It feels as though the 49ers season is on the line Monday night as they host the Rams. With a win, the Niners are right back into the thick of the playoff hunt as they’d be a half-game out. However, a loss means 3-6 and an uphill battle that signals the beginning of the Trey Lance era.
Knowing what’s at stake tonight, something unexpected has to happen for the 49ers to pull off an upset. So here are four bold predictions for Monday night.
Jimmie Ward gets his first interception of the season
To win tonight, the Niners will have to turn the Rams over. Jimmie Ward is one of if not my favorite 49er to watch. His value was on display last week when Ward wasn’t on the field against the Cardinals as we saw big plays, missed tackles, and mental mistakes on the back-end that don’t happen when No. 1 is on the field.
If Ward could catch, he’d be viewed as a top safety in the league. To be recognized among the league’s best, you have to make plays on the ball. Ward has broken up one pass this season, but that’s the extent of the plays he’s made on the ball. The good news for Ward is, assuming he’s doing the heavy-lifting in stopping Cooper Kupp, he’ll have ample opportunities tonight.
Kupp has double-digit targets in every game this season except one, where he had nine targets. Ward, for whatever reason, turns into an All-Pro player when he suits up against the Rams. That continues tonight, and Ward surprises with his first interception of the season.
The 49ers have their longest return of the season
According to Football Outsiders, the Rams have the fifth-worst kickoff coverage team, worst kickoff return team, sixth-worst punt coverage team, and 11th-worst punt return team. In addition, across the board, Sean McVay’s bunch struggles on special teams.
If there’s an area to take advantage of the Rams, it’s on special teams. Quietly, Brandon Aiyuk has been excellent as a punt returner. For returners who have at least 15 punt returns, Aiyuk is fourth in the NFL, averaging 8.9 yards per punt return. Aiyuk’s tied for fourth in the NFL with two returns over 20 yards. In the spotlight, Aiyuk could change the landscape of the game with a long return.
We’ve seen Trenton Cannon have a few impressive returns as a kick returner, but we’ve also seen him cough up the ball. Aiyuk is trending in the correct direction and is fresh off a season-long 27-yard punt return. Aiyuk tops that number tonight.
The Niners offense has more passing plays over 20 yards than the Rams
Explosive passing plays have been difficult to come by for the 49ers. They’re bottom ten on the season. When you go from Week 5 on, the Niners are 15th in the NFL. Stafford and the Rams are third and first during those same stretches.
George Kittle caught a 19-yard pass on the first drive against Arizona. He caught an 18-yarder on the ensuing drive before fumbling. Two drives later, Aiyuk catches a pass for 11 yards, Kittle for 14, and Aiyuk for 22 yards before he fumbled. There were two more passes for double-digits on their next drive, and Aiyuk added a 16-yarder on 3rd & 11. All of this happened during the first half.
The offense moves the ball then they throw up on themselves. That’s been the theme of the season. Between Aiyuk, Deebo, and George Kittle, plus the running backs in the screen game, I see the 49ers picking up multiple chunk plays against the Rams.
Since Week 5, the Rams have allowed the 12th-most passing plays over 20 yards in the NFL. So the opportunities will be there. It’s a matter of the 49ers executing.
The 49ers have more sacks on defense than the Rams
The 49ers are 25th in adjusted sack rate. The Rams are 12th. That was before adding Von Miller. Both teams have a similar pressure percentage (49ers are at 23.3% while the Rams are at 22.5%), but it feels like San Francisco goes stretches, quarters, even, where they don’t come anywhere near the QB.
We’ve seen cracks in the Rams offensive line. They could be missing their starting center. Stafford is playing on a gimpy ankle. Tonight should be the perfect coming-out party for Arik Armstead, the defensive tackle.
Armstead had his best game of the season last week as he had ten tackles, one for loss, and added a sack. He should’ve had another sack, a QB hit, and a couple of pressures. He was unblockable. That pressure Armstead creates will do wonders for Nick Bosa. Also, a slow, unathletic interior offensive line is the type of line that Kevin Givens shines against.
The game will be close as San Francisco can score, and their defensive line should make life miserable for Stafford. But, tonight, I expect the defensive line to look like the unit we expected all season.