While Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. are certainly marquee names to watch when the San Francisco 49ers take on the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's NFC Championship showdown, one of the most intriguing battles will take place in the trenches.
The 49ers and Rams boast two of the top pass rushing units in the NFL that both sat in the top five in win rate in 2021 (Rams – 1st, 49ers – 5th).
"Usually the teams at this point in the year all have good pass rushes," Kyle Shanahan said. "I think it's pretty hard to get to this point when you don't have one. But I think we're two of the top."
Aaron Donald and Von Miller lead a Rams unit that notched 50 sacks during the regular season, the third-most in the NFL, and sat at 13th in the league in quarterback hits. And through their first two postseason matchups, the unit had notched five sacks, including three against Tom Brady in the Divisional Round.
Miller, who opened up the season with his new team still recovering from an injury, has been healthy as of late and has managed to return to his All-Pro level of play. In fact, the pass rusher is coming off of one of his best outings of the season in the Divisional Round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he notched 10-total pressures and a sack against Brady in the victory. He has posted at least 1.0 sack in each of the Rams last six games.
"They were so good without Von, so I think it was the first time we got to play him, it was hard to even take that in because their rush was so good anyways," Shanahan said. "And then you add Von Miller and just watching him throughout the year, you can tell he keeps getting healthier. I know he was a little banged up when he came over from Denver. But you could tell he keeps getting healthier, is getting more comfortable and they've got as good of a group as I've ever seen. And to add Von Miller with the people they already have, with their scheme and everything, everyone saw it last week versus Tampa and that's usually how it's going to look. So hopefully you get them to play some other stuff and we can make it a different type game, but that's what these guys are made for."
Meanwhile, Donald remains as one of the league's most dominant interior playmakers. The pass rusher is coming off a 1.0-sack performance against the Bucs along with three quarterback hits, seven pressures and a pass deflection while holding Brady and Co. to just three points through the first three quarters of the game.
"Their pass rush it's as good as it gets," Shanahan added. "The individuals that they have, especially. It all starts with 99 who is just a generational talent and what he attracts to give someone a chance to stop him. You have to worry about that, but then you add in all the guys around him and some pretty good coverages with it."
However, San Francisco's offense has done a good job at slowing Donald down and minimizing his impact. During their first two meetings in the regular season, the All-Pro defensive tackle registered just three pressures while grading 30 points lower than his regular season mark, according to Pro Football Focus. Keeping him non-factor will be critical in the 49ers getting their offense going, which has struggled at times in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, for the 49ers defense, their pass rush has seen an uptick in production from a host of playmakers. Over their last three contests, the unit hasn't allowed a passer rating over 100 and no quarterback has surpassed over 238 yards.
In his two previous meetings against the 49ers this season, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has been sacked a total of seven times, including five in the Week 18 season finale and was hit for a total of 18 times.
The quarterback has made six turnover-worthy plays and recorded four interceptions to four touchdowns during those meetings.
"I think we've done a real good job with (our pass rush), and I think we've gotten stronger as the year has gone on," Shanahan said. "I thought we did a hell of job versus them last game, which was huge for us, especially in that second half."
The production from Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa can't be overstated. Bosa is coming off of a 2.0-sack, two quarterback hit and three tackle performance against the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, his linemate is coming off of a 2.0-sack performance of his own, including a key takedown of Aaron Rodgers that set up Green Bay's blocked punt that led to a scoop and score. Armstead has notched 6.0 sacks in the 49ers last four games.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have managed to generate effective pressure without blitzing. According to NFL.com, San Francisco led the NFL this season with a 30.5 percent pressure rate when rushing four or fewer (including playoffs), which has proven the unit's efficacy this season.
While there are a number of players and storylines to watch heading into Sunday's tilt, more likely than not, the victor of the title game could be determined by the success in the trenches.