© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
You ever have somebody’s number?
You beat your older cousin playing one-on-one. They press the next game and you beat them again. You win a third-straight time, and your cousin starts to doubt if they could ever shoot a basketball.
They can’t shake it.
That’s where Sean McVay stands with Robert Saleh. It’s not Stan Kroenke who owns the Rams and their lovely, $5 billion Star Trek-like stadium in Southern California. It’s the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
Four games, four Rams losses, defined largely by the dominance of San Francisco’s defense.
On Sunday, it was Saleh and the 49ers’ defense shutting down the same bootlegs the Rams used with some success in Week 16 last year. Aside from a 33-yard Cooper Kupp reception due to some passive tackling from Tarvarius Moore, and a 61-yard rush by Cam Akers—also aided by bad tackling from Moore—San Francisco allowed just 214 total yards.
Goff had 198 yards through the air, the exact same figure as he had against San Francisco in Week 6. The 49ers forced two interceptions, one a Javon Kinlaw pick-six, and recovered a pair of fumbles.
There’s a complex here. McVay, the former understudy of both Kyle Shanahan and his father, who got his NFL head coaching chance the same year Shanahan did, cannot seem to get the edge on Shanahan and Saleh with their (mostly) preferred roster and schemes.
After a split of the season series that first year in 2017 (the 11-5 Rams against a 6-10 49ers team), the Super Bowl-bound Rams swept a San Francisco team which would go 4-12 and which was destined to draft Nick Bosa.
Since then, the Rams have been silenced and if we’re being honest, embarrassed.
There’s a clear genesis of this shift in dynamic: Week 6, 2019.
San Francisco was starting on an upward trajectory, sitting at 4-0 as many rightfully questioned whether these upstarts had staying power. Their smothering of the Rams and Goff, who was sacked four times, was their proof.
But we can get more granular. It was after that first drive in Week 6, when the Rams took a gander at this supposedly dynamic wide-nine alignment the 49ers used and ran it down their throat.
Seven Malcolm Brown carries, 56 yards, touchdown. 7-0 Rams.
And there was Robert Saleh, tablet in hand, alone on a bench. There’s a fuller recollection here, but Saleh was sitting there, staring intently at that miniaturized screen before consulting with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin.
What followed was a defensive tour de force. The Rams opened with another carry for Brown. After seven-straight rushes, all for at least five yards, they lost a yard.
Los Angeles was shut out from that point on, with a third down pass breakup from Jimmie Ward and a goal-line fourth down stop among the most defining moments.
Perhaps more iconic than those stops were Saleh, so often the stoic figure on the sidelines, flexing his muscles, screaming—and blacking out, if only momentarily—like every strength coach after a personal best.
Saleh is HYPED after this goal line stand pic.twitter.com/YDI0RF8otH
— KNBR (@KNBR) October 13, 2019
It was that moment that has defined this new 49ers-Rams era. Saleh lets Los Angeles throw its punch, and then counters, only to find that apparently, McVay has no true counter of his own.
— KNBR (@KNBR) October 14, 2019
That is perhaps Saleh’s greatest strength. Once seen as rigid, sticking too long to a Tampa-2 scheme from Seattle, he moved to more Cover-3 and Cover-4 over the last couple years. He has started using Marcell Harris in the box as a quasi-linebacker to hide his coverage deficiencies, and blitzed far more than last season, understanding that there’s a need for manufactured pressure without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner.
When an offensive coach zigs, Saleh lets them. Then he zags so effectively that they’re not quite sure what to, or how to correct it. He encourages offenses to show their hand and then steals their cards.
It’s why the Rams, with a quarterback who may rightfully be fearing for his safety, and a running game which mostly comes alive for a chunk play or two, cannot outmatch the 49ers’ defense, no matter how depleted it is (as a reminder: No D.J. Jones or Jordan Willis who are on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and obviously no Bosa, Ford, Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair III, Ziggy Ansah, etc.).
In the last four meetings, Jared Goff has a 56 percent completion percentage and is averaging 199.25 yards per game (exactly 198 yards in each of the last two). He has 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, three fumbles (two lost) and has been sacked six times.
Even aside from the stats, and knowing the relationship between McVay and Shanahan (and the 4-0 record), there sits the eye test, and the 49ers’ earned feeling of superiority.
Last week, Jared Goff went 39-of-51 with 376 yards, 3 TD and 2 INT against Tampa Bay.
“Good for you, Jared Goff,” Jimmie Ward said, smiling earlier this week, before he proceeded to ruin Goff’s day yet again. It wasn’t a malicious comment, but it came with a sort of foreboding sense that the 49ers could not be any less intimidated by Goff, who they routinely and consistently cut down to size.
That’s exactly what Ward did, who Shanahan said “answered the bell” as a domineering defensive presence on Sunday.
San Francisco knows what they’re getting against Los Angeles, and it’s a team with a quarterback who folds into himself against them, and a limited offense with a coach who simply cannot counter what’s being thrown his way, or can’t work around his quarterback’s deficiencies. Not against Saleh, at least, who may well be destined to return home to Michigan and coach the Detroit Lions, who are conspicuously head coach-less.
Shanahan has long said Saleh will be a head coach one day, and both he and Richard Sherman affirmed Sunday that the time is nigh.
“You got to give Robert Saleh an abundance of credit,” Sherman said. “You have to give him an unusual amount of credit. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit, not only here but in the league in general.
To have injuries that we’ve had, week after week, the setbacks. Wwe lose two D-lineman in the bye week. We have uncertainty, we lose ‘backers throughout the week. We got guys who can’t practice. Kinlaw barely got to practice on a Friday.
“He never makes an excuse and statistically we’re still a top-five defense in almost every category. I expect him to be a head coach next year because of what he’s able to do you know, he’s able to rally men, he’s a leader of men, and that goes a long way.”