The San Francisco 49ers face the undefeated Los Angeles Rams Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in one of the season’s most anticipated matchups. While the loss of franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo may have damped the competitive expectations, there’s no denying the friendly tension between head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
We know the 49ers are going to look good come Sunday, with the unveiling of the team’s all-white 1994 throwback uniforms. While every player may be “styling and profiling,” as the Nature Boy used to say, they aren't all created equal in terms of impacting the outcome of this NFC West matchup.
Here are five players to watch when the 49ers battle the Rams on Sunday:
WR Marquise Goodwin
Goodwin’s Week 1 hamstring injury plagued him through first five weeks of season, missing Weeks 2 and 5 before roaring back to life against the Packers in Week 6. Goodwin’s healthy presence was a noticeable shot of adrenaline for the 49ers’ offense. He reeled in four receptions for 126 yards and two impressive touchdowns against the Packers.
The 49ers are going to need a similar performance from Goodwin against the Rams if quarterback C.J. Beathard and the offense hope to keep pace. This isn’t to say that Goodwin needs receive double-digit targets, but his continued threat on the field is essential for the offense’s success both on the ground and through the air.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
The 49ers’ cornerback position group is dwindling quickly due to a host of injuries. K’Waun Williams (shoulder) and Richard Sherman (calf) are listed as questionable but are expected to play Sunday. Jimmie Ward, who started Week 6 against the Packers opposite Sherman, is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury on the team’s final report. Shanahan took to KNBR Friday morning and said second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is expected to start in his place.
Witherspoon, although questionable with a concussion, has cleared the protocol to date, and is expected to play Sunday against the Rams. He’ll get a chance at redemption after a rough start to the season that saw him removed from the starting role across from Sherman in favor of Ward and backup Greg Mabin. Ward is injured and Mabin didn’t fare well. The 49ers would undoubtedly like to see Witherspoon rise to occasion and regain his leading role.
QB C.J. Beathard
No one expected a shootout between Beathard and Aaron Rodgers on Monday night, but that’s what we were treated to in the 49ers’ 33-30 loss to the Packers. The backup-turned-starter put together his second solid performance in three games, completing 16 of 23 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 115.3 quarterback rating.
Beathard now turns his sights toward a Rams defense ranked No. 14 in pass defense efficiency, per Football Outsiders. Last Monday, he faced a Packers defense that ranks 15th in that category. Beathard’s return to Levi’s Stadium will require a repeat performance if he’s to match what will likely be an inflated point-total from the Rams’ high-octane offense.
LB Reuben Foster
Among the many surprises of 2018 so far for the 49ers is the return to reality for second-year linebacker Reuben Foster. After a turbulent offseason and a two-game suspension to begin the season, Foster hasn’t met the lofty expectations he established as a rookie that seemed destined to join the elite. He and rookie Fred Warner have been reliable albeit unspectacular through their four weeks together.
The 49ers will need the most from Foster come Sunday. Rams running back Todd Gurley is among the league’s best, scoring 11 times this season. In addition, McVay and the Rams’ offense, like Shanahan, is known for exploiting linebackers in coverage. Foster will need a return to form if he’s to dampen the Rams’ efforts and keep the game within reach for the 49ers.
RB Raheem Mostert
We know what we have in lead running back Matt Breida. The ‘cheetah’ has put together an impressive campaign so far, averaging 6.8 yards per carry in 2018. Behind Breida, the 49ers typically relied on offseason addition Alfred Morris as the change of pace. We didn’t have any reason to question that until Monday, when special teams standout Raheem Mostert rushed 12 times for an impressive 87 yards.
A solid week of practice from Mostert leading up to Monday’s matchup against Green Bay was the reason behind his expanded usage against the Packers. It’s entirely feasible that Mostert capitalizes on his momentum to capture a more significant role in Shanahan’s offense alongside Breida. His usage on Sunday against the Rams will have significant implications of his role in the offense moving forward.