8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: 49ers -2, Over/Under: 42.5
Week Four ends with a bang, as a bitter rivalry reconvenes as the reigning Super Bowl Champion, Los Angeles Rams battle the San Francisco 49ers under the bright lights of Monday Night Football from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. In many ways, last season was the culmination of years of building for the Rams (2-1, 1st in NFC West), who have lived (and sometimes died) by the approach of amassing as many stars as possible at the expense of early draft picks (and by extension, precious roster depth). Over the past six years, (Head Coach) Sean McVay and (General Manager) Les Snead have clearly felt that quality trumps quantity, with the franchise’s brain trust engineering a plethora of trades to create arguably the most top-heavy team in the NFL, with last season’s efforts paying HUGE dividends. Los Angeles acquired the services of (veteran Quarterback) Matthew Stafford (pictured below) via trade during the offseason, while further adding the likes of (Pro-Bowlers) Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. midway through the campaign, with each playing a sizable role in leading the team to its first Lombardi Trophy since 1999, and their first since returning to the City of Angels seven years ago. Indeed, it’s one of those stratagems that looks great when it pays off, though it can also make you look very foolish if it doesn’t. Fortunately for McVay and Snead, the ends have justified the means, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the proverbial bill won’t come due before long. Coming into this season, there were a number of concerns about LA’s defense of their Lombardi, with a litany of holes to plug on Offense and the health of their Quarterback ranking at the top of the list. The Rams lost (longtime Left Tackle) Andrew Whitworth to retirement, while Beckham remains an unsigned free agent after tearing his ACL early in Super Bowl LVI, and not to mention (Offensive Coordinator) Kevin O’Connell, who is now the Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Granted, McVay has grown accustomed to replacing his assistants, and the fact that he remains one of the premier play callers in the league leads us to believe that there shouldn’t be much of a decline on this side of the football, though the fears over Stafford’s right arm were certainly palpable. After starting all twenty-one games for the team (including the playoffs), the 34-year-old was held out of the majority of offseason activates due to what was described as “arm fatigue”, though it would later be revealed that he did in fact undergo surgery correct ligament damage. After setting franchise records in both passing yards (4,886) and touchdowns (41) in 2021, the early goings of the current campaign have been a mixed bag; Stafford has completed an efficient 72.5% of his passes but has suffered nearly a third of the number of sacks that he did a year ago (30), with nine in the first three games along with a n NFL-high five interceptions. Without a proper preseason to get back into a rhythm, it appears that he and the rest of the attack are definitely playing their way back into game shape, though it remains to be seen if this is in fact a minor issue or a sign of more serious problems to come.
After appearing very uneven in their first two outings of the season against the Bills (10-31) and Falcons (31-27), the Rams continued to flex their dominance over NFC West rival, Arizona, besting them in a 20-12 affair that wasn’t as close as that final score would indicate. While the hosts were forced to punt on each of their first possessions of the evening, Los Angeles were met with very little resistance in running off thirteen consecutive points on their first three drives of the first quarter. A pair of field goals from (Place Kicker) Matt Gay bookended a 20-yard jaunt courtesy of (Receiving Triple Crown winner) Cooper Kupp. From that point, McVay’s troops took their foot off the gas, until producing back-to-back drives of 70+ yards, with the first seeing (young Tailback) Cam Akers run fourteen yards off Tackle into the end zone, while the latter saw the 23-year-old lose a fumble at the goal line. Fortunately, (Defensive Coordinator) Raheem Morris’ unit was in Cardinals’ head throughout the affair, relegating them to four field goals, along with 365 total yards and 6-of-18 on third down. In the end, Stafford was solid if unspectacular, completing 18-of-25 passes for 249 yards and a sack, with Kupp hauling in four catches for forty-four yards in addition that rushing score, and Akers putting together his most productive effort since he was a rookie two years ago with sixty-one yards and that score on a dozen carries. (Three-time Defensive Player of the Year) Aaron Donald continued to OWN the redbirds, totaling six tackles and a pair for loss, including a sack. Last Sunday’s victory was McVay’s eleventh in twelve meetings with Arizona (including playoffs), and their sixth in a row in the desert. From one end of the spectrum to the other, the Rams have NOT enjoyed much success against the SIX Niners; even with last January’s triumph in the NFC Championship Game, they’ve lost seven of their last eleven encounters, FIVE straight in the regular season. Of course, McVay and his counterpart, Kyle Shanahan, used to work together as assistants under the latter’s father in Washington, and though they’re two of the brightest offensive minds in the league, Shanahan has clearly had his former colleague’s number of late. Furthermore, Los Angeles is 3-7 against the spread in their last ten regular season meetings, and 4-6 against the spread in the last ten trips to San Francisco. In their three battles last season, Stafford had his ups and downs against the 49ers, completing 66.1% of his throws for 172.6 yards on 6.36 net yards per attempt, with five touchdowns opposed to four interceptions and nine sacks.
