Overview: Some people are calling this a "must-win" for the Los Angeles Rams. We might not go quite that far, but if they lose this game and if Seattle Seahawks beats the Cleveland Browns, which is highly likely, the Rams hopes for another division title will be on life support.
There are a ton of x-factors in this game, including injuries. The San Francisco 49ers will be without both of their starting tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, which is never good news for any offense in the league. The team also are missing their fullback, Kyle Juszczyk. Not many NFL teams even use a fullback anymore, but Juszczyk is an integral part of the San Francisco offense and losing him matters. The latest forty-niners injury news concerns tight end George Kittle, who suffered a groin injury in practice Friday and listed as questionable. He will probably play on Sunday, but if he is not at full speed, that will be a huge deal. Kittle is arguably the best tight end in the game and a match-up nightmare.
Nevertheless, the Rams have their injury issues too. Linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Aqib Talib are out, which is awful news for a defense that has not been very good over the past couple of weeks. Running back Todd Gurley is listed as "doubtful," meaning there is about a 25 percent chance he will play. Some reports indicate the Rams will leave the decision to play up to Gurley. He is a warrior, and expect that he will be on the field if possible. How effective he will be is another question.
Rams Offense vs. Niner's Defense: San Francisco has been stockpiling talent on this side of the ball for years, and this unit is finally living up to the hype. There is no battle more critical to the outcome of this game than the war in the trenches. The Rams offensive line just has not been perfect so far, and if they do not play better on Sunday, the Rams probably will not win this game.
It will not be easy. Defensive Tackle DeForest Buckner is probably the best at his position, not named Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox, and we might even be able to argue about Cox vs. Buckner. However, he is certainly not alone as part of a very talented unit. Defensive end Dee Ford is a pass-rushing demon, and despite the injury, he is expected to play in this game. Ford is sometimes vulnerable to offside penalties, so we can expect the Rams to go to a hard count to draw a flag or two. Rookie Nick Bosa is no walk in the park either. He already has three sacks and 26 quarterback pressures, and the former top draft pick has done everything expected of him and more. The battle of Bosa versus Rams left-tackle Andrew Whitworth will be huge in this game.
Standard operating procedure against an aggressive pass rush would call for a lot of short passes and screens, and that is where the (likely) loss of Gurley hurts the Rams. Malcolm Brown, who will probably get most of the snaps in place of TGII, is a tough, hard-nosed inside runner. However, he is not in Gurley's class as a receiver. Will this be the coming out of Rams third-round pick Darrell Henderson? Henderson has barely seen the field so far this season, but he was an outstanding receiver in college at Memphis.
Some have compared him to New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara as a game-breaker/receiver. We may find out on Sunday if there is anything to that.
Rams tight end Gerald Everett had a massive game against the Seahawks, racking up 136 yards. There has been some discussion in recent days that the Rams might go to more two-tight end sets in this game, with both Everett and Tyler Higbee seeing the field at the same time,
That would be a significant departure for the Rams, who almost always feature three wide receivers with a tight end and a running back. Nevertheless, it would allow them to get a little help for tackles Whitworth and Rob Havenstein upfront, although both Ram tight ends are better receivers than blockers. It might also open up some more options in the short passing game with Gurley out so that we will see.
For all of the bad news for the Rams on the injury front this week, they did get some welcome news on wide-out Brandin Cooks, who appears to be good to go for this game. Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp has been having a monster year so far, and the three-headed monster of Cooks, Kupp, and Robert Woods is a challenge for any team.
The Niners will be missing regular corner Akhello Witherspoon. However, the anchor of their secondary, long-time Rams nemesis Richard Sherman, is back covering the other corner position. Sherman is back to being healthy after battling injuries last season, and that is bad news for Jared Goff and the Rams, especially given the Rams' recent turnover issues. Sherman had a pick, and four deflected passes Monday night against the Cleveland Browns and he has been stellar so far this season. However, if Rams quarterback Jared Goff can get time to throw the ball, he may be able to pick up some big plays on this secondary. That is a very big IF though.
If Gurley were healthy and playing like his old self, we would give the Rams the edge in this battle. Nevertheless, since he probably will not play, we have to check the box for San Francisco. Our big concern here for the Rams is the battle in the trenches.
