NFC West rivals meet on SNF as scuffling 49ers take on resurgent Rams
In the 142nd meeting of this historic rivalry, the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers will face off on "Sunday Night Football" at Levi's Stadium. This rivalry has been a heated one over the years, regardless of whether the Rams have been in St. Louis or Los Angeles. Thus, football fans can prepare for another physical battle for 60 minutes between these two teams. San Francisco leads the all-time series 71-67-3.
Sean McVay has retooled the Rams' offense with a return to a more balanced and physical approach at the point of attack, which is a big reason why Los Angeles is sitting at 4-1. The Rams missed the playoffs in 2019 in large part because they were too much of a finesse team on offense at times. Jared Goff has been more effective lately, as he completed 21-of-30 passes for 309 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in a 30-10 win over Washington last week. Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr. should continue to form a nice 1-2 punch that will carry out the physicality of the running game all season as long as both players stay healthy. The defense suffocated Washington's offense all afternoon long with seven sacks and a mere 108 yards allowed.
Two straight losses have the 49ers looking at their season being on the brink in a fiercely competitive NFC West division. The Dolphins blew out San Francisco 43-17 last Sunday to give the 49ers their third straight loss at home. Jimmy Garoppolo was pulled at halftime to "protect him" after a rough performance in the first half. Garoppolo completed 7-of-17 passes for 77 yards and two interceptions, which resulted in a 15.7 quarterback rating. C.J. Beathard replaced Garoppolo in the second half and didn't fare much better: 9-of-18 passing for 94 yards and a touchdown. Neither quarterback got much protection from the offensive line, which surrendered five sacks. That obviously can't continue moving forward if they want to keep their signal-callers healthy.
The defense had zero answers for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami offense, which shred them for 350 passing yards and three touchdowns. The Niners called up cornerback Brian Allen from the practice squad, and he had a rough day as Fitzpatrick burned him for multiple big plays in the first four series of the game before getting pulled. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and the defensive staff desperately need the return of Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley to help strengthen the secondary and to avoid having to rely on practice squad players like Allen.
Sunday Night Football: Los Angeles at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 18 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Rams' passing attack
Goff should be champing at the bit to lead his offense this week against a beat-up San Francisco defense. He has completed 71.7 percent of his passes through five games and has an impressive nine touchdowns to just three interceptions, which is a great place to be statistically. Goff's increased efficiency in the passing game is a byproduct of McVay having him get the ball out quickly to his playmakers on the perimeter. An improved running game gives their frequent play-action more credibility too.
Los Angeles produced 196 yards after the catch last week, which has been an area of strength all season. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp rank third and sixth overall in the NFL in YAC (yards after catch); both players are the type of guys that you simply need to get the ball out in space and let them go to work and create explosive plays. Gerald Everett should have another big game on Sunday after catching four passes for 90 yards last week. Look for McVay to get Everett going early by using him in a similar fashion to what the Dolphins last week with Mike Gesicki who punished the 49ers defense at times.
2. Kyle Shanahan's handling of Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense
Shanahan's move to pull Garoppolo wasn't a complete surprise since it was pretty clear that the quarterback's ankle was problematic in the first half and hurt his accuracy. According to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo threw just 13 percent of his total passes accurately, and he ended up with a 32.6 passing grade, which was good for the second-worst grade of the season. Nick Mullens had the lowest quarterback passing grade of the season so far, per Pro Football Focus, in Week 4. Also, Raheem Mostert will need to grind out about 80-to-90 yards on the ground to move the chains and open things up with the play-action passing game for Garoppolo to get the ball to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk.
3. How will the 49ers deal with Aaron Donald?
Donald had a field day last weekend against Washington as he racked up four more sacks and looks like he is on the verge of having another monster season. He is the best defensive tackle in the game by a mile. Shanahan and the 49ers are going to have an interesting dilemma on their hands for how to game-plan against Donald. The dilemma is do you sell out to stop Donald with double teams or roll the dice with this offensive line by focusing more on everyone else? Now, the problem with selling out to stop the rest of the defensive line is that guys like Troy Reeder and others are just as capable of getting to Garoppolo with pressure; Reeder had three sacks himself last week. Bottom line, this will be a huge litmus test for the 49ers offensive line since they can ill afford to let Donald and Co. dominate at the line of the scrimmage.
The Rams will need to take control of this game right from the start and put the 49ers in a position to ditch their running game. McVay and his staff have a tremendous opportunity to pick up a road win that would give them a three-game lead in the loss column over San Francisco with 10 games left. The 49ers are known for their tough defense and won't let LA run away with this. But the reality is this of the first leg of a three-game stretch that includes trips to New England and Seattle which will define this season for San Francisco. The 49ers have to win this game and hope for a split of the next two against the Patriots and Seahawks. This game will have a few offensive fireworks, but the Rams are the better team right now and should pick up an invaluable division road win to keep pace with Seattle.
Prediction: Rams 33, 49ers 24
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.