The final game on the docket for Week 4 pits the Los Angeles Rams against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a pairing that has supplanted the Niners-Seahawks in recent years as the NFC West’s foremost rivalry.
Part of that is due to the success of both teams -- Los Angeles and San Francisco have combined to represent the conference in three of the last four Super Bowls -- but it also stems from the two men calling the shots.
The Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay connection is well established by now. They worked together on Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington from 2010-2013. Both later received their first head-coaching jobs in the same division out west in 2017.
Shanahan has a 7-4 head-to-head record against McVay thanks in large part to a six-game regular-season winning streak over the Rams, but L.A. is the one that came through in the teams’ NFC Championship Game showdown last season and went on to capture what had been an elusive ring for both squads.
That’s the type of watershed moment that could have confidence and momentum flowing McVay’s way on Monday night, although Shanahan will certainly have some tricks up his sleeve as the 49ers look at avoid a 1-3 start.
Here are four things to watch for when the 49ers host the Rams on Monday Night Football:
- Can Matthew Stafford put together a clean game? The Rams’ road to first place in the division has not been a pretty one. Much of that is due to Stafford’s turnover-happy start to the season. He is currently tied with Mac Jones and Jameis Winston for most interceptions in the league with five. While his struggles have opened up questions about the elbow problem that reportedly plagued him during the offseason, Stafford has also simply forced his share of ill-advised prayers. His miscues and the Rams’ 30th-ranked running game is a chicken-and-egg situation thus far, but the end result is 20.3 points per game and 306.3 total yards per game, both franchise lows in the first three weeks of any season under McVay. A giveaway-free game will be a tall task. San Francisco’s defense has been swarming all year. The unit ranks third in points allowed and second in yards allowed. It has familiarity against Stafford, and it has the track record -- he threw two interceptions in both of last year’s regular-season matchups. If he keeps that pattern up in prime time, it could be curtains.
- Jimmy G! Part Deux must improve. The Jimmy Garoppolo sequel no one expected in San Francisco a few months ago has not been well-reviewed. In his defense, he was not set up to succeed out of the gate. Garoppolo underwent offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm and barely participated in training camp due to the 49ers holding him out in expectation of a trade, so he’s playing catchup in both the health and chemistry departments. That doesn’t excuse his bungling, two-turnover performance Sunday night against Denver that included a head-scratching safety, but it does help explain it. There are also several good nuggets of news for Niners fans. Garoppolo regularly shows up against the Rams. He’s never dropped a regular-season game to them in six tries, and he’s completed 70.1 percent of his passes with seven TDs and a 98.6 passer rating versus Los Angeles outside the playoffs since 2019. His big-bodied target, George Kittle, should be healthier in his second outing back from a groin injury. Plus, Deebo Samuel had his best receiving performance of the season (five catches for 73 yards) last week in Garoppolo’s first full game. This offense will continue to jell, and Garoppolo should start to improve because of it.
- A wide receiver master class. The two most prolific wide receivers in the NFL since the start of 2021 will be duking it out in this one. Since Week 1 of last season, Cooper Kupp ranks first among wide receivers in touches (213), scrimmage yards (2,748), scrimmage touchdowns (26) and big plays (43), which are defined as rushes of 10-plus yards or receptions of 20-plus yards, per NFL Research. Samuel ranks right behind him with 202 touches, 2,303 scrimmage yards, 17 scrimmage TDs and 42 big plays. The two combined for 64 touches and seven touchdowns in the teams’ three matchups last year, and both have been the primary contributors of game-changing plays on their otherwise scuffling offenses so far in 2022. Put briefly, sit back and get your popcorn ready.
- The Trent Williams factor. The nine-time Pro Bowler is out for the foreseeable future with an ankle injury. Third-year pro Colton McKivitz will now be responsible for protecting Garoppolo’s blindside. The key to victory for both teams could very well be how McKivitz holds up in his fifth-career start. San Francisco quarterbacks have been pressured 2.1% more often when the offensive line has been absent Williams since 2020, per Next Gen Stats. When Williams departed last week’s game in the third quarter, Denver’s pass rush jumped from pressuring Garoppolo on 12.2% of dropbacks to 21.4%. Expect to see Terrell Lewis, Leonard Floyd and Justin Hollins testing the edge early and often. And there will still be Aaron Donald wreaking havoc in the middle of the line to contend with. Whether the 49ers adjust to Williams’ absence by asking Kittle and the tight ends to chip more off the line of scrimmage, or by holding Jeff Wilson back more frequently in pass protection -- he is currently fourth on the team in routes run -- San Francisco's ideal offensive game plan is sure to be affected.