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49ers vs. Rams: Keys to Victory

Marc Adams
Sep 14, 2023 at 11:05 AM--

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The stage is set for an intriguing early-season NFC West battle as the San Francisco 49ers make their way to SoFi Stadium, where they are set to collide with longtime rival, the Los Angeles Rams. This matchup between the 49ers and the Rams might not have been compelling at first glance, except that the Rams beat the Seattle Seahawks last week on the road. And they beat them convincingly, without star wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Are the Rams actually good? Are the Seahawks just bad? Or was it simply a week-one fluke?

We will find out on Sunday, in front of what will likely be a large number of 49ers fans. Last week, "The Faithful" showed up in force in Pittsburgh, in a way that Steelers reporters said they had not seen before.

There was skepticism about the Los Angeles Rams' potential this season, with doubts about how good they could be. But the Rams handed the Seahawks their worst home loss since 2017. Of course, it didn't help that Seattle lost both starting offensive tackles, Abraham Lucas and Charles Cross, to injuries in the third quarter, along with wide receiver Tyler Lockett.

Still, the Rams looked really good in week one, and a 49ers victory in Inglewood is all but guaranteed, even though the 49ers are currently 8.5-point favorites. Beating the Rams this Sunday may not be as easy as previously thought. Here are four keys to victory for the 49ers:

1. Get after Matthew Stafford

Matthew Stafford started the season without his favorite target, Kupp, and faced a rebuilt and unproven offensive line. But it didn't seem to stop the Rams' passing attack, as Stafford threw for 334 yards. He had two receivers, Tutu Atwell and Puca Nacua, who both had 119 yards receiving. Nacua had 10 catches on 15 targets. So he seems to be someone Stafford is very comfortable throwing to.

Shanahan spoke about Atwell and Nacua, saying, "Yeah, looked at him [Atwell] a lot in college. Tutu is as fast as anyone. He's one of those premier play-action top-level guys. Everyone in this type of offense, ours, theirs, play action offense, they really want a guy like that. You can tell that's why they took him. He's premier at that. When you look at Nacua, he's a very tough physical football player. He reminds me a lot of Jauan [Jennings]. He's going to get after it on every play. The game's not too big for him. And when you can put those guys in the right spots and you've got a quarterback like they do, it can be pretty lethal."

We've seen in past matchups with the Rams that when the 49ers' pass rush starts getting pressure on him, Stafford starts seeing ghosts and will throw some balls up for grabs. Stafford wasn't sacked last week in Seattle, but the Seahawks' defense isn't very good. The 49ers' pass rush may be the best in the NFL, not just from the edge, but also from the interior with Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave. In Pittsburgh, Armstead and Hargrave collapsed the pocket for much of the game, opening up opportunities for Drake Jackson to notch three sacks in his belt.

In Seattle, the Rams ran the ball 40 times, but only gained 92 yards. That's an average of 2.3 per carry. And that's pretty horrible, although running backs Kyren Williams and Cam Akers both scored touchdowns for the Rams.
Considering the rushing effort was against a Seattle team that hasn't stopped the run very well in recent years, it stands to reason the Rams could have a much harder time running the ball against the 49ers. If that happens, and the Rams become one-dimensional, Stafford will be in for a long day.

Last week, the 49ers' defense sacked Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett five times and intercepted him twice. If they put that kind of pressure on Stafford and make him start seeing ghosts, the 49ers defense should come up with more turnovers in week two.

2. Keep Aaron Donald in check

Aaron Donald is a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. His combination of strength, speed, and relentlessness makes him a force on the field. As a defensive tackle for the Rams, he consistently disrupts opposing offenses, wreaking havoc in the backfield with his exceptional ability to shed blockers and disrupt plays. Donald's accolades speak volumes about his greatness, with numerous Pro Bowl selections, All-Pro honors, and Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name. Donald is a game-changer who has redefined the expectations for what a defensive lineman can achieve in the modern NFL.

Because of this, the 49ers have to keep Donald in check. Last week they faced Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt. Facing Donald may be an even bigger task because the Rams star mostly lines up in the interior of the line, putting him closer to the ball than an edge rusher would be. In the past, Daniel Brunskill somehow always played well against Donald. But Brunskill is gone, and the right side of the 49ers offensive line, Spencer Burford and Coltin McKivitz, didn't play well in Pittsburgh. They're also no doubt having to learn to play next to each other.

The running game is the 49ers' bread and butter. Establishing a solid rushing attack controls the clock and keeps the Rams' offense off the field. But an effective running game is also a quarterback's best friend. And against someone like Donald, being able to run the ball is critical because it keeps the defense guessing, and can wear them down.

The 49ers have had some success running the ball against the Rams in the past, but Los Angeles knows this and will likely stack the box against the run game, much like the Steelers did in week one. If that happens, and running the ball doesn't come easy, Brock Purdy will need to get the ball out early so as to keep Donald from getting home.

The Rams have yet to face Purdy. And according to Steph Sanchez, they've yet to face Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey together in the same game. Sanchez posted, "Deebo's last game vs. LA (Week 4): 115 receiving yards, TD. McCaffrey's last game vs. LA (Week 8): 183 all-purpose yards, 3 TDs."

So just as the 49ers will be adjusting to some new wrinkles in the Rams' offense, the Rams will have to adjust to some new wrinkles in the 49ers' offense. And if San Francisco can keep Donald in check, the 49ers will likely win a regular season game against the Rams for the ninth consecutive time.

3. Minimize penalties

Last week, the 49ers committed 11 penalties for 85 yards. Two of those penalties came on the lone Steelers touchdown drive right before halftime. Both came on third down, with the second one, giving Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs. Committing penalties, especially on third down, and allowing the other team to stay on the field, can be backbreaking. This is particularly true with divisional matchups, where the teams no one another so well.

Burford committed two first-quarter penalties for 15 yards. Jake Brendel was called for a false start in the first half that led to the 49ers' first punt. Sacks and penalties are drive-killers. The 49ers must avoid costly penalties that either extend the Rams' drives or hinder the 49ers' offense.

4. Get off the field on third down

The Rams were great on third downs last week, converting 11 of 17 chances, which extended drives, and dominated time of possession (39:23). The 49ers were also pretty good on third down in week one, converting 6 of 13. San Francisco also dominated the time of possession (37:23).

Against the Steelers, the 49ers' defense was great on third down, holding Pittsburgh to 5 for 15. Holding the Rams down like that may not be as easy, but if the 49ers can do a good job of getting off the field on the money downs, that will go a long way in bringing a 2-0 record back to the Bay Area.

The 49ers will win this game against the Rams if they can do these four things: First, they must apply relentless pressure on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to disrupt his rhythm and force turnovers. Second, they need to keep Donald in check, a monumental challenge given his exceptional skills and the changes in the 49ers' offensive line. Establishing a strong running game and quick passes by quarterback Brock Purdy will be essential. Third, the 49ers must minimize penalties, especially in critical situations, to avoid extending the Rams' drives or hindering their own offense. Lastly, getting off the field on third down will be crucial, as it was against the Steelers, to control time of possession. If the 49ers can execute these keys to victory, they have a great chance of extending their winning streak against the Rams.

Join me live today at 3:00 (PST) for the 49ers Camelot Show, as I talk with Rams content creator, Brian Joanou.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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