Grant Cohn: Lessons 49ers can learn from Rams’ defeat

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The Rams learned hard lessons in the Super Bowl. What were those lessons and how can the 49ers take advantage of them?

Here’s what both teams should have learned:

1. The vulnerability of the Rams.

Before the Super Bowl, the Rams seemed like they might dethrone the Patriots and become the next dynasty in the NFL. A team that dominates the league and the NFC West and the 49ers for the next 15 years.

Not so fast.

The Rams offense bombed. Scored only three points — tied for the lowest output in Super Bowl history. Sean McVay had two weeks to prepare for the New England Patriots and still had no clue how to attack them. Bill Belichick overwhelmed him.

From now on, everyone who plays the Rams, including the 49ers, will study what Belichick did to their offense and mimic his strategy. Belichick exposed how to shut them down: Play six defenders on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and play conservative zone coverage to take away the long passes. Force the Rams to make short, quick throws, methodically drive the field and convert on third down, something they don’t do well.

McVay must come up with new plays and counters to augment his offense, because everyone has seen his old stuff for what it is: simple and overrated.

The Rams may not be so great after all. Good news for the 49ers.

2. The importance of in-game adjustments.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made one key adjustment during the fourth-quarter, and it won the Patriots the Super Bowl.

The Patriots had scored only three points — they were struggling as much as the Rams. So, McDaniels tried something different. He gathered the Patriots offensive players on the sideline between drives, threw out the original game plan and created a brand new offense for crunch time.

He combined a personnel grouping and a formation the Patriots hadn’t used all season — two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver aligned in a spread formation, meaning no one in the backfield other than quarterback Tom Brady.

The Patriots never practiced this formation during the two weeks before the Super Bowl. They used it anyway, and it led to the game-winning touchdown drive.

McVay couldn’t make a radical adjustment like McDaniels. And that’s a main theme of this year’s Super Bowl. McVay had nothing to change the rhythm of the game. He merely called the same plays he called all season without anything specific to the Patriots defense. And none of McVay’s plays worked consistently.

Kyle Shanahan made the same mistake in the Super Bowl two years earlier. He built a 28-3 lead over the Patriots, partially because his offense averaged a whopping 9.6 yards per carry before halftime.

After halftime, the Patriots adjusted to Shanahan’s scheme, and he couldn’t counter. The Falcons averaged only two yards per carry in the second half. That was checkmate.

In both cases, Shanahan and McVay went down like sinking ships because they were too married to their schemes. They come from the same school and have the same lessons to learn. They worked together in Washington.

Next season, Shanahan must show he knows football well enough to deviate from his system and make the necessary changes on the fly to win. Like McDaniels did. This is Shanahan’s next big area of growth.

3. The importance of expanding the offense.

The Patriots used 12 types of run plays in the Super Bowl. The Rams used only four. Which means McVay gave Belichick, the greatest defensive coach of all time, two whole weeks to prepare for four runs.

Of course Belichick stopped them. Duh.

Two years ago, Shanahan also called only four types of runs in the Super Bowl, and Belichick eventually stopped those, too. Any good defensive coach will shut down a vanilla run game.

Shanahan has to spice up his run game, expand his repertoire, especially if he ever makes it back to the Super Bowl. He can’t give opponents 14 days to prepare for so little. He needs to overwhelm them with an avalanche of run plays to study and practice defending, just like McDaniels does.

Shanahan must make the other team work harder.

4. The importance of situational football.

McVay and Shanahan spend most of their creative energy drawing up long runs and passes for first down and second down. They call these plays “explosives.”

Neither McVay nor Shanahan spend as much energy on “situational football” — third down and red zone. They want to avoid them, trying to circumvent third down by converting on first or second down. They want to bypass the red zone by scoring from far away. Which isn’t realistic. No offense can avoid third down all game.

In the Super Bowl, the Patriots forced McVay’s offense into eight third downs and he converted zero. Two years earlier, the Patriots forced Shanahan’s offense into eight third downs during the Super Bowl and he converted only one. The Patriots committed a penalty on that play.

Defenses will follow the Patriots’ blueprint for defending McVay and Shanahan. Shanahan must be ready for this adjustment and figure out how to beat it.

5. The value of experience.

Youth is trendy in the NFL. Owners want young, energetic, offense-minded head coaches with fresh ideas, like McVay and Shanahan.

But young coaches don’t know as much football as people who’ve been around the game for 30 or 40 years. They can’t necessarily make the in-game adjustments that lead to victory. Those adjustments require experience and football knowledge, not just knowledge of one scheme.

Every young head coach needs an elder statesman on his staff to interject ideas. Neither McVay nor Shanahan employ someone like this. They have young assistants who learned from them and think the same.

Hopefully for McVay, he learned the value of experience in the Super Bowl. If he didn’t learn, he lost in vain. He certainly understands the value of experience on defense, employing the old philosopher Wade Phillips.

Same applies to Shanahan. He needs a Wade Phillips-type on offense. And there’s this. Will he learn from his defeats in 2018, or will he make excuses? Will he blame himself or will he blame injuries?

If he blames himself, he’ll grow. And so will the 49ers.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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