Overview: On paper, the Los Angeles Rams should win this game. But they should have won the first game on paper too. Sadly, the field's result was very different, as the Rams played what may have been the worst game of the 2020 season on the road at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. It was a frankly awful performance, one that Aaron Donald rightly called "soft."
Poor tackling by the Rams defense made San Franciso 49ers running back Raheem Mostert look like the second coming of Jim Brown of Earl Campbell (he isn't). Meanwhile, Rams wideout Cooper Kupp had maybe his worst game as a pro, dropping a pair of potential touchdown passes and finishing with an abysmal three catches for 11 yards.
The final score was 24-16 in favor of San Francisco. That outcome does not give an accurate picture of the whipping that the Niners put on the Rams. They are capable of doing it again if the Rams come out flat.
The Niners have now won three straight games against the Rams. Theoretically, the Rams should win, but this is not an easy game for Sean McVay and co.
Coaching: This may be a fascinating matchup of this game. Kyle Shanahan is McVay's former boss in Washington, and the two are excellent friends, not to mention being two of the best offensive minds in the game. The game also has two defensive coordinators who may not belong for their current addresses, as both the Niners Robert Saleh and the Rams Brandon Staley are likely to be hot candidates for the head coaching jobs in the offseason.
This matchup may well decide who wins this game. We'll call it a tossup.
Rams Offense vs. 49er Defense: The 16 points the Rams scored in the first game probably doesn't give an accurate picture of how badly this unit played. Cooper Kupp will likely not only have three catches for 11 yards on Sunday, and hopefully, Jared Goff will better his numbers of 19-38 for 198 yards, although he did have two touchdowns.
There has been some complaining in Ramland this week about the running game's poor performance in the win over the Bucs on Monday night. We think that is somewhat overblown because 1) Tampa Bay has possibly the NFL's best rush defense, and 2) The Rams won the game and decimated the Buccaneers through the air. We think the Rams will feature a more balanced attack on Sunday.
Darrell Henderson rushed for 88 yards in the October loss. Look for him to do at least that well on Sunday. Cam Akers has been getting more touches lately, and of course, the reliable Malcolm Brown is always good for some tough yards between the tackles and in the red zone.
At last report, 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner was the only member of the Niners linebacking corps, sure to see the field on Sunday. Warner is an outstanding player, but if fellow starters Dre Greenlaw (listed as questionable) and Demetrius Flanagan Fowles (out) are both out, that's terrible news for the Niners. San Francisco will likely get cornerback Richard Sherman back, which will help in pass coverage. Fellow corner K'Waun Williams is out, but the Niners probably have enough depth in the secondary with Sherman returning to hold their own.
Sherman will likely shadow Rams wideout Cooper Kupp, while Robert Woods will take on Niners corner Jason Verrett. If the Rams get another 100 yards plus from both Kupp and Woods, as they did on Monday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they will probably win this game. Woods named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after his 12 receptions for 130 yards performance against the Buccaneers.The Niner's defense is outstanding when healthy, but they are missing critical pieces like Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas. The Rams will be without left tackle Andrew Whitworth and (probably) tight end Tyler Higbee. But they may not lose all that much with tackle Joseph Noteboom and tight end Gerald Everett stepping in as starters. Everett is virtually a co-starter with Higbee, and Noteboom has been perfect filling in for Whitworth. Noteboom probably is not the run blocker that Whitworth is, but his pass protection so far has been excellent.
Rams defense vs. Niners offense: The 49ers offense is missing some key players in this game, notably quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle. Kittle is probably the best at his position in the NFL, which is saying something with the plethora of tight end talent around the league these days. While we think Jimmy G may be somewhat over-rated by some, losing your starting quarterback is never a good thing.
The Niners may also be without left tackle Trent Williams and wideout Brandon Aiyuk, both on the COVID-19 protocol. As of Friday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said an outside chance that Williams might play, while Aiyuk was unlikely.
But the Niners are expected to activate Mostert and wideout Deebo Samuel from the IR. Meanwhile, the Rams will be minus their leading tackler, inside linebacker Micah Kiser and outside linebacker Terrell Lewis is also considered doubtful with swelling in the knee.
What does all of that mean for the game? For the Rams, not having to account for Kittle is a huge deal. His nominal replacement, Jordan Reed, is a veteran tight end with some talent and questionable due to an illness. We have a hunch that Reed will play, but whether he will be 100 percent is an open question. Williams's potential loss at left tackle is likewise a problem, and one that Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley may scheme to take advantage of in the pass rush.
Niners backup quarterback Nick Mullens is a veteran who knows the offense and has generally played well when given a chance but pressures him into making some bad decisions (he threw a pair of picks in a loss to the Saints last week). He is also on the small side by NFL standards and lacks a strong arm or excellent mobility. That could be a problem against one of the league's better pass rushes, especially if Trent Williams ends up not playing.
San Francisco may counter those issues by going "ground and pound" on Sunday, especially now that they have Mostert back. The Rams have to do a better job of tackling in this game than they did in October. They also would like to get Aaron Donald going, as he was a relative non-factor in the first matchup, recording zero sacks, and only one tackle. AD says he's extra motivated this time around due to some 49er "trash talking" following the first game.
If you're in San Francisco, "poking the bear" may not be a good strategy, and there is no bigger NFL "bear" than Aaron Donald. If he plays like an angry grizzly on Sunday, watch out.
The Rams Leonard Floyd has been coming on as a pass rusher. The 49ers need right tackle Mike McGlinchey to hold his own against Floyd. That battle is significant for the Rams defense because of Lewis's likely absence, who is one of their better pass rushers.
We may see a lot of Rams corner Jalen Ramsey matched up against Samuel in this game. Samuel is a big, physical receiver, but Ramsey has been on a roll of late and has the tools to match up with him. Not having Kittle on the field helps the Rams defense, but they have to step up their tackling and run defense if they want a better outcome than they got in the week six matchup.
Special Teams: We would like to think the Rams have solved their placekicking woes after Matt Gay produced a reliable performance for the Rams on Monday night, missing one field goal attempt but otherwise doing the expectation despite not much practice time with the team. The 49ers Robbie Gould is a veteran kicker who has dealt with the pressure successfully time and again in a long NFL career. If you ask which kicker you would trust with the game on the line, the answer would have to be Gould.
The Rams get the edge at punter, with Johnny Hekker having another stellar season. But the overall play of the 49er's special teams, in general, has been better this season, and it's not all that close.
Prediction: Oddsmakers are picking the Rams by 6.5 in this game, and you have to like their chances to at least get a W. Significantly banged up with injuries, and replacing guys like Kittle, Bosa, and Jimmy G is a tall order for the 49ers. There is a reason why starters are starters in this league, and Kittle and Bosa are All-Pro caliber players who not easily replaceable.
Even so, the 49ers have a recent history of playing the Rams tough. San Francisco also has it's back to the wall playoff wise, and they are as well-coached as any team in the NFL.
An upset here would not shock anyone, but we just think the Rams are a little better team at this point when you factor in injuries.
Prediction: Rams 30 Niners 24