With their postseason hopes on the line, the San Francisco 49ers will need to play as close to a perfect game as possible in their season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. Despite their impressive five-game win streak over the Rams, Los Angeles will be fighting to maintain dominance over the division, and ultimately, host at least one game in the postseason.
While history has shown the 49ers match up well against the Rams, it's highly unlikely Los Angeles will allow a repeat of Week 10's rout be on replay.
Looking at what has (and what has not) worked for the 49ers this season, there are several areas of emphasis for San Francisco to focus on if they aim to keep their playoff aspirations alive.
Avoid a Slow Start
Last week against the Houston Texans, the 49ers struggled to get much going in the first half beyond a field goal in the team's final drive of the second quarter. That two-minute drill did give San Francisco some momentum heading into the second half, however, they may not be as fortunate against LA.
Looking back to their first meeting in Week 10, San Francisco had one of their best starts of the season, putting together an impressive 93-yard, 18-play drive that was capped off with an 8-yard touchdown pass to George Kittle that chipped over 11 minutes off the clock. Two drives later, the unit followed up with a 91-yard drive that resulted in an 8-yard Deebo Samuel rushing score.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's first punt of the day didn't come until the third quarter after converting on a perfect 5-of-5 third down conversions.
For obvious reasons, Los Angeles will look to stifle San Francisco's ball-hogging formula of success.
While Week 10 (or any of the previous meetings between the two clubs) has no bearing on Sunday's outcome, the 49ers will need to get in a rhythm quick and avoid all scenarios of playing from behind.
Dominate the Run Game
In the aforementioned hot start by the 49ers, much of the contest was dictated (and dominated) by the 49ers ground game. While dominating the time of possession 39:03 to Los Angeles' 20:57, the 49ers posted 335 yards of offense with 156 coming from rushes.
Elijah Mitchell led San Francisco's backfield with 91 yards on 27 carries. Jeff Wilson Jr. saw 10 carries for 28 yards in his first look at snaps since returning from the Physically Unable to Perform list in Week 9.
Week 10 also saw the emergence of Deebo Samuel, the ball carrier, when the receiver recorded more than two carries in a game for the first this season. Since Week 10, the receiver has rushed for almost 300 yards while averaging at least six attempts per game and 6.6 yards per carry to go along with a whopping six rushing touchdowns.
Since Week 10, the 49ers appear to have found their footing, posting five contests where the unit rushed for at least 155 yards, each resulting in victories for San Francisco.
The recipe is simple: you win when you protect the football. It's proven true for San Francisco, especially considering their success when it comes to winning the turnover battle. The 49ers are a perfect 7-0 this season when an interception is not thrown. On the contrary, they're just 2-7 when the signal caller throws at least one pick.
When the 49ers cough up the ball multiple times, the team is just 1-7.
Last week against the Texans, the 49ers allowed their only points of the game off of their lone turnover of the day. However, San Francisco's defense managed to capitalize off of Houston's mistakes, yielding points off of a Davis Mills turnover.
The unit should look at every opportunity for mistakes created by Matthew Stafford. Over the last two games, Stafford has thrown five interceptions, including four pick-sixes (the most in the NFL since Week 9). On the year, he's tied for the second-most interceptions thrown (15) and the Rams as a whole have notched 17-total giveaways (tied for fifth-most in the NFL).
Protect the QB
The true battle to watch will definitely be in the trenches on Sunday. San Francisco has one of the top offensive lines in the NFL spearheaded by left tackle Trent Williams, who missed all three of the 49ers practices this week while working through an elbow injury. Per Shanahan, the 49ers aren't too concerned with their All-Pro tackle's availability for Sunday's matchup, which comes against a Los Angeles defense that's mustered 47 sacks on the season, the sixth-best mark in the NFL.
The 49ers have questions surrounding who will get the start under center. Jimmy Garoppolo returned to the field this week in a limited fashion after missing Week 17 with a Grade 3 thumb sprain. The quarterback resumed throwing for the first time since Dec. 23 and appears on track to get the start under center on Sunday.
In his Week 10 outing, Garoppolo played a clean and efficient game, completing 15 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Crediting San Francisco's O-line, the unit allowed just one sack on a blitz pickup and kept Aaron Donald and Von Miller, who made his Rams debut, at bay.
Should Garoppolo suffer any setbacks leading up to Sunday, Trey Lance would make his third-career start in the must-win matchup. The third-overall pick is coming off of a notable 249-yard, two-touchdown outing against the Houston Texans that earned him a 116.0 passer rating. During the Week 17 contest, the 49ers O-line only allowed three quarterback pressures on the day on 26 of Lance's dropbacks.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers pass rush has registered 43 sacks on the season and 14 quarterback hits. While Nick Bosa sits third in the league with 15 sacks, which leads the 49ers, the unit has seen production from its supporting cast, including Arden Key, who has recorded at least .05 sack in seven of the 49ers last nine games. Former Rams outside linebacker Samson Ebukam has notched 11 quarterback hits, five tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 10 games this season.
The 49ers rank seventh in the league while averaging 2.7 sacks per game. Conversely, Los Angeles' pass protection is only allowing 1.6 sacks per game, the second-fewest total in the NFL. Finding ways to generate pressure and force Stafford into uncomfortable positions yet again will be key for San Francisco slowing down a productive Rams offense (see next point).
Limit Rams Trio of Pass Catchers
It wouldn't be Los Angeles if there wasn't any star power, and the Rams have tons of it. Cooper Kupp is etching his way into NFL history, leading the league in receptions (138), yards receiving (1,829) and touchdown catches (15). The wideout is in line to be just the fourth receiver in NFL history to lead the league in all three categories. Kupp's rapport with his quarterback has led Stafford to having one of the best seasons of his career, including his second playoff berth, the best record of his NFL career and the best completion percentage of his 13 NFL seasons.
The 49ers will also have to account for Odell Beckham Jr., who was limited to just two catches for 18 yards in his Rams debut against the 49ers in Week 10.
Since, the wideout has notched 287 yards and five touchdowns over his last seven games with Los Angeles, more receiving scores than the receiver has had in any of his three seasons with the Cleveland Browns).
Fellow wideout Van Jefferson has been an underrated star in Los Angeles' offense. Jefferson is second on the Rams with 771 receiving yards and six scores this season. His 16.1 yards per reception is ranked fourth among 102 players with 40-plus receptions.
As a bonus, San Francisco cannot overlook tight end Tyler Higbee. Higbee has recorded 55 receptions for 505 yards and three touchdowns this season. The tight end has five-or-more receptions in eight games for the Rams this season (fourth among tight ends) and Los Angeles is a whopping 7-1 when Higbee has five-plus receptions this season.
As for San Francisco, their secondary enters the weekend with a number of players' availability in the air. This week, five defensive backs were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Fortunately, four have a chance to return to the field should they pass league protocols. The unit currently boasts the fifth-best passing defense in the league.