Here are five things to watch when the 49ers host the undefeated Los Angeles Rams Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
1. Marquise Goodwin’s presence
Kyle Shanahan finally saw glimpses of the offense he envisioned last week in Green Bay when receiver Marquise Goodwin was back to near full speed offering a deep threat that unlocks everything else. Goodwin said afterward it was the healthiest he felt since the season opener when he suffered a deep thigh bruise crashing into Jaleel Johnson, the Vikings’ 316-pound defensive tackle.
Goodwin’s presence forces defense to man the deep portion of the field. It’s an element no other 49ers’ wideout can provide, particularly while rookie second-round pick Dante Pettis remains sidelined with a knee injury.
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Goodwin’s played in four of San Francisco’s six games this season, but was hardly moving at 100 percent until he returned against the Packers, when he scored touchdowns of 67 and 30 yards, making it the first multi-score game of his career.
“It was huge,” Shanahan said. “That was the first game the true ’Quise was back. He was able to run the same way he usually does.”
That the running game was also strong with Goodwin was no surprise. The Packers couldn’t load the box to try and stop Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, who combined to average 5.7 yards per carry, knowing Goodwin is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. When Goodwin’s out there, the running game has a better chance to succeed, thus leading to more effective use of play action, from which quarterback C.J. Beathard completes 73 percent of his throws and has a 122 passer rating compared to 76.8 without it.
2. Slowing down Todd Gurley
The 49ers’ best chance at pulling off the upset must include limiting running back Todd Gurley, who’s coming off a 225-yard performance in last week’s victory against the Broncos. Gurley is the NFL’s leading rusher with 623 yards while averaging over 100 yards per game. He’s also eighth among running backs with 247 receiving yards.
“He’s getting better and better. He’s as talented of a back as I’ve ever studied coming out of college,” Shanahan said. “Everyone knew he was going to be real good coming in to this league. He’s continued to show that, and he’s continued to get better and better.”
San Francisco will need a big performance from their young inside linebackers Reuben Foster and Fred Warner, who are still building chemistry after playing just four games next to each other. The 49ers rank 10th in the league allowing 4.0 yards per carry and have yielded just one 100-yard rusher this season: Melvin Gordon of the Chargers Week 4.
Gurley is the engine of the Rams offense. He’s touched the ball 150 times, more than any other player in the NFL. Second on the Rams is receiver Robert Woods, who has 43 touches on the year.
3. Will Raheem Mostert continue to shine?
The 49ers might have discovered something important last week against the Packers: Raheem Mostert could be far more than a special teams ace.
The former undrafted free agent led San Francisco with 87 rushing yards while splitting time with Matt Breida, who has dealt with ankle, knee and shoulder injuries throughout the season. Breida still leads the NFL averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
But Mostert’s 7.3 average in Green Bay could be the creation of a speedy a two-pronged rushing attack, which could offer a sizable upgrade over veteran Alfred Morris, who enters Sunday’s game averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per rush.
More importantly, Mostert’s track speed fits with Shanahan’s outside zone runs, which the 49ers have become excellent at blocking this season thanks to strong play from tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, along with valuable contributions from tight ends George Kittle and Garrett Celek and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
4. The most important stat
The 49ers have been respectable on offense, even without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and top running back Jerick McKinnon. They rank 12th in yardage and 15 in scoring. The running game ranks third averaging 142.5 yards per game. On defense, they rank 16th in opponents’ yards per play (5.7) and 13th in third-down conversion rate (37.35 percent).
But those aren’t the numbers that stand out to Shanahan.
“I would say the most consistent stat is turnovers, and we’re not doing good in that area at all,” Shanahan said. “When you’re that bad in that stat, nothing surprises me.”
San Francisco (1-5) has given away 14 turnovers, the second most in the NFL, while its three takeaways are a league low. Their minus-11 turnover ratio is easily the worst in the league. The Rams, meanwhile, have given the ball away just six times, tied for the third fewest.
Teams that win the turnover battle win roughly 75 percent of the time. So it’s no surprise the 49ers entered the week tied for the NFL’s worst record.
5. A promising coaching rivalry
Shanahan and Rams coach Sean McVay are close – and they’re also the two youngest coaches in the league. McVay, 32, coached tight ends under Shanahan, 38, when they were both with Washington before replacing him as offensive coordinator when Shanahan left for Cleveland in 2014.
They’re both considered some of the best offensive minds in the game. And McVay credited Shanahan for his influence this week. They both run similar versions of the West Coast offense.
“He’s great coach,” McVay said of Shanahan. “And I learned so much from him in terms of just being committed to an identity so your players know what they stand for, but also having enough variation that you got some unpredictability to what you’re trying to get done, how to create some explosive plays through the pass game that doesn’t totally put a lot of stress of your guys up front, with regards to play actions, the movements with the change of launch points.”
The two remain close friends, though their conversations aren’t quite as free-flowing as they were before they became head coaches in the same division in 2017. Now the two have to be sure not to let any secrets slip when they link up at places the NFL scouting combine each offseason.
“We always enjoy talking ball and it doesn’t have to be anything where you’re giving your secrets away,” McVay said. “But so much of what I’ve learned, it’s really, we’re operating in a very similar manner. We certainly still talk. I know that I feel like I wish he wasn’t in our division and we didn’t have to play twice a year so that we could be a little bit more open with our dialogue and I feel the same way with a lot of those coaches I have close relationships with on your guys’ staff. But, we’re fortunate to even be in these roles. So we’ll take it, but I would prefer not to have Kyle Shanahan in our division, if you ask me.”