INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch strode side by side in their suits, with bags strapped on their defeated shoulders, as they walked off SoFi Stadium’s field at 8:15 p.m. on Jan. 30.
Hovering above them on the enormous, ring-like video board were the words: “SUPER BOWL LVI BOUND” followed by the painful reminder it was the Rams, not the 49ers, who’d just won the NFC Championship.
The 49ers return to that scene of the crime Sunday.
A Super Bowl berth is not on the line, but this meeting is pivotal in how the 49ers (3-4) and the defending Super Bowl-champion Rams (3-3) chart their way through the NFC West’s rickety road.
It’s only the second time in 22 years that the 49ers-Rams series will be done by Halloween, the other instance coming in 2020. The 49ers have won the past seven regular-season meetings, including a 24-9 home rout on Oct. 3 which, coach Kyle Shanahan said, “put to bed” any angst they had over their NFC Championship Game loss.
This marks the fifth time they’ve played in a 50-week span. That last win gives the 49ers the confidence to match whatever motivation remains from blowing a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in the NFC Championship Game.
While the Rams are coming off their bye, the 49ers are looking to rebound from back-to-back losses to Atlanta and Kansas City, and here is how they can do that:
5. HALFTIME COFFEE
The 49ers are dreadful to open the second half of games. They’ve been outscored 49-13 in the third quarter. Their inability to score or keep pace after halftime has doomed them.
“Honestly, that’s the first time I’ve heard that stat, so I’m not too positive what the reasoning is for that,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said, “but we definitely need to fix that. I think the third quarter is where a big momentum shift happens and we need to fix that.”
That issue is not new. It surfaced in their season opener, when a 10-0 halftime lead sank amid a 19-10 defeat in Chicago. A 7-3 halftime lead in Denver led to an 11-10 loss two weeks later. They got blanked after halftime in a 28-14 loss at Atlanta, then got outscored 30-10 in the second half of last Sunday’s 44-23 loss to the Chiefs.
Shanahan and his staff need to make better adjustments, and, conversely, players need to make plays rather than penalties or drops or blown assignments.
4. EXPLOSIVE PLAYS
The 49ers’ third-down defense failed so bad last Sunday that the Chiefs had four conversions over 25 yards, including morale busters on third-and-11 (57-yard catch) and third-and-20 (34-yard catch-and-run).
Midway through the second quarter, Fox’s broadcast had a graphic praising the 49ers for allowing the NFL’s “fewest big play.” Then, well, life moved pretty fast.
A week earlier, the 49ers’ six-man pass rush allowed Marcus Mariota to escape for a 15-yard run on third-and-12, setting up the Falcons’ go-ahead touchdown. Stopping this trend is a must.
When it comes to the Rams’ struggles this season, they’ve strayed from their explosive-play tendencies, and 49ers linebacker Fred Warner attributes that to a sub-par rushing attack and defenses’ off coverage that invites underneath yards.
“It’s still a high-powered offense with (coach) Sean McVay, Matt Stafford, Cooper Kupp, all the guys that are capable of a lot,” Warner added.
Warner said the Chiefs’ ability last Sunday “to hang 44 on our defense, that’s embarrassing, to say the least. But it’s also an opportunity to look yourself hard in the face and see how you can rise through adversity.”
3. DENY DONALD
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald “is a focal point for us on every single play,” said Chris Foerster, the 49ers’ run-game coordinator and offensive line coach.
Foerster compared Donald’s game-wrecking ability to past stars such as John Randle, Warren Sapp and Reggie White, but also Grady Jackson and Chris Jones, who indeed soured the 49ers’ offense the past two weeks for Atlanta and Kansas City, respectively.
The 49ers’ interior line – center Jake Brendel and guards Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford — got their first impression of Donald out of the way Oct. 3. Considering how well Jones overwhelmed right tackle Mike McGlinchey last Sunday, McGlinchey also is preparing to see Donald shift his way more than ever.
The 49ers’ strategy, as usual, will be to deceiver Donald any which way, and, well, to run the ball away from his backside pursuit.
In 17 meetings with the 49ers, Donald has 12 ½ sacks, 34 quarterback hits, 20 tackles for loss, and, an ejection in a 2016 game. He had no sacks in last season’s NFC Championship Game, but he had Garoppolo in his grasp to hurry a pass that got intercepted with 69 seconds remaining.
2. ‘COOPER KUPP SHOW’
When it comes to the Rams’ offense, “it’s always the Cooper Kupp Show. That hasn’t changed over the past couple weeks,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said.
Kupp racked up 14 catches for 122 yards on 19 targets in the Oct. 3 matchup, but he didn’t get in the end zone, and he has just two touchdowns on 47 career receptions against the 49ers.
Often covering Kupp and his crisp but confounding option routes will often be Jimmie Ward, who isn’t thrilled about reverting from free safety to nickel back, but his experience makes him a better option than Sam Womack III or Deommodore Lenior. Last meeting, Lenoir gave up 11 catches on 12 targets for 97 yards last game against Kupp and the Rams, whose quarterback, Matthew Stafford, got sacked seven times.
Kupp was targeted when Talanoa Hufanga made a pick-six, continuing a trend in which Fred Warner, Javon Kinlaw and Jimmie Ward all returned interceptions for touchdowns against the Rams since 2019.
The 49ers must caution against being too preoccupied with Kupp, and that means they’ll need tight coverage from all, including cornerback Charvarius Ward and safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. Jason Verrett is eligible to debut but the 49ers figure to limit him to a cameo or hold him out until after next week’s bye. Thus, Lenoir figures to start again in place of Emmanuel Moseley, who had season-ending knee surgery Wednesday.
1. THE McCATALYST
One week since trading for Christian McCaffrey, general manager John Lynch is further convinced he’s made the right gamble, especially after watching McCaffrey’s explosiveness in practice and last Sunday’s 21-snap debut.
“We feel we’ve got the team and just need to put it together, and Christian can be a catalyst for that,” Lynch said Friday on KNBR 680-AM.
McCaffrey, indeed, is needed to fill that role previously occupied much of the past two seasons by Deebo Samuel, who’s been ruled out this game after not practicing all week because of a hamstring injury.
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris expects “wrinkles” in the 49ers’ offense and for McCaffrey to get the tunnel-screen passes that previously went to Samuel.
The Rams just faced McCaffrey in his Panthers’ finale two weeks ago, when he had 69 rushing yards and 89 receiving yards. “He’s a headache to try to game plan for with all the pieces they’ve already got,” Donald told L.A.-based reporters.
The extra element McCaffrey might add best is his receiving ability for a quick-throwing Garoppolo against Donald and the Rams’ pass rush. “Yeah, he throws a great ball. He’s dialed in,” McCaffrey said. “He’s a lot of fun to work with. It’s been fun getting to know him and I’m excited to continue to play with him.”