2 vs the playoff field

SF you covered my thoughts on SF. 4-4 vs the playoff field

PHI. Yes I'm ruling them out. It is football and crazy things happen, but 4 games in a row of crazy things for this team? No. 0-7 vs playoff field.

TEN, like GB, is getting a lot of value back from injuries thanks to the bye week. They have a bigger gap to close with the top competition but those reinforcements, and getting to avoid KC and BUF until at least the CG helps a lot. A healthy TEN can put together a 3 game streak especially if they only have to face 2 quality opponents (as mentioned I think anything that comes out of the NFC is a quality team). 4-3 vs playoff field.

KC. A modified version of the TB synopsis. Are Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill playing? Yes? Then I'm not counting them out. I don't buy into the "flip the switch" I didn't buy into last year either. But you don't need to in order to see that this is still a team that can go out and stomp anyone. It's also a team where the defense can't stop you and the offense can't get out of it's own way. They probably want NE to beat BUF so they get 2 easy games (PIT and the LV-CIN winner). But they could have the gimme PIT, then BUF, then the healthy Titans, then the NFC, so again it's easy to see a SB win, it's easy to see a slip up. 7-4 vs the playoff field.

BUF. I think the narrative is which Bills team are you going to get? Good Josh Allen can show up for 4 games. The big downside is their likely path to the SB is hard if they beat NE they are probably having to go to KC (I don't see KC losing to PIT), then through the now healthy TEN, then they have to beat whoever makes it out the NFC. 2-4 vs the playoff field.

CIN. I'm counting them out. As mentioned they are a weaker version of SF. The issue is mistakes are more likely to sink them and even PIT can beat them so the weaker AFC field doesn't help. Like PHI I don't see 4 games going their way, they have the potential, unlike PHI but I can't seem them doing it. 4-3 vs the playoff field

LV. I admit I haven't really seen them this year outside of KC pasting them in week 10 with all the off field crap and Carr being a good but not HoF trajectory QB it's a matter of needing some luck for 4 games and not facing enough opponents that will let that happen. 3-3 vs playoff field.

NE. Is Bill Belichick still coaching? Yes? Hard to count them out. Do they have a rookie QB? Yes? That makes it a lot tougher to win it all. So yes I can see them doing it. But it's not hard to see how they lose. 2-3 vs the playoff field.

PIT. Look zombie Big Ben is a great story, but what's left of this team, I can't see it. 2-5 vs playoff field.

6 I don't think CIN would be…

I don't think CIN would be an easy opponent for KC. CIN just beat them, and since its bye has been very good. Destroyed LV, PIT, BAL and beat DEN and obviously KC. They outgained SF in yards and yards per play but lost because of 2 muffed punts, and were in position to win against LAC before Mixon's fumble. I don't think this is the same CIN team that got humiliated by NYJ/CLE.

7 The main reason I can't see…

The main reason I can't see Cincy beating Kansas City is, well, it's the playoffs. You've got more games that you've never played before, you've got opponents scheming in ways they haven't before. In the KC/CIN game previously, Chase had an unheard-of performance: how do they adapt when what he did well is countered?

It's not that I don't think they can beat them, I just don't have a ton of faith in Taylor to be able to do it the first time.

9 SF

I've been on SF for weeks, and they are about the only thing that's kept my sportsbook account from falling off a cliff. I fear them much more than Ari or LA. I am confused about one thing, though. Why isn't Jimmy G and their passing game easier to defend? Everyone knows he never throws wide more than about 5 yards past the LOS. So why, in that pass to Jennings, do you see a defender wind up way on the left side, 20 yards past the LOS, with nobody around? Why not assign man coverage, and put the extra guys in the middle? Or assign a zone so that nobody has those areas unless a DB falls down and Aiyuk or someone is running free? You know where he's going to throw it so maybe have the defenders there? I know that the running game is very east-west, but downfield there is no reason not to cheat very heavily to the middle.

Maybe an article about this? Is it bad defending or game planning, or is Shanahan just that clever? 

10 Teams do try to do this: a…

In reply to by JS

Teams do try to do this: a lot of Jimmy's interceptions come when the defense drops defenders into middle underneath zones from different angles and Jimmy doesn't see them all or tries to force the ball into a non-existent window.

