With Monday’s thorough drubbing of the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers made a grand entrance into the race for the playoffs. The 49ers now face their biggest test of the young season, a road game against the Los Angeles Rams. San Francisco hopes to stay undefeated and pull three games ahead of the rival Rams. Los Angeles is looking to avoid a three-game losing streak. Today we preview Sunday’s matchup, a game of old-time NFC West rivals.
Protect the General
Offensively, the 49ers will be without their starting left and right tackles and starting fullback. Joe Staley is recovering from a broken fibula suffered against the Bengals. Mike McGlinchey had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Both tackles are out for the next four weeks. Joining them is Kyle Juszczyk who sprained his left knee and is out four to six weeks. Rookie sixth-round selection, Justin Skule, has been pleasantly average. The 49ers are not asking for extraordinary play from the rookie. However, the loss of McGlinchey on the right side of the line casts a shadow over the entire offensive line.
Through four games, Jimmy Garoppolo has been sacked just four times or 3.4% of dropbacks. With McGlinchey out for Sunday, the 49ers start Skule at left tackle and second-year player, Daniel Brunskill, at right tackle. The youngsters combine for six games of regular-season NFL action. Expect Garoppolo to revert back to the quick passing game employed during his handful of starts at the end of 2017. Garoppolo utilized his quick release to get the ball out in less than two or three seconds. San Francisco is aided by the absence of Clay Matthews for the Rams defense. However, expect Wade Phillips to bring pressure off the edge to challenge the San Francisco tackles.
Maintain the Ground Attack
Losing Juszczyk at fullback is a definite blow to the San Francisco ground game. Following Juszczyk typically meant finding the ball carrier. Kyle Shanahan needs to decide if the best way forward is going with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) or keeping 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) and adding an additional wide receiver to the field. Whether Levine Toilolo or George Kittle, a multi-tight end set could be the solution. Toilolo is a blocking tight end, first and foremost. Kittle is also an excellent blocker. Having Toilolo on the end of the line and flexing Kittle out of the backfield could work enough to maintain an effective rushing attack.
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The ground game should look considerably different from Monday’s performance. Los Angeles will undoubtedly focus on stopping the run. The Rams would be wise to bring defenders off the edge, setting a hard edge to prevent or slow down the outside zone and toss sweeps. It remains to be seen how effective Brunskill can be at getting to the outside and second level in the run game. The biggest focus should be on minimizing the impact of defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The reigning defensive player of the year, Donald’s size and speed make it difficult to prevent penetration. If he is active in the backfield, expect a host of second or third and long situations as a result.
Force Pressure Early
Like any quarterback, Jared Goff struggles when pressured. However, Goff’s struggles are much more pronounced than most quarterbacks. According to ESPN, Goff posted a QBR of 83.8 in a clean pocket. Conversely, pressure around Goff dropped his rating to 11.3. Through the first five weeks of the season, Goff is 43.9 rating. The staggering drop in QBR points to a need for pressure from the 49ers, early and often. San Francisco sacked quarterback Baker Mayfield four times in Monday night’s victory. They pressured the quarterback another half-dozen times. Considering Mayfield had just 22 attempts on the night, the 49ers’ pass rush hit Mayfield on about 50% of his attempts. The same kind of pressure would spell disaster for Los Angeles.
By comparison, Goff has been hit on about 13% of his passing attempts. Defensive end Dee Ford has played through a back issue for most of the year. If he can play at an above-average level, it will allow Robert Saleh to line up Ford and rookie Nick Bosa on the same side of the formation. The pair operated in the alignment on multiple plays against the Browns. Bosa would play inside, often running a two-man game with Ford, creating pressure on Tackle-End stunts. The play is reminiscent of the days of Justin Smith and Aldon Smith running wild in the backfield. If the 49ers can maintain a steady pass rush, it would doom the Los Angeles passing attack and ease pressure on the secondary.
How it Ends
Ultimately, this is the biggest test of the season for the 49ers. Every week forward will be the biggest test. The 49ers dominated the Browns and showed glimpses of something special. Great teams win tough games on the road. If the 49ers want to be taken seriously, they will need an impressive showing on Sunday. Expect a surprising number of Faithful in attendance on Sunday. The 49ers hope to give them plenty to cheer about.
Prediction: 49ers lose a heartbreaker, 31-20
– Ryan Adverderada is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage 49ers. Like and follow on Follow @ryanadverderada