Meanwhile, it’s only three games into the campaign and the 49ers (1-2, T-2nd in NFC West) have already been forced to make a major change at Quarterback, though there are many that feel that it could very well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Following their defeat to the Rams in last January’s NFC Championship Game, there was a feeling that (veteran Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo had taken his final snap as a member of the Niners, with the franchise making public their intent to turn the reins over to (Sophomore Quarterback) Trey Lance. Taken third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, Lance was deemed as a project by many, though his considerable athleticism and arm strength gave him an upside that his predecessor could only hope to possess. Despite owning a stellar 31-15 record (.673) as the starter in San Francsico and taking the club to a pair of NFC Championship Games in three years (including an appearance in Super Bowl LIV), Garoppolo (pictured below) has constantly been the subject of trade rumors as both Shanahan and (General Manager) John Lynch seems perpetually ready to part ways with him. With the shift to Lance taking place last Summer, the team was unable to find a trade for Jimmy G that was to their liking and refused to outright release him for fears of him signing with (division rival) Seattle. However, in a surprising turn of events, the 30-year-old restructured his contract to remain in Santa Clara at a discounted rate, which now looks like a stroke of good fortune for everyone involved. Of course, what we’re referring to is the season-ending injury to Lance, who broke his ankle evading the rush in a 27-7 victory over the Seahawks two weeks ago. While this has the potential of creating even more uncertainty down the road, Shanahan and the rest of the coaching staff can take solace in the fact that the Offense is in very capable hands. Garoppolo picked up where he left off in relief of the youngster, completing 13-of-21 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another against Seattle, with the Offense marching 70+ yards downfield on each of their first three drives of the day. Maybe now this unit will regain the torrid form that it possessed over the second half of last season; San Fran won eight of their final eleven regular season games with the attack posting 26.5 points on 387.9 total yards, including 131.4 yards on the ground at 4.4 yards per carry. In the meantime, the Defense has appeared to be in midseason form already, with (Defensive Coordinator) DeMeco Ryans’ troops yielding just 12.3 points per game (3rd Overall) on a cant 227.0 total yards (2nd Overall), including 148.3 yards versus the pass (1st Overall) on 5.0 net yards per attempt (6th Overall), with another 78.7 yards against the run (4th Overall) on 2.8 yards per carry (3rd Overall). Granted, this unit has yet to face off against anything remotely close to prolific Offense, which will be the case tonight.
When we last saw the 49ers, they came up short in another primetime showdown, this time in a trip to Mile High where the Broncos rallied back in yawn-inducing battle that ended in a 11-10 defeat. Indeed, progress was glacial for both teams in this one, as the combatants combined 528 total yards of offense, twenty-seven first downs, and a dismal 7-of-29 on third down. Sure, both Defenses played at a high level, but it’s not as if either attack made it difficult for them. Running the football successfully is so often the barometer for success for the Niners, who struggle mightily when they can’t move the chains on the ground, which was the case here; Shanahan’s charges could muster just eighty-eight yards on nineteen carries, which became VERY apparent in the second half once (All-Pro Left Tackle) Trent Williams left the field with a sprained ankle. Over the final thirty minutes of game time, the visitors totaled a mere eighty-three years, with a pair of lost fumbles, an interception, and a bone-headed safety from Garoppolo running out of the back of his end zone marring a miserable series of events. If not for a short field goal set up by a muffed punt from the hosts, then it was highly likely that San Fran would have been shut out in the second half. In the end, the 49ers possessed the football for only 25:31, were 1-of-10 on third down, and committed three turnovers, while Garoppolo completed 18-of-29 passes for 211 yards with a touchdown and interception, along with four sacks and a lost fumble. (Young Tailback) Jeff Wilson, who has been pressed into duty due to injury, played well despite receiving just fifteen touches for 106 yards though he too was culpable with a costly fumble, while (All-Pro Receiver) Deebo Samuel logged seventy-three yards on five catches. (Pro-Bowl Tight End) George Kittle made his debut with the team after missing the first two outings with a strained groin, though made little impact with four receptions for twenty-eight yards. On a positive note, Ryans must have been happy to see his Defense dominate, permitting a mere 261 total yards, with four sacks from as many different players. Moving forward to tonight’s meeting with the Rams, the Niners should be confident in their ability to bounce back, for as we stated earlier, they’ve handled their NFC West rivals of late; over the last six regular season encounters, San Francisco has outscored Los Angeles by an average margin of 8.5 points and outgained them by 78.3 yards. Garoppolo has never lost in the regular season to his division nemesis, completing an efficient 68.3% of his attempts for 258.2 yards per game on a healthy 8.33 net yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions, rushing for another score to boot. The 49ers are 5-5 in their last ten home games and 6-4 against the spread at Levi’s Stadium, while posting a 7-3 mark against the Rams versus the spread. On the injury front, Williams has already been ruled out of action with ailing ankle, while (Linebacker) Azeez Al-Shaair is out with a bulky knee, with (Defensive Lineman) Arik Armstead questionable with a tender foot.