The San Francisco 49ers (4-6) will be looking to keep their faint playoff hopes alive on Sunday when they take on the Los Angeles Rams (7-3) at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
The 49ers were able to pull off an upset of their longtime division rivals back in Week 6. After defeating New England the following week, San Francisco has gone on to lose three straight. Their hopes of ending the streak may rely on the return of a few key players to the lineup with Richard Sherman, Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel expected to be ready to go on Sunday.
The Rams come into this week fresh off back to back victories over Seattle and Tampa Bay, and find themselves atop the NFC West. Los Angeles has been led this season by a stingy defense which has allowed the second fewest points, holding opponents to under 20 points per game this season. Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd anchor a defense that has terrorized opposing quarterbacks, averaging 3.2 sacks per game.
On the offensive side of the ball, Los Angeles will look to Jared Goff and a strong running game. In six career starts against San Francisco, Goff has put together a 100.92 passer rating. The main reason behind the passer rating is Goff’s ability to limit mistakes, throwing only 2 interceptions in 186 attempts against Robert Saleh’s defense. Expect the Rams to lean on Darrell Henderson a bit more this week than they did in the first matchup. Henderson was able to average 6.3 yards per attempt in the Week 6 matchup, but his attempts were limited due in large part to the 49ers jumping to a 21-6 lead before halftime.
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a look at 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome on Sunday.
1. Will the 49ers be able to hold Los Angeles to under 20 points? – This total is important because the 49ers have averaged only 21. 5 points per game with Nick Mullens under center. Accomplishing this feat will take the 49ers defense reversing a trend as well. Since 2017 when the current coaching regimes of both teams took over, Robert Saleh’s defense has not been able to shut down Sean McVay’s offense two games in a row. Last season, the 49ers defense thoroughly dominated Los Angeles in the first matchup, holding the Rams to only 7 points.
In the week 16 rematch, McVay’s offense put up 31 points and it took a couple of miracle throws from Jimmy Garoppolo for the 49ers to pull out the win. In the first matchup this season, San Francisco was able to hold Los Angeles to only 16 points, but miscues by the Rams played a large part in that. On three straight possessions in the third quarter the Rams shot themselves in the foot, including a false start on third and 1, Goff missing a wide open Cooper Kupp, and Kupp dropping a pass from Goff in the endzone on the third possession. These miscues cost Los Angeles 14 points and ultimately the game.
Overall, in the recent series, the Rams offense has averaged 27.8 points per game against the 49ers, a number that jumps to 30.3 points if you don’t include the final game of the 2017 season when McVay pulled almost every starter from the lineup.
2. Can the 49ers offense take away Aaron Donald again? – In the first matchup, Kyle Shanahan used a number of screens and jet sweeps to slow down Donald and the Rams defense. As a result, Donald would finish the game without a single stat. This time around Donald will be facing a revamped 49ers offensive line that will feature rookie Colton McKivitz at right guard.
The 49ers may also be without the services of left tackle Trent Williams who tested positive for Covid-19 and his status for the game is not yet clear. If Williams is unable to go, the 49ers will turn to Justin Skule. Skule has been overwhelmed in his last two starts.
Advantage: Los Angeles.
3. How will return of Richard Sherman impact the 49ers defense? – All signs are pointing toward the return of Richard Sherman for the 49ers on Sunday. Sherman has been out since Week 1 due to a calf injury. The 49ers pass defense has played decent in his absence, holding opponents to 6.7 yards per pass attempt, ranking 15th in the league.
How the 49ers choose to utilize Sherman will also be worth noting. Jason Verret has been very good as the field corner, and Emmanuel Moseley has more than held his own on the boundary side. With all three unsigned for next season, how the 49ers choose to play this may give a view of what their plans are for the offseason.
4. Will the return of Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr provide a spark for the offense? – Over the past four games, the 49ers offense has averaged just under 20 points per game, and the biggest reason for that has been the loss of Samuel and the best running backs on the 49ers roster. The diversity that Samuel possesses seems to be the key to unlocking the creativity of Kyle Shanahan. With Samuel in the lineup we see a greater willingness from Shanahan to utilize the screen and jet-sweep type plays that really take the pressure off the offensive line and quarterback.
Mostert and Wilson provide an explosiveness from the running back position that the other running backs on the 49ers roster don’t possess. Their quickness through the hole is what turns one or two yard gains into five, six or even more.
Another benefit to their return is that it will finally provide a full picture of just who Nick Mullens is. Mullens has never had both Samuel and Mostert together in any of his starts. In fact, Mullens’ only playing time with Mostert was during his debut performance against the Raiders in 2018.
5. Can the 49ers beat Los Angeles with someone other than Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback? – Since 2017 the 49ers are 4-0 against Los Angeles with Jimmy Garoppolo and 0-3 in starts by Brian Hoyer, C.J.Beathard and Nick Mullens. The main reason the 49ers have been so successful with Garoppolo compared to the others has been the points allowed. In Garoppolo’s four starts the 49ers have held Los Angeles to just under 17 points on average, and over 30 points only one time. In the other three matchups the 49ers defense has allowed 41, 39, and 38 points.
Garoppolo’s averages over four starts: 21-32, 262 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, 1.3 interceptions
Hoyer, Beathard, Mullens over three starts: 20-32, 261 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
The 49ers will need another strong effort by the defense combined with Mullens playing smart if they are going to have a chance on Sunday.
Prediction Time: 49ers 27 Rams 30
The biggest factors for the 49ers in the first matchup were their ability to keep the ball away from Los Angeles, winning time of possession 37:55 to 22:05 and a number of Rams mistakes that kept points off the board or killed possessions. It is unlikely that the 49ers will get both of those again this week.