The Over/Under for this divisional clash between the 4-0 49ers and the 3-2 Rams is surprisingly elevated at 50.5 (up from an opening line of 48.5!), with what has been a tremendous 49ers defense, and with a few other elements that could lead to this game falling shy of a true shootout. (Note: not that the game can’t hit that mark of 50.5! But the chances of it turning into a barn-burner are somewhat slim. On the season, three of the 49ers’ four games have fallen below this mark; and while three of the Rams’ five games have topped this mark, two of those came against vertical passing attacks in the Buccaneers and Seahawks, with vertical passing opening opportunities for quick scores — something not nearly as central to the approach of the 49ers.)
Through the early stages of the season, the 49ers have been absolutely elite on defense through the air, with their vicious pass rush combining with a disciplined secondary to make life difficult on opponents (on the year, the 49ers are shaving almost 10% off the league-average aDOT and are also shaving almost 20% off the league-average catch rate — a nearly impossible combination, as defenses that force short throws typically do so in order to “give up short completions and tackle well after the catch,” leading to an above-average catch rate; while teams that invite downfield passing are the ones we typically expect to knock big chunks off the league-average catch rate). But while all of this was at least somewhat expected heading into the season, the bigger surprise is that the 49ers have also been elite on the ground, allowing under 4.0 yards per carry to enemy running backs, while allowing zero rushing touchdowns to date and allowing only 4.5 yard per reception to running backs.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have also been elite so far on the ground when they have the ball (ranking fifth in rush offense DVOA and first in yards per rush attempt) — though in looking at this game through the lens of “point-scoring expectations,” it is very much worth noting that San Francisco will be without offensive centerpiece Kyle Juszczyk (who is not only a valuable piece for the attention he can attract in the pass game, but is also a huge catalyst for this run game as the team’s lead blocker), and injuries also continue to pile up on the 49ers offensive line, as this team is now down to their number four and five offensive tackles. For a team whose offensive identity is built on the run, these are non-negligible losses. The Rams, meanwhile (who made a concerted effort in the offseason to get better against the run) come into this game ranking 15th in yards allowed per carry and ninth in DVOA — not a stay-away matchup by any means, but certainly not the pushover this unit was last year.
We’ll get to the Rams’ offense in a moment, but the best matchup in this game actually belongs to the 49ers passing attack. The Rams have been above-average against the pass as well, though this “above-average” mark has been nothing to scare away opposing passing attacks, with this squad shaving 3% off the league-average aDOT and 5% off the league-average catch rate. The Rams have been up and down vs pass catchers on the whole this year, but they have had the most trouble with “route runners” (Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin, etc.). From this standpoint, the player who stands out the most on the 49ers is Kittle — and when we go a layer deeper to the target distribution on the 49ers this year, we see Kittle stand out even more ::
>> Marquise Goodwin :: 3 // 3 // 2 // 4
>> Deebo Samuel :: 3 // 7 // 4 // 3
>> Dante Pettis :: 1 // 0 // 5 // 3
>> Kendrick Bourne :: 3 // 2 // 2 // 2
>> Richie James Jr. :: 2 // 4 // 2 // 0
>> George Kittle :: 10 // 3 // 8 // 8
There are whispers that Kittle may take on some of the fullback work while Juszczyk is out, and (as one of the best blocking tight ends in football) there is at least some chance he is called upon to help the 49ers shore up the edge against the Rams pass rush; but when it comes down to it, Kittle is just far too valuable to this offense to not be featured in the pass game — and especially if the Rams manage to put up the sort of points Vegas is expecting, Kittle should be instrumental in keeping the 49ers in the thick of this game.
On the Rams’ side of the ball, we’ll be keeping an eye on Brandin Cooks this week to see if he is cleared in time for this game, as his absence would have a significant impact on how the Rams attack in this spot. Last week — after playing 12 personnel on only 5% of their snaps through the first four games — the Rams went with this look on 36% of their snaps, with much of this action coming after Cooks left the field. If Cooks is out, we’ll get some Josh Reynolds; but there is a strong chance (especially against the 49ers pass rush) that it’s Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field for a large chunk of this game, and if that’s the case, there is a strong chance Everett (who ran 38 pass routes to 14 for Higbee last week) is heavily involved in the passing attack once again.
When the Rams do take to the air, they will have a tough matchup against a 49ers defense that has allowed only two completions this year on 18 passes that have traveled 20+ yards downfield against them (pairing these two completions with two interceptions) — and given that the Rams have been far more focused on the short areas of the field this year than they were the last couple years, it’s reasonable to expect them to lean that direction in this spot as well.
Production expectations on this team, then, should go Cooper Kupp // Gerald Everett // Robert Woods if Cooks misses (crossing routes — which is Woods’ specialty in this offense — have not been hitting against the 49ers; though Woods has seen his route tree expanded a bit in the Rams offense this year, and he could have his usage tailored a bit to fit the matchup). If Cooks plays, it becomes Kupp // Woods // Cooks (though after his game last week, Everett should not be discounted entirely, even with Cooks on the field). Reynolds will also be in the mix, though production from him is just hoping and praying.
On the ground, it’s tough to say what’s going wrong for the Rams, as this offense ranks eighth in adjusted line yards through the first five weeks of the year but has managed to get almost nothing done, ranking 22nd in yards per carry. The matchup “on paper” isn’t great, but the 49ers have played the Bengals (31st in DVOA on the ground), Steelers (26th), Bucs (20th), and Browns (15th) — and Ronald Jones (13-75) and Nick Chubb (16-87) were able to pick up yards in this spot. Although Todd Gurley has not carried his typically-high PFF grades this year, he did quietly play 65 out of 70 snaps last week(!) — on a short week. He’s currently questionable with a thigh issue, but if that gets cleared up, there is a chance that Gurley will truly be out there this week; and if he is truly out there, there remains the possibility for him to post a big game in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Kittle is a clear Tier 1 in this game, while everything else on the 49ers (running back rotation // wide receiver rotation // Jimmy Garoppolo) is just hoping to guess right.
On the Rams’ side: the price-rise for Kupp is a bit silly for a slot receiver with an aDOT of 7.4; but he is such a great route runner and is such a big part of this offense, he remains in play even in a difficult matchup.
Everett is squarely in play as well if Cooks misses — with risk of his usage suddenly dropping off the map and proving to have been a one-week blip, but with plenty of floor and ceiling if the usage instead remains in place.
Gurley also stands out to me as an interesting piece in this spot if he’s out there this week; perhaps not a lock-and-load option — but any running back in the high-middle tier of pricing who is seeing close to 100% of snaps is in the conversation, regardless of matchup; and if that usage holds (and if Gurley proves to be healthy), there is potential for him to contribute a really nice game in this spot.