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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in 49ers-Rams NFC Championship Game


Raise your hand if you had Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott all on the couch for the NFC Championship Game. At the end of the regular season, it would’ve been the longest of longshots that the NFC West would hog both sidelines of the conference title game with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. But here we are, with the NFC’s No. 4 and No. 6 seeds meeting at SoFi Stadium having pulled off three postseason upsets between them. The 49ers, especially, are the Cinderella at this weekend’s NFL ball. The only wild-card team still standing, San Francisco finished third in its own division, but arrives here as the blue-collar entry with a stingy defense and opportunistic special teams.


Here are four things to watch when the Rams play host to the 49ers:


  1. Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo: One of these things is not like the others. Garoppolo is plainly enough the least dynamic quarterback remaining, and the Rams will be in good shape if he has to match Stafford throw for throw in a high-scoring game. Among the quarterbacks still remaining in Super Bowl contention, Garoppolo is the clear underdog, and by extension, so too is his team. But having already vanquished Prescott and Rodgers in postseason play, Garoppolo (along with the defense that supports him) has proven that QB matchups alone aren’t reliably predictive. At this point, Garoppolo’s postseason run is fun theater even if his performances aren't full of thrilling playmaking. Between the thumb injury on his throwing hand, and the season-long presumption that he’s merely been placeholding for a 2022 takeover by first-round pick Trey Lance, the Jimmy G story is now just two games shy of fabled.
  2. Four is enough for Niners’ pass rush. Among the reasons the Rams are 0-2 against San Francisco this year is the Niners’ ability to get after quarterbacks without blitzing. They sacked Stafford seven times over two games while blitzing him on just 12.5% of his dropbacks. Stafford, who threw two interceptions in each contest, thrives against the blitz -- he burns extra pressure more than it burns him -- but with Nick Bosa leading the way with a relentless edge rush, the 49ers don’t need to send extra rushers. San Francisco led the NFL in pressure rate with four or fewer pass rushers (30.5%), per Next Gen Stats. Dropping seven men into coverage has worked just fine for the Niners, especially against Stafford, and that likely won’t change on Sunday.
  3. Postseason peak for Von Miller. After being acquired via trade, Miller went sackless over his first four games with the Rams. Since then, he’s been on fire in notching at least one sack in six consecutive games, with 10 QB hits over that stretch. His 10 pressures since the postseason began also lead all playoff pass rushers, and historically, he’s been a playoff force (8.5 sacks in nine postseason games). None of this bodes well for a San Francisco offensive line that has a star left tackle nursing an ankle injury in Trent Williams. Miller splits his snaps on both the left and right side, so he’ll likely see his share of reps against right tackle Tom Compton, as well.
  4. Zoning up Kupp? Niners DC Demeco Ryans, who’s been excellent in his first year as a coordinator, has directed what is primarily a zone scheme in the secondary – about 80 percent of the time on coverage snaps. He should stick with that, and then some. Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp has shredded man coverage this season, and the 49ers haven’t defended slot receivers, where Kupp sees most of his action, very well. Kupp has recorded an NFL-high 715 yards when targeted in man coverage, per Pro Football Focus. Rams quarterbacks (read: Stafford, who’s thrown 601 of 607 team attempts) have logged a 150.4 passer rating when throwing to Kupp against man. He’s all but uncoverable absent double-teaming, and 49ers man coverage has given up NFL-worsts in yards per attempt (9.1), TD-INT radio (15-0) and passer rating (137.2).

 

NFL Research: By a vast margin of 682 yards, 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel and Kupp have the most combined scrimmage yards (4,172) by opposing wide receivers in a head-to-head matchup in NFL playoff history. The next-highest pairing came in Super Bowl XLVI, where the Giants’ Victor Cruz and the Patriots’ Wes Welker combined for 3,490.

 

Next Gen Stat of the matchup: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has the most QB pressures of any interior rusher in the NFL (72), and ranks fifth in the league overall.


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