With both offenses in flux, Monday night’s NFC West rivalry game between the San Francisco 49ers and the newly-minted Los Angeles Rams will likely hinge on the performance of each team’s talented young running back.
It won’t be easy sledding for either.
For Carlos Hyde, Monday’s game will mark his first appearance as a starter against the Rams’ formidable defensive front since he was forced out for the season before last year’s Week 8 showdown in St. Louis.
Hyde won’t be in for a warm welcome either, as the league’s premiere defensive tackle in Aaron Donald looks to show him what he missed by plugging up running lanes that the 49ers revamped offensive line hopes to open up.
But the overhaul of the offensive line may give the 49ers an edge in the run game during Monday night’s contest, despite going up against young superstar Todd Gurley.
With a jumbled unit featuring starters Erik Pears, Marcus Martin and Jordan Devey, San Francisco running back’s rushed for a combined 10 yards on 15 attempts during their first showing against the Rams last year.
The final game of the season featured a line more reminiscent of what the 49ers will trot out against Los Angeles on Monday, featuring Daniel Kilgore, Trent Brown, Andrew Tiller and Joe Staley. The 49ers saw a marked improvement in their run game, rushing 26 times for 101 yards in route to an overtime win.
Throw in the additional improvements of Anthony Davis (or Tiller again if Davis retires) and Zane Beadles at guard, and the 49ers line should be set to top the productivity shown on their final win of the season.
However, the 49ers offensive line isn’t the only new weapon that Los Angeles will see, as Hyde returns from his injury looking to steal the spotlight from Gurley on the nationally televised scene.
The third-year running back has had a history of explosive starts as well, outshining the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson in last year’s Monday night opener, when he rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns to give the 49ers their first win of the season.
In his two career opening games, Hyde has rushed for 218 yards on 33 carries, averaging 6.6 yards per carry in that span. If Hyde is looking to assert himself as a top-tier running back to a national audience, Monday night will be another premiere opportunity.
But the 49ers aren’t in the clear, as Gurley will attempt to adorn himself to his new fan base with a repeat performance of his one, and only, showing against San Francisco last year in which he steamrolled the 49ers for 133 yards and one touchdown.
With Case Keenum and a lack of wide receivers at Los Angeles’ disposal, the Rams offense will likely feed Gurley as often as possible, making the defensive line a key to San Francisco’s chance at winning.
While Arik Armstead practices in a limited capacity both Friday and Saturday, the second-year player’s ability to collapse the Rams’ weak offensive line and plug the running lanes is the key to bottling up Los Angeles’ ground attack.
Likewise, the 49ers’ outside linebackers — without the help of the suspended Aaron Lynch — must be able to set the edge, as Gurley’s rare mix of power and speed makes him a threat for a big play any time he’s able to turn the corner on a defense.
However, should Keenum and head coach Jeff Fisher decide to air it out, the 49ers may have to do some shuffling at the cornerback position
After solidifying his position as the 49ers slot corner, Chris Davis has been listed as doubtful for Monday’s game with a hamstring injury. The injury may force Jimmie Ward, who was slated to start outside opposite Tramine Brock, back into the inside to cover speedy receiver Tavon Austin.
Should Ward move back to his old slot position, rookie Rashard Robinson would likely be thrust into the fray under the Monday night lights, with Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser adding depth behind him.
However, giving Robinson his first bit of regular season action on the outside against a lowly Rams passing offense isn’t the worst way to break in the young fourth-round draft pick.
The 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams 20-17, with both Hyde and Gurley adding 90+ yards and at least one touchdown for their respective teams.