Can 49ers turn this season around against the Rams? Not likely

Monday night matchup will be a stiff test for struggling team

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

Well that certainly was ugly. If you watched this past Sunday’s fiasco at Levi’s Stadium where the undermanned Cardinals torched San Francisco, it was plain to see that this just isn’t the 49ers’ season.

Fumbles, missed tackles, untimely penalties and turnovers destroyed any chances to win. It’s hard to fathom that an Arizona team that was missing four of its top stars would play like one of the NFL’s great teams.

Will it get any easier this coming Monday night when the 7-2 Rams come to Santa Clara? It seems highly unlikely.

Injuries for the Niners continue to pile up with the most recent one being the loss of reliable young veteran right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The former Notre Dame star tore a quadriceps muscle early in the game last Sunday and is gone for the year. Veteran Tom Compton, who normally fills in at guard, has the unenviable task of trying to protect Jimmy Garoppolo Monday night. He’s got to find a way to slow down people such as perennial All-Pro Aaron Donald and future Hall of Fame sack specialist Von Miller. Another Ram defender to keep an eye on is the dangerous Leonard Floyd, a roaming linebacker who has already chalked up 7½ sacks.

Meanwhile, the shabby play of young veteran right guard Daniel Brunskill is also a major area of concern. Brunskill looked lost against the Cardinals, as he was repeatedly beaten at the line and allowed Cardinal defenders to swarm over Garoppolo for three of their five sacks. A couple of years ago, it appeared that Brunskill was a diamond in the rough when he filled in capably on the line. But now we’re seeing reasons why this guy was undrafted and played the 2019 season in the minor leagues.

It all starts with the offensive line, so it’s pretty simple what the Niners need to do against the Rams. Former Raiders’ coach John Madden once told me in an interview that if you’re weak in one area, opposing teams will attack that spot again and again until they get the results they want. You can be certain that the Rams will pour the pressure on Garoppolo’s right side with two journeymen filling in.

The Rams defense has been mostly terrific because they know how to beat other teams to the punch. Bill Walsh, who in addition to his splendid coaching career was a terrific amateur fighter in his youth, compared the “war in the trenches” to a boxing match.

“It’s just a matter of getting to your opponent with that first punch before he hits you,” said Walsh. “Hit him in the mouth quickly. The difference can be a matter of inches or seconds. That’s something I learned very early in boxing.”

Will the 49ers find a way to punch the Rams in the mouth early on the way to a huge upset? They’ve had pretty good success against L.A. in recent years but this game is likely to be another loss that could push their season over the cliff.

The problem certainly doesn’t lie with Jimmy G. He gets flack from the fans and media and to be sure, he is not an elite quarterback. Garappolo is merely efficient. He’s probably in the second tier of NFL quarterbacks. Given a strong supporting cast he has shown that he can take a team to a top position in the standings, but he doesn’t have nearly as much to work with this year as he did in 2019. The Niners won 13 of 16 regular season games that year.

On the other hand, the Rams’ Mathew Stafford is enjoying another solid year statistically. Unlike seasons past when he was leading a mediocre Detroit team, Stafford has much better players around him. The big, strong-armed right-hander is a classic pocket passer who has plenty of options. His favorite target is the great veteran wide receiver Cooper Kupp who has already singed opposing defenses for 74 catches and ten TDs this season. Expect Stafford and Kupp to try and hook up frequently against an injury depleted 49ers’ secondary. Going forward, he’ll also have newly signed Odell Beckham, Jr. as an option.

The Rams are looking for a bounce-back game after an embarrassing 28-16 loss to visiting Tennessee last week. The Titans singed the normally effective Rams’ defense for 21 unanswered points in the third quarter. That should not happen again this Monday night. But on paper, while this one looks like an easy win for LA, Rams’ Head Coach Sean McVay has continually been frustrated against his old friend Kyle Shanahan, whose 49ers have made life miserable for L.A. in recent years.

If the Niners want to get to Stafford, they’re going to have to ramp up their defensive efforts, which will be a major challenge. Two years ago, when the 49ers went to the Super Bowl, their biggest strength was the defensive line.

But after 2019, the Niners decided to part ways with DeForest Buckner because they didn’t want to give him an exorbitant contract, and instead stuck with Arik Armistead who has not been consistent enough. Nick Bosa needs help but he’s going to have a tough time getting it with Dee Ford rarely able to play and former first round pick Javon Kinlaw out for the season with a knee injury. Bosa will almost surely face numerous double teams from the Rams’ line as they try to keep him out of Stafford’s face.

Linebacker Fred Warner, the steady leader of the San Francisco defense also needs to step forward. Although he was active with six tackles and eight assists last week, he mostly came up short when the Niners defense needed a big play.

With the losses mounting and the grumbling fans getting louder, the pressure continues to mount on head coach Kyle Shanahan. Two years ago, the young man was the toast of the NFL as he unveiled an imaginative, unconventional offensive game plan that bedeviled opponents. With his innovative strategy and the players to make it happen, the 49ers came within 10 minutes of winning the Super Bowl. But before that special year, they were a poor or mediocre team under Shanahan. Now, they’ve regressed back to that level.

General Manager John Lynch is committed to Shanahan and the 49ers brain trust should be around for at least another season. Owner Jed York seems a little more patient than his sometimes volatile uncle Eddie DeBartolo, who nearly drove the overly sensitive Bill Walsh nuts with his frequent tirades after tough losses.

Winning Monday will not provide a panacea to the Niners problems, but it will lower some of the heat. This beleaguered team is simply trying to gain some respectability with a depleted cast.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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