Below the Surface: How the 49ers Roster is built to Beat the Rams
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If you listen to the pundits on daytime NFL talk shows, whether in podcast or picture form, you will find a majority of people talking about the San Francisco 49ers as underdogs for their upcoming NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday (6:40 EST). You would think that the 49ers defense hadn’t already stopped the high-powered Rams offense twice this season. You would think that the Rams hadn’t already thrown everything at them in week 18 and the 49ers hadn’t come back from a 17-3 deficit.
Sure, the Rams have the big names. Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Jalen Ramsey on defense. There’s Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham Jr. on offense. Big names for sure. Big signing and trades to get most of those names on their roster. That’s good for TV ratings, but even tinsel town isn’t that impressed, as the Rams’ “home” crowd will be mostly red and gold, cheering on California’s favorite franchise.
The 49ers have a roster primarily built on their draft picks. Sure, they traded for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and have pulled the trigger on some big trades, like Dee Ford. The 49ers didn’t draft any of their starting offensive linemen currently. So, it’s not a completely draft built roster, but they have been prudent in free agency. The 49ers front office has chosen to make more calculated signings rather than the big-name flashy signing.
These are two massively different approaches used to build teams running very similar systems. Rams’ head coach Sean McVay is a branch of the Kyle Shanahan tree, and although their offenses look a bit different, with McVay running a lot of three wide sets while Shanahan leans on heavier sets, their pedigree leads to the same places. So why am I so positive the 49ers return to Los Angeles in two weeks to face the winner of the Cincinnati Bengals vs Kansas City Chiefs AFC Championship game?
So, look, this defense hasn’t played historically good like the 2019 squad, but with first year defensive coordinator calling the shots, this team has dominated some of the top offenses in the league. It shut down the Rams, Dallas Cowboys, Bengals, and Green Bay Packers offensive attacks. If you have watched the playoffs at all, you have seen the 49ers defense rush four players, or sometimes a fifth on a blitz, and get to the QB. Defensive tackle Arik Armstead is tied for the lead in playoff sacks with three. Defensive end Nick Bosa is in third, a half sack back. DE Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu are tied with four other players for sixth with 1.5 sacks a piece. That’s four defensive linemen in the top ten rankings for post season sacks. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is in second place in tackles.
With only having to rush four, Ryans has been able to drop his talented linebacker group into coverage to help mitigate any secondary deficiencies. In all reality though, the secondary has played well. Outside of the 75-yard pass play to Aaron Jones against the Packers, the secondary hasn’t given up any big plays. The pass interference issue has seemed to have been fixed.
This defense is playing better than any other teams defense in the championships. They are hard hitters, they play the roles they have been asked to fill, and just physically dominate you. Defensive linemen who haven’t made a mark in the playoffs like Arden Key could step up this week to provide a couple of sacks. DT DJ Jones is always good for a big play.
With top five players at their position in each level of defense (Armstead, DT; Bosa, DE; Fred Warner, LB; Jimmie Ward, safety), this defense can shut down anyone’s attack. Which is good, because if the other three teams still at the dance each have high powered offenses.
Speaking about high powered offenses…
Did you know that 49ers rookie RB Elijah Mitchell is leading the league in post season rushing yards (149)? Buffalo Bills QB is second with 134-yards. Guess who’s third. 49ers Wide-Back Deebo Samuel. That’s right, the 49ers have the top TWO rushers still playing in the playoffs. No offense to Joe Mixon over in Ohio, but the 49ers’ rushing attack is just as scary as its defense. Whether its first and ten or third and seven, the 49ers’ rushing attack is liable to gain a first down, and then some. Mitchell has proven to be a real steal as a sixth-round draft pick, but it has been the emergence of Samuel’s running game that has made the difference for the offense this season.
