San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is widely viewed as one of the best offensive minds in the league. The Niners’ most historic rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, are standing between the team and a 5-0 start, and he has to do it with a wounded offense coming in.
I’m not very sure what the best way is for a team to prepare for a divisional game against their oldest rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, but I’m pretty sure the San Francisco 49ers having offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey out for four to six weeks with a knee injury is not it.
The Niners are in a very good position. They’re 4-0 for the first time since 1990, they have both the division and the conference lead and the defense looks championship worthy.
Both have been integral parts of the offense, especially in the running game.
When you combine this with San Francisco’s other starting tackle, Joe Staley, still recovering from a broken leg, that means the 49ers have to walk into Los Angeles short both offensive tackles and their multipurpose fullback.
This is a very important game. Not only is it the divisional opener for San Francisco and a chance to go 5-0, but it’s a chance to send Los Angeles truly back into the standings and (for now at least) have only the Seattle Seahawks to battle in the division.
The Rams are 3-2 and aren’t quite firing on all cylinders to begin the season. Some of this is due to regression to their defense, but another big reason is their offense is faltering due to their offensive line being one of the worst in the league.
How bad? Look at this chart from Pro Football Focus (h/t Niners Nation’s Rob Lowder).
Defensively, the 49ers have the Rams covered on paper. So the question is what can the 49ers do on offense?
This is where the offensive mastery of head coach Kyle Shanahan comes into play.
We saw some of this against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. To mitigate the talents of EDGE Myles Garrett, they established the run game and threw almost exclusively short and intermediate passes to lessen the time for Garrett to get to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. This worked very well, as Garoppolo generally had time in the pocket (he was sacked twice) and he was able to lean on the running game and move the chains when needed.
That was brilliant coaching by Shanahan, but it may not work as well against the Rams. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald stands in the way in the trenches, and losing Juszczyk is a huge blow for the run game.
Don’t let the misleading stats of Donald fool you, he’s still been an elite defender.
With both starting tackles out, the 49ers will have to rely on inexperience while passing, too. Justin Skule has played admirably well at left tackle in the absence of Staley, but Daniel Brunskill will be an unknown. The interior has improved its blocking from last season, but Donald is the top interior defender in the NFL.
This is where Shanahan needs to showcase his talents. The 49ers plan will be to use the rush early and often, but the injuries to the offense may stop that. Rams head coach Sean McVay is one of the best minds in the NFL, too, and will no doubt have plans to stifle the run in any way he can.
The solution could be to test the Rams secondary. They’ve lost shootouts to the Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and are much more vulnerable to teams testing their defense. However Garoppolo has not had to play in a shootout yet this year, and the 49ers receivers haven’t really shone (to be fair, it’s hard to when you have early leads and prefer to run the ball).
Multiple injuries to the offense, the best interior defensive lineman in the league and one of the best coaches in football. It’s a mountain of challenges for any game, let alone a divisional rivalry game on the road to an opponent desperate to avoid falling into the middle of the pack.
Shanahan has earned many plaudits for his work in the first four games of the season, but he was never truly tested. Week 6 is the time for him to show the NFL what he’s made of. Whether it be to continue to run the ball or a new game plan to account for injuries, he needs to win however he can.
It’s time to show the NFL how good he is.