The second game of a Monday Night Football double-header will feature the San Francisco 49ers playing host to their NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. Tonight will mark the first time since the 1994 season that the Rams will take the field for a regular season football game under the Los Angeles moniker. A new era also begins for San Francisco under new head coach Chip Kelly.
The Rams finished out the 2015 season with a disappointing record of 7-9. However, they did manage to win three of their last four contests, which lends hope for a promising 2016. The 49ers were able to hand the Rams that lone loss to close out the season, a 19-16 win in overtime, but a dismal overall record of 5-11 landed them in the cellar of the NFC West and ultimately led to the firing of Jim Tomsula after just one full season as head coach.
The Rams and 49ers have faced off at least twice a year, every year, dating all the way back to 1950, making it one of the oldest active series in NFL history. Tonight’s game will mark the 134th meeting between the Rams and 49ers. It has been a hotly contested rivalry over the years with the 49ers holding a 66-64-3 edge over their once again in-state foe. The series was split in 2015 with each team claiming victory at home.
Los Angeles at San Francisco
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 12 at 10:20 pm ET
Spread: Los Angeles -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Todd Gurley Show?
It’s probably fair to say that Gurley will be the best player on the field tonight. So, it stands to reason that he should be a focal point in tonight’s matchup. The 2015 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year took the league by storm, rushing for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 229 carries.
Gurley was particularly effective in his lone appearance against the 49ers last season. In that game, he totaled 146 yards, scored a touchdown and averaged 6.7 yards per carry. He will likely have a field day once again against a 49ers defense that ranked just 29th in the league against the run last season. The Niners’ defense also gave up 20 rushing touchdowns in 2015, tying them with Atlanta for the most allowed in the NFL.
The Rams' offense is somewhat one-dimensional, giving San Francisco every reason to stack the box in its best effort to slow Gurley. But it will be a tall order for a young 49ers defense that did little to improve itself in the offseason. Look for a big dose of Gurley tonight.
2. Chip Kelly’s Offense
Kelly had more than his fair share of critics when he decided to bring his radical spread attack to the NFL. For the most part, the nay-sayers were proven right as Kelly’s offense sputtered and played a big role in his firing in Philadelphia. One of the biggest reasons attributed to his failure in Philadelphia is that he brought in players that were incapable of running his system. Therein lies the problem with his transition to San Francisco.
Kelly inherited a roster that may be even less suited to run his offense than the one that flopped in Philadelphia. He has a slow-footed quarterback in Blaine Gabbert. Carlos Hyde is an outstanding running back, but much like DeMarco Murray, Hyde excels as a downhill runner in an offense that employs a power run game. And outside of Torrey Smith at wide receiver and Joe Staley at tackle, the rest of the offensive supporting cast is nothing to write home about.
Kelly’s offense could work in San Francisco given the time to build and mold a roster that suits his style. However, it isn’t in place for tonight’s game, and it never materialized in Philadelphia. The Rams are no juggernaut on defense, but Chip Kelly’s Week 1 offense might just create that illusion.
3. The Kicking Game
Neither team possesses a high-powered offense that is capable of consistently finding the end zone. Regardless, there should be ample opportunity to get into field goal range. There were a total of nine field goals attempted when these teams faced off last January. There is a good chance that the kicking game will loom large again tonight.
In two games against the Rams last season, 49ers kicker Phil Dawson was a perfect six-for-six on field goal attempts. His counterpart, Greg Zuerlein, connected on just four of his seven attempts against the 49ers. In fact, Zuerlein is coming off of the worst season of his career, converting a woeful 66 percent of his field goal attempts in 2015, the lowest percentage in the NFL for a kicker with more than 10 attempts. For comparison's sake, the always-consistent Dawson connected on 89 percent of his kicks, missing just three all year. If this game comes down to the kicking game, and it very well could, this is one of the few areas in which the 49ers have an advantage.
The Rams will obviously want to lean heavily on the run game with Todd Gurley complemented by a short and intermediate passing game when necessary. Case Keenum will probably take a couple of shots down the field to deep threats Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt as well. Defensively, the Rams will rely heavily on their pass rush with the now healthy Robert Quinn, along with Aaron Donald. The 49ers' offensive line allowed 53 sacks last season, the second most in the NFL. So, the Rams will surely use their biggest strength on defense to attack San Francisco’s biggest weakness on offense.
Blaine Gabbert threw for 354 yards the last time he faced the Rams, but that was without Carlos Hyde in the backfield. Hyde should be very much involved in tonight’s game plan with a more balanced attack in place overall. On defense, the game plan is simple: stop Gurley and make Keenum beat you with his arm.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise if this game turned into yet another field goal fest. The kicking game could very well end up being the x-factor tonight. But the one true difference-maker in this game is Gurley. If the Rams can get Gurley going early, he will take over, giving the Rams a significant advantage. It should be a relatively low-scoring affair with the Gurley factor proving to be too much for the 49er defense.
Prediction: Rams 20, 49ers 16
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.