If the Rams O-line does not step up, this could get ugly.
Rams Defense vs. Niners Offense: As mentioned above, the forty-niners will be without bookend tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey in this game, which could be a huge deal. Unfortunately, the Rams will be without OLB Matthews, who might have feasted on a pair of back-up tackles. He is out with a broken jaw, replaced by former starter Samson Ebukam. Ebukam is a physically gifted player, but his Rams career has been uneven. He notched only three sacks last season, not what we hope for from an outside linebacker in a Wade Phillips 3-4 defense.
On the other hand, he had a monster game in last year's epic win over the Kansas City Chiefs, so we will never know. He is no Clay Matthews, but he is a fast, athletic linebacker who knows the defense.
Remember what we said above about this game possibly "getting ugly" of the Rams O-line does not step up? It is equally valid (for the Forty-Niners) on this side of the ball. Aaron Donald is due for a big game, and the injuries to the forty-niner tackles increase that possibility. San Francisco will presumably want to double or even triple-team Donald (everyone else does).
However, if they do that will leave untested backup tackles to contain Rams OLB's Ebukam and Dante Fowler, not to mention D-lineman Micheal Brockers. That is asking a lot. Fowler, in particular, could have a big game on Sunday.
For all of the hype about San Francisco quarterback Jimmy "Jimmy G" Garoppolo, this is a run-first offense. Most NFL teams do not even use a fullback. San Francisco does, and the fact that he is out for this game is a big deal. Kyle Juszczyk is an integral part of this offense as a blocker, receiver and short-yardage runner. However, even with that loss, the Niners rushing attack could pose some problems for a Rams defense that has historically struggled against the run. They finished dead-last in the league in rush defense in 2018. They have been somewhat better this season, coming into this game ranked 16th against the run. Speedster Matt Breida open the Cleveland game with an 80-yard touchdown run, setting the tone for what turned out to be a comfortable San Francisco win. They also feature Tevin Coleman, whom Head Coach Kyle Shanahan had with the Atlanta Falcons.
For the Rams, it looks like inside linebacker Bryce Hager will play. That is good news for the Rams. He and fellow inside linebacker Corey Littleton will need to play well in this game.
The Niners got some alarming news on Friday when tight end George Kittle suffered a groin injury in practice. He is listed as "questionable," which means there is a 50-50 chance he will play. Shanahan believes Kittle will play, and we do too. However, will he be 100 percent? Kittle is one of the game's best tight ends in the (some would say the best). If he does not play or is not his usual self, that could be a significant impact on this game. Assuming he does play, the expected match up of Kittle versus Rams safeties John Johnson and Eric Weddle.
The Rams will be without cornerback Aqib Talib in this game who will be replaced by Troy Hill. McVay says he has confidence in Hill. He is another guy like Ebukam that can never be sure what to expect. The Rams need the good Troy Hill on Sunday.
For all of the criticism of Rams cornerback Marcus Peters this season, Pro Football Focus has him listed as one of the ten best corners in the league so far in 2019. Peters tends to gamble in coverage, going for the pick and giving up big plays at times. He also has a well-earned reputation for losing his cool. He needs to maintain his focus on Sunday.
The Niners boast an exciting combination of speed and power in wide-outs Marquis Goodwin, Deebo Samuel, and Dante Pettis. However, provided by the injuries on their o-line, they probably do not expect to rely on their deep passing game too much. The impact of Kittle's health on this game is hard to overstate.
Conventional wisdom would probably check this box for San Francisco. We are not conventional wisdom, and the injuries to the Niners offense may be more damaging than those to the Rams defense.
Special Teams: Both teams have had kicking woes this season, and a rare miss by Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein cost them a win against the Seahawks. We still think the Rams special teams are better overall.
Prediction: There are so many unknowns in this game that it is almost impossible to predict. As a Rams fan, I have been telling people that having a bad feeling about this game. However, when looking at the injuries of both teams, the fact remains that the Rams are coming off a long rest week. The Niners are coming off a short one, and the home-field advantage. Will hesitantly pick Los Angeles. Do not be surprised if we do not see much scoring.
Rams 20 Forty-Niners 17