We have an NFC West showdown on this week's edition of "Monday Night Football," as the San Francisco 49ers play host to the Los Angeles Rams in a game that will determine who holds first place in the division after the first quarter of the season.
San Francisco has won six consecutive regular-season games against Los Angeles, though the Rams did get a measure of revenge by winning the NFC title game last year. This matchup was expected to look a bit different with Trey Lance under center for the Niners this season, but after Lance's season-ending injury, it will instead be Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Matthew Stafford again.
Will the Niners make it seven consecutive regular-season victories against their division rivals, or will the Rams put a stop to the streak? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday, Oct. 3 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, California)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: 49ers -1.5, O/U 42.5 (courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook)
When the Rams have the ball
The Rams have some issues along the interior offensive line, with center Brian Allen and guard David Edwards each expected to miss this game. The 49ers' starting interior defensive linemen, Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, are each listed as questionable. If they can go, San Francisco could have a significant advantage up front. If they can't play, it might be neutralized. That seems like it will be a significant swing in this matchup -- especially after San Francisco so thoroughly owned last season's matchups in the trenches.
Los Angeles has so far reverted to something a bit closer to Sean McVay's offenses prior to Matthew Stafford's arrival last season, utilizing a bit more play-action and under center stuff than a year ago. Some of that is due to the offensive line issues, and some of it is due to the receivers outside of Cooper Kupp not doing a great job of getting open in the spread-out stuff. Going to more play-action, bootleg, schemed-up stuff puts those guys in better position to succeed. But it also potentially opens Stafford up to more pressure, because the defense has more time to try to get to him in the pocket.
San Francisco's defensive backs have gotten off to a terrific start, and while the Niners play a lot of "soft" coverages like Cover-2, Cover-4, and Cover-6, their corners have actually been playing up near the line of scrimmage more often this year. Bringing in Charvarius Ward has played a role in that, because his size, in-your-face style, and physicality has set the tone for the group. He's not the only one getting into opposing pass-catchers, though. Emmanuel Moseley is playing quite well across from Ward, Talanoa Hufanga has been one of the best safeties in the NFL early in the season, and both Tashaun Gipson and Deommodore Lenoir have flashed at times.
It will need to be a full-defensive-backfield effort against the likes of Kupp, especially with rookie fifth-round pick Samuel Womack having been the primary cover guy in the slot for two of the three games. (Lenoir played there last week against Denver.) Kupp of course lines up all over the field, and has a mind meld with Stafford. He went off for 18 combined catches for 240 yards and a touchdown in this matchup last year, and it's not like any other team out there has found a way to slow him down yet.
Still, the Rams will need the pass offense to be more than just Kupp. Allen Robinson has underperformed expectations so far, and might be ticketed for a lot of Ward on the outside. That makes McVay's tweak of using No. 3 wideout Ben Skowronek in the backfield as a hybrid fullback/move tight end an interesting one, because it may enable him to get a receiver matched up on a safety or linebacker, and potentially create an advantage -- even if San Francisco has arguably the best pair of coverage linebackers in the league.
The Los Angeles run game has become more centered on Cam Akers in recent weeks, even as Darrell Henderson continues to run more efficiently. It just seems like the coaching staff wants Akers to be the lead guy on run downs, with Henderson working more as a change of pass and pass-catcher. The Niners. have the players up front to limit either one of them, especially if Armstead is active for the matchup.
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When the 49ers have the ball
San Francisco has won each of the most recent six regular-season games between these two teams, largely thanks to the exploits of the run game.
In last year's two matchups, the 49ers ran the ball 75 times for 291 yards and two touchdowns, with Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel doing much of the damage. (The year before, it was Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., JaMycal Hasty, and Jerick McKinnon. Before that, it was Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida. This team has, uh, gone through some running backs.) That first game against the Rams last year was really the debut of the Samuel-as-running back package, and it helped the Niners dominate the time-of-possession battle. In the six victories over the last three seasons, San Francisco has averaged nearly 36 minutes of possession to 24 for Los Angeles, and possessed it for 34-plus minutes in five of the six contests.
Of course, the Niners were able to do that in those games behind the strength of a very good offensive line. To put it kindly, their group up front is not in the same condition that we are used to seeing. Center Alex Mack retired this offseason. Left tackle Trent Williams is out for several weeks with an ankle injury. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is not the player he once was. The guards are not nearly the same quality as players like Laken Tomlinson and even Mike Person or Daniel Brunskill.
So, it will be more difficult to lean on the ground game than it has been in the past. Maybe. Kyle Shanahan remains the league's premier run-designer, and Wilson Jr. has looked quite good filling in for Mitchell this year. The Rams still play a style of defense that often invites opponents to run the ball and try to matriculate downfield without making mistakes, but that's what the Niners want do do anyway. Whether they can do so as consistently as they have in the past is the question here -- especially with a weaker group along the interior, where Aaron Donald can wreak havoc.
Garoppolo got a win in relief of Lance in Week 2, but he was dreadful last Sunday night against the Broncos. He threw off his back foot and without enough strength far too often. He ignored a wide-open Samuel streaking up the sideline for what should have been a touchdown, and under-threw him on another play that ended up just being a chunk gain instead of a score. The Niners need him to deliver the ball not just on time and on target, but also down the field on occasion. He can't only take the sure-thing throws, while still getting fooled by the occasional robber in coverage (like he did last week).
The Rams have some issues with injuries in the defensive backfield at the moment, with David Long and Cobie Durant expected to miss this game. Perhaps there's an opportunity for San Francisco to get Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk involved with quick screens to the outside, trying to take advantage of inexperienced corners further down the depth chart.
Score: 49ers 24, Rams 21