Christian McCaffrey managed to link all three California franchises in the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, becoming the first player in 17 years to produce a passing touchdown, rushing touchdown, and receiving touchdown in the same game — a feat last accomplished by Los Angeles (nee San Diego) Charger LaDainian Tomlinson.
The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams Are Distorted Reflections
The 49ers and Rams are more than just divisional rivals; they’re funhouse mirror versions of each other. The Rams have a pass-forward offense built on intermediate and deep throws from their strong-armed, creative thrower whose high-volatility play can lead to big plays and big mistakes.
The 49ers, having lost Trey Lance but having added Christian McCaffrey, have a careful passing offense designed to get small plays to move the chains, with yards-after-catch accounting for a high ratio of the passing yards. They’re run forward when they can be and don’t excel when put into pure passing downs, in big part because of Jimmy Garoppolo’s reliance on run conflicts as a passer.
That was put into sharp relief as a running back who costs the 49ers $9 million in guaranteed money and a second, third, and fourth-round pick in next year’s draft, as well as a fifth-round pick in the year after, went up against an undrafted free agent rookie running back who has no guaranteed money owed to him by Los Angeles.
At the same time, both offenses are built off of the Mike Shanahan West Coast offense made famous in Denver, and both head coaches worked together refining the offense in Washington from 2010 to 2013. The heavy play-action, zone-style running scheme paired with iterative route concepts that build off of each other have been critical in the success of both franchises.
Same Structure, Different Philosophies
The Rams are content spreading defenses out by putting three or even four receivers on the field and occupying all the possible horizontal space. At the same time, the 49ers will go heavy, putting additional offensive linemen, tight ends, or running backs on the field in order to overpower defenses at the point of attack.
And this game was no referendum on either approach – but it did demonstrate that both were effective. For all the press about how much running backs don’t matter, the 49ers found ways to highlight McCaffrey’s unique talent that one can’t find in other running backs in the NFL. On top of his touchdowns, McCaffrey demonstrated his value as a key component of a rushing committee, producing 94 yards on 18 attempts.
Along with those rushing yards came 55 yards as a receiver and 34 yards as a thrower – 183 yards in total. Amazingly, much of McCaffrey’s production came while the 49ers were behind – typically a difficult scenario for running backs in general and the 49ers in particular.
Overlaid on top of this stylistic clash is a battle for the division lead, something that, entering the weekend, was available to any of the four teams in the NFC West. In reality, it still is, but the 4-4 49ers hold a 3-0 record in the NFC West standings and should have a nearly insurmountable tiebreaker over the rest of the group. It’s not enough for divisional competitors to tie, they must be a win ahead of the 49ers.
At the moment, the Seahawks hold that position but will have to beat the 49ers in their upcoming Week 15 game, as they already have one loss to San Francisco.
The 49ers’ season could have been over if they had traded Garoppolo for picks before Lance went down. Instead, they found new ways to generate big plays, using production after the catch, trick plays – a forte of both teams – and amazing individual play from stars like McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle.
The 49ers had been struggling on defense after a fantastic first few weeks, and finding juice on offense helped the defense rest and put them in more defined situations, allowing them to continue putting the screws to opposing offenses, especially one with a weak offensive line, like the Rams. After struggling early, reminiscent of their last two weeks of underperformance, the 49ers’ defense put the clamps on the Rams, who only converted two of their final seven third-down attempts.
The Rams, for their part, are still in their Super Bowl hangover. Offensive line departures, changes at receiver, and Matthew Stafford’s age have all played a role in their disappointing 2022 campaign. Stafford’s arm looked much better than it did at the beginning of the season, and the game had its requisite highlight throws at unusual arm angles and through impossible windows, but the offense overall couldn’t get going.
Pressure from the 49ers’ defense and difficult coverage reads forced Stafford into difficult throws, and the Rams could no longer consistently produce as they did at the beginning of the game. The Rams don’t have the easiest schedule in the NFL coming up, with games against the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Chargers coming up.
Given how close the teams in the division are, there’s still substantial time for the Rams to catch up in the divisional race and overtake their rivals, but it’s going to be a tall order – and with the way the Rams are performing on offense and defense, it’s going to require a big shift in how they operate.