The 49ers and Rams will square off for the first time this season at the LA Memorial Coliseum Sunday afternoon. One of the two is in first place, undefeated, the other in third place with two losses through five weeks.
Hearing that description prior to Week 1, most would have assumed it would be the third-place 49ers tasked with knocking Los Angeles from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Everybody, except those in the San Francisco locker room, are surprised to see an undefeated 49ers team through the first quarter of the season. Yes, they have played some weaker opponents, but that changes this weekend. Arguably the biggest game in the Shanahan-Garoppolo era, San Francisco will face its biggest test yet.
Jared Goff versus the 49ers hungry defensive line
Through four games, the 49ers defensive line has stolen the show.
The football world is buzzing about the combination of DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, as well as Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, and Ronald Blair. Rams quarterback Jared Goff will be the best quarterback this unit will have faced through five games, but that will not keep him off the ground.
Goff has shown flashes of elite quarterback play throughout his young career, including his best season yet in 2018. He has also shown some inconsistencies, even under the tutelage of Head Coach Sean McVay.
Behind a solid offensive line last season, Goff did not face a lot of pressure from opposing defenses, but when he did, he struggled mightily. When pressured, Goff posted an 11.3 QBR, which was the 25th-worst in the league.
49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh spoke to the importance of quarterback pressure at practice Thursday:
“I think I said it up here last year, somebody asked me how important would a good pass rusher, or an edge rusher, be for the defense? I equated it to an offense needing a good quarterback. I say it that way because the most important position on the football field is the quarterback, and the only position that can really disrupt a quarterback is the defensive line, if you really think about it. You can be a team that constantly blitzes to disrupt the quarterback, but you’re just leaving a bunch of holes in your coverage. But, if you can do it with four and you can make that quarterback uncomfortable, you can play a very sound coverage in the backend and speed up his process. That’s where you get quarterbacks making bad decisions. But, the defensive line, it’s our philosophy anyway, when you look at other defenses, they might have other philosophies all the way around, but for us and our system, that defensive line is everything.”
This season is no different, Goff has struggled under pressure, and pressure is what the 49ers will bring. Bosa had a breakout game Monday night against Baker Mayfield and the Browns. Getting revenge for Mayfield’s antics in college against Bosa’s Ohio State, Bosa was extra motivated that night. As far as I know, there is no history between Goff and Bosa, which is a good thing for the Ram’s fourth-year quarterback.
If the 49ers defensive front can apply the same pressure and wreak havoc against Goff and the Rams, they can take control of this game from the start, which will be key for the 49ers to upset the Rams in Los Angeles.
Concern surrounding both offensive lines
The 49ers offensive line has been phenomenal this season, and a huge part of the dominance in the run game. Injuries to both offensive tackles, Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley though, has made an otherwise stout offensive line a concern for the foreseeable future. Left tackle Justin Skule has fared pretty well through two weeks of replacing Staley, and now it’s Daniel Brunskill‘s turn.
The rookie out of San Diego State, along with Skule, will be tasked with facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Ram’s pass-rush. Jimmy Garoppolo is notorious for getting the ball out very quickly, and there may be plenty of quick-release passing plays schemed up for Sunday, behind a depleted 49ers offensive line.
Kyle Shanahan gave his thoughts on Brunskill:
“I feel very similar to how we do about Skule. He’s a guy who got to play in the AAF this year. That’s where [vice president of player personnel] Adam [Peters] and the guys upstairs found him. I didn’t know much about him until he got here in OTAs and training camp. Got to see him then and I became a believer in him. He was number 61 for a while for me and then he became Brunskill because he was low on the radar as it
started out, but he earned his spot on this team. He did a real good job. That’s why he was on the team. That’s why he wasn’t on practice squad and when he got in there for one play versus Pittsburgh and did a hell of a job, got to play a little bit two nights ago versus Cleveland, very similar to Skule in that the game is not too big for him, he’s very efficient, he’s a smart player. He will get the job done and he will be ready for the
challenge on third down.”
Protecting Goff is a Rams offensive line that has struggled mightily. Aside from veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the rest of the Rams offensive line has struggled in 2019, a great sign for the 49ers pass-rush.
The concerns surrounding the 49ers offensive line are certainly warranted, especially when they will line up across from what most believe to be as the best defensive player in the NFL.
Garoppolo said of Donald’s game tape:
“He is unbelievable. Give him all the credit in the world. The guy, he does just about everything inside, power move, speed move, whatever it is he just always seems to be around the ball. And so, you have to be aware of a guy like that.”
49ers running game without key blockers
In addition to Staley and McGlinchey, 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk is out with an injury of his own, sustained in Monday’s victory. The 49ers “offensive weapon” has been integral with his blocking in the run game, and the loss will certainly be felt.
Fortunately for the 49ers, the Rams defense is somewhat susceptible to the run. Ranked 15th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (106.8), the 49ers should still be able to have some success on the ground.
Shanahan addressed the injury to Juszczyk, and how the team will fill his role:
“You don’t replace Kyle, he’s kind of one-of -a-kind at fullback. We still use a fullback, and you do that with tight ends also. I mean, you motion them in there and do stuff, but no one is going to fully replace him. We’ve just got to do some different things and adjust.”
With two rookies filling in for Staley and McGlinchey, the 49ers may use two-tight end formations that could also feature two running backs. Any combination of “12-personnel” (1 RB + 2 TE), “21-personnel” (2 RB + 1 TE) and “22-personnel” (2 RB + 2 TE) may be used to add reinforcements for blocking. Third-string tight end Levin Toilolo is an excellent blocking tight end, and will almost certainly be used on Sunday. Out of the backfield, the 49ers may opt to use Jeff Wilson Jr., or Raheem Mostert as a blocking running back to fill the role of Juszczyk.
Just like the 49ers, the Rams are limping into Sunday’s matchup with injuries of their own
The 49ers have suffered multiple injuries to key players on offense and defense, and the Rams are no different. Star running back Todd Gurley (quad) and cornerback Aqib Talib (ribs) are both in jeopardy of missing Sunday’s game. Talib has been ruled out, and Gurley is doubtful, as it seems like the Rams will be without two of their best playmakers on offense and defense.
If Gurley is indeed out Sunday, the 49ers can expect plenty of Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson Jr out of the backfield for the Rams. Henderson was drafted by the Rams 70th overall in this year’s draft, with speculation over Gurley’s health prior to the 2019 season. He has yet to see much action, but McVay has plans to get him “more involved” against the 49ers.
Tight end George Kittle was limited in practice Friday with a groin injury, his status for Sunday’s game is questionable. Shanahan expects his star tight end to suit up and play, despite the injury. … Marquise Goodwin was absent from practice Friday for a personal reason. Shanahan expects him to play on Sunday as well. … Jordan Matthews was recently brought back to replace Jalen Hurd on the roster. He was inactive on Monday night and is expected to be inactive for Sunday’s game. … Jeff Wilson Jr. was inactive against the Browns with the return of Tevin Coleman. The injury to Juszczyk will give Wilson a chance to suit up on Sunday.