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Last week the Atlanta Falcons set the trap, and the 49ers fell right into it.

After falling to the Falcons (5-9) in Week 15, the 49ers (11-3) try to get back on track Saturday night against the Rams (8-6), who will look to play spoiler against the playoff-bound 49ers.

Before the 49ers can battle it out in Seattle next week, they are tasked with beating a Rams team that has been playing much better since they last met. Last year’s NFC Champions, the Rams are by no means a walk in the park for any team, especially this 49ers team, who has suffered many big injuries of late.

After having time to shake off the crushing loss to the Falcons, the 49ers got right back to work. They must win out if they want to win the division and secure the number-one seed in the NFC. One of the games they must win, is Saturday’s game against the Rams.

Kyle Shanahan expects the previous loss to light a fire under his team:

“You don’t have much time to dwell over it. Like I said after the game, we tip our hats off to Atlanta, but we’ve got to play a lot better on all three phases. Got to play better, got to coach better and you watch the tape and we know we can. It’s just about doing it. Yeah, it was disappointing to lose. There was an opportunity that we had that we missed, and you address that. … We can’t sit and harp on that too long. We correct the mistakes, but we’ve got to go out there and play good football on Saturday.”

What version of the Rams offense will show up?

Coming into this season, the Rams were viewed as one of the best teams in the league because of their run to the Super Bowl last season. Sputtering out of the gate, the Rams were embarrassed at home in Week 6, losing a lifeless 20-7 game to the 49ers.

The Rams offense is capable of putting up big numbers against almost anyone but has failed to recapture the success of the past two seasons. Quarterback Jared Goff is susceptible to turnovers, the former star running back Todd Gurley is not the same explosive runner he once was, and their offense as a whole has just been flat-out inconsistent this season behind a lackluster offensive line.

So which Rams offense will show up on Saturday?

In Week 6, the 49ers defense made the Rams offense look bad — like really bad. In that game, Goff was 13-24 passing for 78 yards and a fumble, while being sacked four times. I do not expect that same result Saturday, especially with the 49ers defense sputtering.

Last week, Goff injured his thumb in the Rams loss to Dallas but is expected to play against the 49ers. Throwing the fourth-most interceptions (15) in the NFL this season, combined with his recent thumb injury, the Rams game plan Saturday probably won’t feature a whole lot of Goff airing it out, especially against a healthier 49ers defensive backfield. That means the Rams will likely rely on their run game, one area where the 49ers have been vulnerable this season.

49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh had this to say about the Rams rushing attack:

“Their running game, if they can get it going, is still good. I think they do a really good job in their zone schemes. They run a, I call it crunch, it’s like a power without a puller. They run that scheme very well, so they’ve got a really good run game, especially crack toss. They do all that stuff. The jet sweeps. The key to that thing is just making sure that we’re disciplined in our gaps, setting edges, knocking people back, penetrating with our D-Line and making sure that we’re doing a good job keeping the back from being able to press the line of scrimmage so he can roll back and making sure that we’re disciplined on the back side. It’s always a challenge when you play the zone scheme that they’ve got, because they’re so efficient. [Head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and his offense are so efficient at running it and they’re so good at running it that it’s very important that we’re very disciplined in our fits and making sure that we understand what we’re trying to get done from a schematic standpoint.”

Aside from the run, the Rams may have another way to expose the 49ers defense. Over the past few games, the 49ers defense, especially the safeties and linebackers, have struggled against opposing tight ends. Whether it be Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, Saints tight end Jared Cook, or Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, the 49ers have given up numerous big plays and touchdowns to opposing tight ends, and the Rams have an emerging tight end of their own.

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee has emerged as the teams’ number one tight end, and one of Goff’s new favorite targets, according to his previous three games:

  • Week 13: 8 targets, 7 rec, 107 yds, 1 TD
  • Week 14: 11 targets, 7 rec, 116 yds
  • Week 15: 14 targets, 12 rec, 111 yds

Going up against a 49ers defense that has struggled as of late against tight ends, the Rams may target Higbee more than anyone on Saturday.

