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The formula for handing the 49ers their first loss

Feels like a season-defining game, doesn't it?

San Francisco versus Los Angeles always matters, especially to fans. But it's been a very long time since a 49ers-Rams meeting had these stakes.

Both rivals have winning records coming into the showdown for the first time since December 9, 2001. That's the second-longest active drought in the NFL. The Ravens and Browns have not met with winning records since October 2001, according to Elias.

As for the LOS ANGELES Rams and 49ers? The 1989 NFC Championship Game (contested on January 14, 1990) was the last meeting between California contenders. Joe Montana passed for two scores, while Jim Everett was intercepted three times, as San Francisco went on to win Super Bowl XXIV, defeating the Denver Broncos.  

And just to round out the history lesson, the last time the 49ers played the Rams in the Southland, while both were above .500?

Earlier that season. December 11, 1989 at Anaheim Stadium, a 30-27 win for San Francisco. 

All that to say, it's great to have this rivalry restored.

How Good is This Gold Rush?

You might recall we asked a similar question of the Seattle Seahawks last week. Turns out, they were pretty good.

And while the Niners are 4-0 for the first time in three decades, the teams they've beaten have a combined record of 7-14.

This is their first NFC West date, and those around the 49ers have said it's a litmus test.

Despite their strength of schedule (or lack thereof), Football Outsiders says San Francisco isn't just a quality team. They're historically strong through four games.

Field Position Condition

The Niners offense has had very favorable circumstances this year.

Despite having played just four contests, San Francisco leads the NFL with 11 drives beginning in opponent's territory. Many of them have been earned by a suddenly insatiable defense.

Yes, Kyle Shanahan boasts one of the most potent rushing attacks in football. But it's a lot easier to hand the ball off when you're already in field goal range.

Sunday, the Rams must make the Niners go the length of the field.

No Biting Allowed

To say the Rams are getting a taste of their own medicine might be the understatement of the season.

After reigning as the top play action offense in the NFL for two years, that faucet's been turned off. And instead, it's the Rams defense now being picked apart by play fakes.

Kudos to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell for this observation: L.A. ranks last in passer rating (156.5) and QBR (96.7) against play-action in 2019.

Knock the 49ers off schedule; force them into known passing situations. Otherwise, with the full playbook available to Kyle Shanahan, he'll make sure you're wrong on defense.

The Los Angeles Rams practice ahead of their Week 6 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

Welcome to Troy

No USC home game this weekend, but Troy Hill will start in place of Aqib Talib.

Several thoughts on this.

First, say what you will about Pro Football Focus, but they have not been kind to the 33-year old corner, grading him 85th at his position in 2019.

Can you measure what Talib's experience and savvy means to this defense? Well, the games he missed a year ago were a pretty good barometer and the results weren't great. So there's ample reason to be concerned in this moment.

However, the Rams thought highly enough of Hill to sign him to an extension this off-season. And they thought highly enough of him to keep him over Kevin Peterson, who had a great camp and is getting starter's reps in Arizona.

Additionally, you know with certainty that the 49ers are going to make your corners tackle on the perimeter. And if Talib has sore ribs, that's a bad formula for taking on blockers and tackling in space.

Finally, let me be abundantly clear: San Francisco has weapons who can carve up any secondary. Marquise Goodwin has two career touchdowns in the Coliseum against the Rams. Dante Pettis was drafted 44th overall. Rookie Deebo Samuel came off the board at 36 this spring. And Kendrick Bourne teamed with Cooper Kupp at Eastern Washington, so you know he's special.

Here comes the "but"…

But the 49ers don't have a Tyler Lockett, or a Mike Evans, or a Chris Godwin, just to name a few of the opponents who've torched the Rams secondary for eight receiving touchdowns the last two weeks.

So, at least there's that.

Time for Donald to Dominate

We all understand he's facing double and triple teams. Sometimes it must feel like this to be Aaron Donald.

Nonetheless, seeing the 49ers will always be a reminder of what he did at Levi's Stadium in 2018, with four sacks and one of the most ridiculous forced fumbles we've ever seen.

And whether San Francisco tries to block him with three or thirteen, the Rams best player has to find a way on Sunday, especially against an offense missing two starting tackles and a fullback.

Bend But Don't Break

Here's another critical 49ers trend that could play heavily into Sunday's outcome.

After suffering through the NFL's worst red zone statistics in 2018, San Francisco still has not found the formula to finish drives. Despite ranking third in opportunities inside the 20 this season, Jimmy Garoppolo and company are 25th in touchdown percentage.

Conversely, this has been an area of great improvement for McVay's Rams (second in opportunities, ninth in touchdown percentage).

Good Golly, Hog Molly

But that's not the biggest discrepancy heading into Sunday. This is.

Los Angeles has allowed the most total pressures and the worst pass blocking efficiency, as measured by PFF. San Francisco's offensive line is best in the NFL in that metric, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks.

The Rams are healthy up front, coming off their best showing in Seattle, and had extra days to regroup and prepare. Meantime, the 49ers are down both tackles, plus their fullback, and just played Monday Night Football.

This pendulum has to swing in the home team's favor to get the result they want.

Rest Easy

Speaking of extra rest, the Rams are 8-0 under Sean McVay when they have more days between games than their opponents.

Chronologically, these are the wins:

2017 – at Dallas, at New York

2018 – at San Francisco, at Detroit, vs Dallas, at New Orleans

2019 – vs New Orleans, at Cleveland


Going Without Gurley

Many of you have been clamoring to see Darrell Henderson Jr., and it appears his opportunity has arrived in Week 6, with Todd Gurley doubtful to dress.

I, too, am looking forward to McVay really putting the rookie's play-making ability on display for the first time.

But what's primary in my estimation is pass protection. Can Henderson be trusted to fulfill his assignment against a ferocious 49ers pass rush, knowing that every defense the Rams have seen lately has been throwing kitchen sinks at Jared Goff?

Jared Sees Red (and Gold)

Goff has played some of his best football versus the 49ers.

In his last three against them (he sat Week 17 of 2017 with the division clinched), he's 3-0 with nine touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 136 rating.

However, this is not your 2017-18 San Francisco defense. Instead, these 49ers rank first in total QBR allowed. They've absolutely pummeled Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Mason Rudolph, and Baker Mayfield.

Turnover Free?

And so the question becomes, can the Rams orchestrate a turnover-free performance?

The last time they did so was in the Divisional Round win over Dallas.

That was seven games ago.

In 2019, they have a minus-4 turnover margin, and Goff has committed more giveaways than any player in the NFL. Last year, he didn't throw his seventh interception until Week 13.

And I know Gerald Everett should've caught the ball in Seattle that instead turned into pick number seven. However, there were a few other turnover-worthy throws that Jared didn't pay the price for, so those things tend to come out in the wash.

In regards to turnovers, a bit of luck wouldn't hurt, either. The Rams have only recovered one of their seven fumbles since Carolina.

Tight End Takeover

Everett is coming off a career performance, with seven receptions for 136 yards in Seattle. And combined with Tyler Higbee's 47-yard haul, it was the most productive game of McVay's tenure for the position group he used to coach.

While I've certainly enjoyed the multiple personnel groupings and know fans are clamoring for even more two-tight end sets, a word of caution: It's almost always Kupp who comes off the field in those situations, and he's been far-and-away the Rams MVP.

Last Home Game For A Month

The Rams won't be back at the Coliseum for 35 days, when they host back-to-back primetime contests against the Bears and Ravens in November.

Here's to making the most of Sunday.

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