It wasn’t like Samuel wasn’t lighting it up as the 49ers top receiving option early in the season. With WR Brandon Aiyuk seeing limited routes and targets, Samuel was basically the teams passing attack. In fact, he had the best eight games a receiver has ever had in San Francisco, surpassing legend Jerry Rice’s 1985 season. All he did after that is become the only WR in league history to lead his team in rushing TDs, rush for a TD in five straight games, and still led the league in yards per reception with over 18-yards per catch. Adding six or seven runs to Samuel’s touch count allowed the 49ers other receivers, primarily Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings to step up and have big games.
Against the Rams in that week 18 game, Aiyuk, Samuel, and Jennings became the first trio of 49ers receivers to top 90-yards in the same game. Somehow, we’ve made it this far talking about the 49ers offense without mentioning all world George Kittle. He hasn’t drawn as many targets as he used to, but this is a good thing. This means that the other options are improving. Kittle had the bad drop against the Packers. A drop that probably cost the team a TD. Then he had his one-per-game monster one handed grab on the sideline that fans have become so accustomed to.
Orchestrating this whole attack is the most polarizing man in the bay, the QB who goes by the Garoppolo. Although he has recently, with a thumb with a torn ligament in his throwing hand and a sprained throwing shoulder, Garoppolo didn’t look good. He looked sharp early against the Cowboys, but after the shoulder injury he had trouble creating the velocity he needed on multiple throws. But he also helped run a game winning drive. He wasn’t sharp against the Packers, but neither was Rodgers. If you take away the 75-yard pass play to Jones, Rodgers didn’t really play better than Garoppolo.
On the season, Jimmy G rated out as a top ten QB, even if it didn’t feel like it. On fifteen games played he recorded the twelfth most passing yards, the sixth best completion percentage, tied for sixteenth in passing TDs, ninth in rating, second in yards per attempt, and threw less interceptions than Patrick Mahomes. The only real complaint about Garoppolo throughout the season was if he could put together a full game. In this late season push, his probable last in San Francisco, Garoppolo has shown he is this team’s leader, and he plans on leading them to the Super Bowl.
If this offense wants to run on all cylinders though, everyone better be praying that left tackle Trent Williams is able to play.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan hasn’t been talked about in the post-season awards conversation, but how can a coach who took a 3-5 team to within one game of the Super Bowl. Shanahan’s brilliance hasn’t been his ability to identify and nurture young coaches to their potential. DC Ryans deserves just as much credit to the 49ers late season success as his head coach. Some might say he deserves more. Its not just Ryans though. Shanahan has surrounded himself with a good mixture of young former players (Ryans and WR Wes Welker), and respected veteran coaches (ST Richard Hightower, OL Chris Foerster, DL Kris Kocurek, LB John Holland), with his own disciples (OC Mike McDaniel), sprinkled in.
The 49ers are a successful team because they dominate in all realms of the game. They are able to get starter level performances out of reserves other teams have given up on. They’ve built this roster by hitting on mid round picks while taking early round picks like OG Laken Tomlinson teams had decided to give up on. These are hallmarks of well coached teams.
Shanahan coaches like his life depends on it. He second guesses his own choices looking for holes in the football logic. He calls plays in the first quarter so he can play complimentary plays in the fourth quarter. He trusts his players. When Samuel told his coach to just give him the ball after CB K’Waun Williams’ INT against the Dallas Cowboys, Shanahan did just that. Samuel rewarded the trust with a 26-yard TD run. Shanahan has stated that his trust of Garoppolo has been unwavering this season. Believing that Garoppolo would be able to help turn the team around and make a Super Bowl run.
Football experts laughed when a fire Shanahan crowd rose up early in the season, mainly because everyone knows, Shanahan is one of the best head coaches in the league. You can see it how his players fight for each other. Shanahan provides the full package, with the ability to identify talent at the assistant coach level, call brilliant offensive attacks, and manage in game situations effectively.
Nothing against the Rams coaching staff or roster of super stars, it just looks to me like the 49ers coaching staff and its roster of super stars looks a lot better.
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