The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams square off on Monday Night Football this evening, and we finally get to see what this team is all about. Chip Kelly has spent the offseason implementing his offensive philosophy. It could be a dumpster fire or it could surprise us in a good way. It’s tough to predict how this will all work out.
There will be plenty to watch on both sides of the ball. I thought we’d pull up a few potentially key matchups for the game. Some of these are player vs. player, but given the team nature of football, these are often going to be position unit vs. position unit, or position unit vs. player.
RG Andrew Tiller vs. DT Aaron Donald
The offensive line as a whole will have its hands full with Aaron Donald and a stout Rams defensive line, but Andrew Tiller might end up with the biggest test. Anthony Davis was expected to play right guard, but Jennifer Chan is reporting he will move solely to backup tackle. Tiller got guard work last year, and looked solid. Donald is arguably the best defensive tackle in the game, and this will be a huge Week 1 challenge. It will be critical particularly for Carlos Hyde and the ground game.
49ers front seven vs. Todd Gurley
This is the biggest challenge for the 49ers defense. It is possible Case Keenum will light it up in the passing game, but my guess is Gurley is the focus of the Rams offense. The 49ers have had a lot of turnover in the front seven, and the injury report is not great this week. Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey are recovering from knee injuries, while Arik Armstead is dealing with a shoulder injury. At the second level, we don’t know who will start next to NaVorro Bowman, but they will get plenty of tackle opportunities this week.
Edge rusher Tank Carradine vs. Rams tackles
The Rams might focus on the ground game in Week 1, but there will still be opportunities to get to the quarterback. Tank Carradine has been transitioning to outside linebacker, but my guess is his primary role will be as a nickel defensive end. I don’t know what side we’ll see coming from, but either way, he could be a critical component of the pass rush while Aaron Lynch is suspended. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead will be plenty important as well, but Tank is the guy I am watching in Week 1.
CB Jimmie Ward and/or Tramaine Brock vs. WR Tavon Austin
Neither team has many great pass catching options, but they each have a particular standout (Torrey Smith for the 49ers). Pro Football Focus’s Jeff Deeney tweeted that Austin only spent 21 percent of his 2015 snaps in the slot, so if that holds up, Chris Davis’s injury should not be a huge issue. But the question at cornerback is how Brock and Ward will line up. Will they each stay on one side, or will one of them follow the other team’s top receiver? Brock did that for stretches last season, but Ward has been getting a late of praise for his work outside over the past eight months.
TE Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek vs. Rams LB, S
I suspect Carlos Hyde will be the guy to watch on offense in Week 1, but the 49ers tight ends could be plenty busy with Blaine Gabbert. I don’t expect the team to do a lot to stretch the field, and instead Gabbert will hit the underneath stuff with his tight ends and running backs. McDonald and Celek both seemed to develop a good rapport with Gabbert last season, and McDonald in particular had some nice moments last month. We’ll see how it carries over.
Punt coverage vs. Tavon Austin
One area of the game that can be particularly unpredictable heading into Week 1 is the coverage and return units. Tavon Austin is looking like the Rams punt returner once again. He has one punt return touchdown each of the last three seasons. Two seasons ago he averaged 11.2 yards per return, while last season he averaged 7.9 yards per return. The playmaker potential is there, so it will be something to watch.