49ers offense against a much-improved Rams defense

After the 49ers spanked the Rams in Week 6, the Rams felt the need to go out and make a big move in order to right the ship. Trading for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams defense began to step up as the offense continued to be inconsistent.

Throughout this season, opposing teams have double, or even triple-teamed Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald (11 sacks). With opposing teams focusing so much on stopping Donald, it has allowed for more opportunities for linebackers Dante Fowler (9 sacks) and Clay Matthews (8 sacks). Just like the 49ers, the Rams consistent pressure up front has benefitted their secondary. Add Ramsey to that mix, and the Rams defense has been the backbone of the team this season.

Even with the success the Rams defense has had, they still have been blown out numerous times this season, especially lately. Surrendering 55 points in Week 4 to Tampa Bay, 45 points to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 12, and even 44 points to the struggling Cowboys last week, the Rams defense has looked ugly at times, which is why it’s difficult to gauge what Rams team will show up Saturday.

Last week the 49ers offense struggled against the Falcons. Jimmy Garoppolo was bailed out numerous times by George Kittle (13 rec, 134 yds) as the offense came out flat and was out of rhythm all game. This week, the 49ers will likely put an emphasis on getting their ground game going again. Expect to see more Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida, while Garoppolo spreads the ball around to receivers other than Kittle.

Garoppolo had this to say about what differences he’s seen in the Rams defense since he last faced them:

“Well, obviously, some different personnel. Dealing with trades, injuries, whatever it is. They’re playing fast right now, their defense is. They’ve got, obviously up front, [Los Angeles Rams DT] Aaron’s [Donald] unbelievable, but that whole D-Line as a group is very talented. They make it difficult on you. We’ve got to play on time, get the ball out on time and things like that.”

With backup center Ben Garland filling in for Weston Richburg, the change at center could have been one reason as to why the 49ers were out of rhythm last week against Atlanta. The overall success of an offense has a lot to do with the center position. Another week of practice should hopefully smooth things over.

Injury report

Last week the 49ers were without six starters. This week, they will be getting healthier, just in time for two important games to close out the regular season.

Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams will return Saturday against the Rams. Last week, the 49ers secondary struggled without these two, as Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones torched the 49ers secondary.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they will be without one of their best defensive players Saturday. Jaquiski Tartt will not play, as Marcell Harris will continue to fill in for the Pro Bowl-caliber safety. Tartt’s absence has been felt, as he has been one of the most underrated safeties in the league, and a leader of this defense.

The 49ers defensive line was absolutely dominant this season but has slowed down recently. Snap counts are through the roof for everybody on the defensive line, and it’s starting to take its toll. Without Dee Ford, the 49ers will look to Nick Bosa to provide that pressure off the edge. The 49ers are hoping to have Ford ready for the playoffs, and maybe even for next week’s matchup in Seattle.

The Rams injury report is much shorter than the 49ers.

Notes

  • Earlier this week, Pro Bowl rosters were announced. The 49ers had four of their players selected to the Pro Bowl as starters. There’s a chance they could have more, depending on who drops out injured. Of course, San Francisco hopes no 49ers will play in the Pro Bowl, because they hope to be playing in the Super Bowl in February.
  • With the 49ers clinching a playoff spot, they are guaranteed at least one extra game this season. If they end up going deep enough, one player currently on IR is looking to make a triumphant return. 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander is rehabbing from a torn pectoral muscle he sustained earlier in the season. Out for the remainder of the season, Alexander is eligible to return in the playoffs if he can recover that quickly. His injury usually requires six months of rehab, and he has only completed two. Every player and every injury is different of course, but Alexander is adamant he will return in the postseason. Kyle Shanahan, on the other hand—not so much.
Taylor Wirth

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