As their “Super ‘Bowl or Bust” quest has brought them one step away from their desired destination, the Los Angeles Rams have one last daunting obstacle in their path.
In Sunday’s NFC championship game, the Rams host a San Francisco 49ers team that is more than just a divisional rival. For all of the success that they have experienced in Sean McVay’s five seasons as head coach, the 49ers have been the proverbial thorn in the Rams’ side.
The Rams have gone 3-7 against San Francisco since McVay took over as head coach in 2017. In fact, the 49ers have won their last six meetings with the Rams, including the Week 18 meeting that secured San Francisco’s postseason bid.
Fierce rivalries are common within divisions because, but there’s another layer of complexity to the Rams-49ers conflict.
Few coaching staffs have greater familiarity with one another than do these two.
By now, it’s well documented that McVay and his 49ers counterpart Kyle Shanahan share a strong friendship and working relationship dating back to their days as assistants under Mike Shanahan in Washington from 2010-13. San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, running backs coach Bobby Turner and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower were members of that coaching staff, as was Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who also coached alongside Shanahan and McVay in Tampa Bay, and again with Shanahan in Atlanta.
So there are few secrets or unknowns between the brain trusts of these squads. They possess similar philosophies and tactical approaches. They recognize many of those tendencies both in film study and games.
As Shanahan put it, “There’s not (many) things we can surprise them with and the same with them with us, which I think is kind of the most fun way. It’ll be two really good teams and a really good football game where you can’t really trick each other. You have to go out and beat somebody.”
The 49ers have.
Shanahan has had McVay’s number, even during meetings where the Rams boasted the better roster and where injuries or other circumstances should have rendered the 49ers team less effective than their foes.
This year served as a perfect example of how this rivalry has played out. In their first meeting, a 3-5 49ers team that found itself nursing rampant injuries pitched a 31-10 blowout against a then 7-2 Rams team that had just further bolstered its roster with the in-season trades for Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.
Then, in Week 18, the 9-7 49ers needed a win just to make the playoffs, and edged the Rams, 27-24 in overtime, who at the time sought the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Those outcomes continued the trend of the four previous seasons, and even prompted local reporters to ask McVay this week if there was a mental block associated with out-scheming his former mentor in these hard-fought games.
McVay smirked and said no, but added, “What I do have is respect for these guys. They’ve done a great job. You look at it and you’ve got to play well in that 3 1/2-hour window we’re allotted. You look at the last time we played them, we didn’t finish the game. This is a really good football team, we have a lot of respect for them but we’re competing and preparing to the best of our ability to see if we can advance. But this is a really good team, great players, great coaches, great scheme. Kyle is an excellent coach, and this is why they’re in the NFC championship.”
Three key elements have tended to elevate the 49ers in their meetings with the Rams: physicality, discipline and an ability to minimize mistakes.
The 49ers and Rams do indeed run offensive schemes that build on the playbook passed onto them by Mike Shanahan and his Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos teams and closely resemble one another. Personnel dictates some play selection, but on any given Sunday, you can recognize some of the same bread-and-butter plays.
However each coach has put his own spin on the Shanahan offense.
Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers tend to attack with a more physical brand of football founded on a strong commitment to the run and punishing defense while McVay’s Rams are more of a pass-first team that does also boast talented pass-rushers.
Throughout the history of their rivalry, Shanahan’s teams have done a better job of imposing their will on their rivals. The 49ers have traditionally out-muscled the Rams, particularly in the trenches. I’m the last five games, Shanahan’s squad has out-rushed McVay’s by an average of 43.4 yards per game in their last five meetings. The 49ers also have held the time of possession edge (33 to 28).
San Francisco also has more times than not won the ball security battle, and key takeaways have traditionally shifted momentum of games and tipped the scales in their favor.
This season proved no different as San Francisco forced Matthew Stafford into two costly interceptions in each of their meetings this season.
The Rams fell in an early hole during their first meeting with San Francisco and never recovered. They came away from that overtime loss in the regular season finale convinced that they would have won had they simply done a better job of taking care of the football.
There’s a long-held belief that it’s hard to beat a team multiple times in one season, but the 49ers will try to prove otherwise.
However, given their history of struggles versus San Francisco and the rich and aggressive investments made in the construction of this team, the Rams might the most pressure riding on them entering this matchup.
But rather than focus on history and expectations, McVay knows all that matters is his team’s ability to do the little things right.
There are no mysteries, few fancy methods to disguise tendencies. So, the keys to success are simple.
“It’s about execution,” he said. “The key things that are always instrumental in the outcomes of games are going to be vital. tackling well, trying to break tackles, efficiency on early downs, trying to stay on blocks and finish, turnovers and situational football red zone, third downs, two-minute end of half, end of game. It’s going to be about good, clean, sharp execution. both teams very familiar, great schemes and players, which is why we’re in this position, let’s go roll it out and see who plays the best in this 3 1/2 hour window and gives themselves best chance to advance.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 49ers-Rams: Kyle Shanahan looks to keep beating friend Sean McVay