Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

This season’s NFC Championship Game will take place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California as the Los Angeles Rams will face the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what you should know:

INGLEWOOD, CA – DECEMBER 05: Los Angeles Rams Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald (99) and Los Angeles Rams Linebacker Von Miller (40) look on during the NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Los Angeles Rams on December 5, 2021, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

RAMS’ DEFENSE IS GIFTED AND OVERLOOKED

Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit between 2017-19 was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who kept the system in place. That led to him getting the Los Angeles Chargers’ coaching job and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris now runs this side of the ball.

Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, run-stuffer A’Shawn Robinson, former Bear Leonard Floyd and seven-time All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. Nevertheless, the team finished the 2021 regular season third in interceptions and sacks and sixth against the run – however they were just 15th in points surrendered and 22nd against the pass.

Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last three years out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes got burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Darious Williams. Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller are normally the team’s primary safeties, but with both nursing injuries head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead coaxed five-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle out of a two-year retirement to rejoin the team he suited up for in 2019.

This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and Miller into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Morris mix it up more against San Francisco?

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 17: Cooper Kupp #10 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO

Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t field a good offense again for a long time. That changed when McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.

Prior to being hired by the Rams McVay spent 2010-13 working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.

The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside-zone running plays while leaving backside lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches and countless tailbacks have had success in it – from Todd Gurley years ago to a combination currently made up of Darrell Henderson, Sony Michel and Cam Akers. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, David Edwards, Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).

One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.

Passing-wise the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages and will align wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.

Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.

Due to inconsistencies in his game former first overall draft pick Jared Goff was shipped to the Detroit Lions last winter in exchange for ex-Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford, who remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous passers. Possessing one of pro football’s strongest arms, in recent years he has also developed a mind and accuracy to match. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made – he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover Two…. His bold throws are now also good decisions.”

The weapons that Stafford has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson, Robert Woods (out for the season with a knee injury) and tight end Tyler Higbee. Woods is a solid possession receiver and Jefferson brings speed to the table. Beckham isn’t as explosive as he once was but is still an effective route runner, gets yards after the catch and remains a red zone threat. Higbee has been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).

Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet and elite separation skills at the top of his pass patterns help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 15: Deebo Samuel #19 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo #10 after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium on November 15, 2021 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

49ERS’ OFFENSE A DISTANT COUSIN OF L.A.’S

As mentioned previously, the relationship between 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and McVay goes back a long way. Their time together in Washington was very influential on their offensive beliefs, thus it’s no surprise that both of their offenses are extremely similar.

Like McVay (and his father before him), Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.

The 49ers’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most agile left tackles who excels on screens), Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack, Daniel Brunskill, Tom Compton (filling in for the injured Mike McGlinchey) and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

There are, however, some differences between the two coaches. While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power plays, traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. These are usually carried out by veterans Raheem Mostert (who is out for the season with a knee injury), Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).

The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while also taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creating more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”

Handing the ball off to them has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. When he’s been on the field Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, solid arm strength and good mobility. Yet he’s rarely healthy or consistent, prompting Shanahan to draft strong-armed rookie Trey Lance from North Dakota State in the spring.

San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Two-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Samuel has also emerged as a dangerous ballcarrier on reverses and end-arounds and will sometimes line up at running back.

Like McVay, Shanahan will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them extra room to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.

San Francisco has had solid production in 2021, finishing the season 12th in passing and seventh in rushing.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 21: Fred Warner #54 and Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on November 21, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDANT OF SEATTLE’S

When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley was one of the original architects (along with Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield), which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.

Saleh has since become the head coach of the New York Jets and his replacement is linebackers coach (and former player) DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has kept the 49ers’ system intact and they ended 2021 seventh against the run, sixth versus the pass and fifth in sacks. Their base coverage remains Cover Three, but they have added in more split safety zone coverages like Two, Four and Six to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.

The prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years has been for them to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage – so much so that the 49ers made sure that three corners on their roster (former All-Pro Josh Norman, Dontae Johnson and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley and Deommodore Lenoir are also important cogs on this unit, and Jason Verrett is normally a starter but he is once again out with a major injury. Jimmie Ward – who has found a home at free safety after playing multiple defensive back positions in his earlier years – and Jaquiski Tartt are the starters on the back end.

The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best in Fred Warner (Azzez Al-Shaair is their third linebacker). In front of them is one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Arik Amrstead, Dee Ford, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones and Samson Ebukam, but Ford has barely played over the last two years with neck/back issues and Kinlaw is out with a knee injury.

These players are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Ryans – like Saleh before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates any potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Ryans will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations and especially out of five-man tilted fronts. These concepts have allowed San Francisco to increase their ability to put heat on opposing quarterbacks as they have racked up 16 sacks in their last four games.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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