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What the 49ers must do to slow down Stafford, Kupp, and the high-powered Rams

Winning on first down, stopping the run, and getting Jimmie Ward back

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Rams are 3.5-point favorites with the total set at 50.5 for Monday Night Football over at DraftKings Sportsbook. Still, forget everything you’ve learned about Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams whenever they’ve matched up against the San Francisco 49ers during the past few years. This is not the same team.

Gone is Jared Goff and the quarterback who hardly put fear into the eyes of the defense. Now, it’s Matthew Stafford under center. And while your initial reaction is to remember him basically gifting two pick-sixes to the Titans on Sunday Night Football last week, that qualifies as an extreme outlier.

Since Week 5, no team in the NFL has more passing plays over 20 yards than the Rams. During that same stretch, Los Angeles has the ninth most running plays for more than 15 yards and is fifth in EPA per play. Not only are the Rams explosive, but they are efficient, as evidenced by their 48% success rate on offense, ranking seventh in the NFL.

Week 9 was rock bottom for the 49ers' defense. Their splits since Week 5 tell the story of who this defense has become. They’re 25th in EPA per play but fifth in success rate. What’s that mean? That on a down-to-down basis, San Francisco gets stops and plays well. Unfortunately, big plays on the ground have sunk this team as they’re eighth in explosive running plays allowed since Week 5.

Untimely penalties and missed tackles haven’t helped the Niners get off the field. It’s not just the bigger running plays that are hurting the defense. Let’s go back to the third quarter in Week 9. It’s 3rd & 4, and Arik Armstead collapses the pocket. Nick Bosa thinks he has a shot at McCoy, dives at his legs, but comes up empty. McCoy scrambles for seven yards and a first down.

Those plays that are extending drives are what’s plaguing the defense. The 49ers have to find a way to slow the Rams on early downs. The Titans held the Rams to -.016 EPA on early downs. Having a wrecking ball inside in Jeffery Simmons was the difference.

The Rams interior trio of David Edwards, Brian Allen, and Austin Corbett didn’t have a prayer against Simmons. Hello, Arik Armstead. Injuries have forced the Niners to kick Armstead inside to defensive tackle. He was a menace against the Cardinals and should have another field day Monday night.

The Rams, not unlike the 49ers, look a lot worse when they are forced into a dropback passing game. When you can’t run the ball or hit on play-action passes, you can’t hide your offensive line. Los Angeles has undersized and unathletic players upfront.

If the 49ers are going to have a chance, it’ll be because they copied the blueprint from the Titans: Create havoc upfront and move Stafford off his spot and into a bad decision.

Struggles in the secondary

The issue for the Niners is holding up on the back end. Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Van Jefferson are all capable of getting open at every level. San Francisco has the advantage in the front-7. It’s the opposite when you move to the perimeter.

Jimmie Ward returning to the lineup would be a significant boost as he’s been a Kupp/Woods eraser during the past few seasons. We are nine weeks into the season, and Kupp has 104 targets. That is insane. The only game he wasn’t targeted double-digit times was Week 8 against the Texans, where Kupp only had nine targets.

The Rams want to get him the ball early and often. Outside of Ward, I wouldn’t feel confident in anyone in the secondary matching up against Kupp. Woods is far from an afterthought in this offense as he has 70 targets. Jefferson is the clear-cut No. 3 wideout with 47 targets. However, he’s their deep threat, and his 16 yards per reception proves it.

This feels like a perfect game to break in Deommodore Lenoir as the Rams don’t have any “burners” at wide receiver. Lenoir is a superior athlete to Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick — plus, he’s healthy, unlike the other two.

I’d imagine McVay spent all week trying to find ways to get Talanoa Hufanga matched up against Kupp and Woods. The 49ers' secondary will be tested all night. Stafford is tied for 8th in the NFL in average time to throw. Quietly, he’s been more of a check-down quarterback than you might think. His average air yards to the sticks is -0.8, which puts him in the bottom-15. For laughs, Jimmy Garoppolo is dead last in the same stat at -5.8.

Stop the run, win the game

Football has morphed into a different sport while staying the same. You have to take care of the ball, run it, and stop the run to win. Since Week 5, the Rams are 16th in rushing success rate and 18th in EPA per rush.

This game will be won by the front-7. Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Fred Warner have to dominate their matchups. The Rams are a powerhouse on offense, but they’ve shown chinks in their armor all season — the Titans and Cardinals have been the only teams to expose them consistently.

Stop the run, gang tackle, and make Stafford beat you on multiple 3rd & longs.