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Opponent Breakdown: Preparing for a Division Rival

Posted Sep 21, 2017

San Francisco has similar personnel, but under a new coaching staff, their offensive and defensive schemes have changed.

In the lead up to a divisional matchup, many times players describe the upcoming game as a probable “dog fight.”

They mean that it’s going to be tough for both teams because of the familiarity between opponents. It’s going to be a physical game, because teams always get amped up for a team that’s played twice a year. And there’s a high probability for a game that could come down to the last possession.

But there’s a wrinkle to Thursday Night’s contest between Los Angeles and San Francisco. While the players know each other — and the head coaches do, too — there’s a new coaching staff, and new schemes on both sides. That makes it a bit more difficult to strategize, especially on a short week.

“I think it does make it a little bit more difficult just because you don’t have the amount information you’re typically accustomed to when you get ready for a normal opponent,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said this week.

That said, given McVay worked with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan for four years in Washington, there’s likely aspects of each offense that can help the opposing teams. After all, the first-team offense and defense did go against one another for all of training camp.

“We kind of come from the same background. Our schemes have — [and] I really feel like we have — started in very similar spots,” Shanahan said this week. “He might have a little bit more [Jon and Jay] Gruden in him and I might have a little bit more older Denver Broncos and things in me when it comes to the run game and everything. But when you turn on the tape, it’s very similar.”

Shanahan oversaw the league’s No. 1 offense last year as the Falcons coordinator. L.A. played the Falcons last year, and middle linebacker Alec Ogletree has noticed the system translating. The players are different — Brian Hoyer at quarterback, Carlos Hyde at running back, Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin at wide receiver — but Ogletree has noticed improvement.

“Their head coach came from Atlanta, and you know the type of offense that they had last year. And they’ve kind of brought the same type of scheme out there,” Ogletree said. “So it’s not quite the same guys, but they definitely have a lot of talent over there with guys like Hyde, like Garçon, and Goodwin, and guys like that. It’s going to pose a challenge for us, but we’re definitely up for it.”

Hyde is one of the players Los Angeles is familiar with, having played against him four times. The Rams have mostly held him in check, as he’s averaged 12.3 carries for 39.3 yards in those matchups. But Hyde is coming off one of the best games of his career, as he rushed for 124 yards on 15 carries abasing the Seahawks last week.

“He’s a well-rounded back. He can run in between the tackles, run outside, and even catch the ball out of the backfield. So he definitely poses a big challenge for us,” Ogletree said. “We’ll be ready. We have a ton of respect for him and what he does, but like I said, I think if we do our job, we’ll be able to do good things this Thursday.”

Shanahan and Hoyer had a lot of success in Cleveland back in 2014, where the quarterback led the league with 13.7 yards per completion and led the club to a 7-4 start. That’s part of why the head coach wanted to bring him in as a free agent to be San Francisco’s quarterback.

“One thing about Brian is that I thought he could run an offense,” Shanahan said. “When you play good around Brian, he can make good throws. He’s done it before. He has been up and down throughout his career, but when you get him right and guys play good around him, he’s shown the ability to play at a high level. Looking at the guys that we had available, I knew Brian from the eight months I spent with him in Cleveland and we did some good things there together and it worked out to where he came here and got an opportunity also.”

Through two games, Hoyer has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 292 yards with two interceptions. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called Hoyer a capable quarterback, who can throw the deep ball.

“He’s got really good receivers and they have a pretty good offensive line,” Phillips said.

While cornerback Kayvon Webster has been listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, what should help the defense is defensive tackle Aaron Donald having a game under his belt. The Pitt product was not happy with his performance after last week’s game against Washington, but Phillips said he’s not concerned, particularly with Donald’s physical conditioning.

“No, I think he’s alright. He seemed to feel good,” Phillips said. “He was in football-type shape, which was good. That’s why we were able to play him. We wanted to go about 25-30 plays, but he was ready to go. I just think the feel for the game is important for him, too.”