It's hard though because of the scheme.  The running game puts a ton of stress on linebackers to cover the whole width of the field, and a huge percentage of the passing game is based off play-action combined with attacking those linebackers.  Shanahan is a genius at using motion and formation to dictate the coverage matchups he wants, then using play-action to get the defender he wants to target out of position, then using timing routes to attack the space that defender has vacated before the defense can recover.  And if you keep the backers/safeties deeper to cover up all those zones, Shanahan is perfectly willing to run the ball 10 times in a row until you adjust.  

It also helps that in Samuel and Kittle the 49ers have two of the league's best playmakers who are matchup nightmares for everyone and can lineup anywhere in the formation.

15 Shanahan is an excellent…

In reply to by JS

Shanahan is an excellent schemer. He is also a scrapper unlike McVay who is  too conservative in big games and is more of a counterpuncher than a puncher when he plays SF. McVay also likes the big play which is counter to what I said about his conservative play calling but not if you look at his play calling in close contests. He plays it close to the vest when the game is tight. He takes more chances when he is ahead. 

This one-sided competition will continue until McVay opts to be the aggressor the entire game and kick the 9ers when they are down. He had his chance week 18 but let it slip away. His team's 16 missed tackles were also a contributing factor. 

11   9er and Ram  Missed Tackles .

Do you want to know how the 9ers beat the Rams? One of them was the Rams had 16 missed tackles to the 9ers 3. 

Second, in the 3rd quarter Shanahan relied upon his O-line instead of Jimmy's arm to get the 9ers back into the game.

Third, the Rams didn't stack the box after the 9ers successfully ran the ball in opening moments of the 3rd quarter. Ram pass D is one of the best in the NFL so not stacking the box left them open to the 4 yard gains on rushes. 

Fourth, since the Rams could not successfully run the ball the entire game, McVay should've passed the ball more for short gains to Kupp, Michel, OBJ, Higbee and Akers. Once the 9er D catches on, hit them where they are the weakest: deep. 

Fifth, 9er O & D lines fired off the ball more aggressively in the 2nd half than the Ram counterparts. The Rams were reacting instead dictating play as they had done in the first half. 

It wasn't about schemes how the 9ers won. It was not adapting to the situations presented to the Rams, bad fundamentals by the Rams, and Shanahan recognizing that Jimmy G can't play 4 quarters of good football. The latter should be no surprise to anyone.





13 Here is what Shanahan said…

Here is what Shanahan said about the running game:

We ran the ball really well versus the Rams and I think that was only because we threw the ball well. In both of those games, if we didn't have two of our best third down games throwing the ball, you would not have seen those type of runs. 

I think he did not trust Jimmy’s arm is something people make up out of nothing. 
And people also say Jimmy cannot throw a deep ball etc. I mean if you put two together 49ers only do running well and does not threaten more than 5 yards it would be very easy to defend them. It is not 

14 If you watched the 1st and…

If you watched the 1st and 2nd half or reviewed the play by play in both halves you will note that Jimmy G was one of the reasons they were losing the first half and he was of no consequence till the waning moments of regulation in the 2nd half. OT the 9ers ran it 5X and Jimmy passed it 2X.  The 9ers were within a TD through running the ball in the beginning of the 3rd quarter. On the next possession they tied the game by running the ball. Jimmy G was not a factor. He can't play consistently 4 quarters of good ball.

Shanahan drafted Lance because Jimmy is not in the circle of trust. He is injured too much and if he needs him to win the game on a regular basis he is not reliable. The 9ers have not won one game without leading in takeaways. Why? Because Jimmy G can't consistently lead them to the promise land. 


16 In OT they ran 7 times (one…

In OT they ran 7 times (one negated by penalty) for 19 net yards and passed 5 times for 50 net yards. You gotta stop cherry picking if you want your argument to have a value. And while at it be accurate.

I think Jimmy was one of the big reasons (with defense which allowed 10 points in two drives that took 14 minutes ) the 49ers were down by 17.

He was also one of the big reasons they scored 27 points the rest of the game. They guy threw 32 passes and sacked 3 times. 26 of them came after they were down by 17. 49ers ran for 31 times. 26 of them came after they were down by 17. They keep it balanced. It was not running that got them 27 points. It was converting eight 3rd downs, five of which were by JimmyG. And big plays such as passes of 19, 21, 26, 32, 34 and 43 yards. The longest run for 49ers was 16 yards.

I love Lance. Was at his first start at the Texans game and cheered for him. He will be a very good QB. But that does not mean Jimmy is not a good QB. The problem with Jimmy is injuries not his play.