The San Francisco 49ers are 4-6 on the season and currently sit in fourth place in an extremely competitive NFC West. This week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams feels like a must-win for the 49ers if they want to keep their quickly diminishing playoff hopes alive. Although they’re still facing some important absences, many of the 49ers key players returning for this game might be able to provide the necessary spark to pull out a crucial win.
San Francisco 49ers Key Players Returning
As has been the case throughout most of their season, they are going to be facing some significant absences added to an already lengthy list of sidelined players. It’s unclear if left tackle Trent Williams or wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk are going to be able to play due to COVID-19 protocols. Defensive tackle D.J. Jones is still on the COVID-19 list as well. If Williams isn’t able to play, Justin Skule would likely start at left tackle. If Aiyuk isn’t able to play, Kendrick Bourne or Richie James could see an increased role in the offense. Right guard Tom Compton, who started the last two games, has also been ruled out due to a concussion. Colton McKivitz will likely receive his first career start at right guard as a result.
There’s some good news amongst these recent setbacks, however. Both Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw are off that COVID-19 list now. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is also saying that running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, as well as cornerback Richard Sherman will be activated off injured reserve. Another crucial development is that Deebo Samuel is no longer listed on the injury report after missing multiple games due to a hamstring injury.
Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Can Boost Run Game
At first glance, the most prominent potential storyline resulting from this flurry of returns and departures is that the running game suddenly appears reinvigorated. Jerick McKinnon hasn’t been able to adequately support that rushing attack while getting the bulk of the carries. He doesn’t have the same type of explosiveness as someone like Mostert.
With Jimmy Garoppolo out, this offense needs big chunks of rushing yards on early downs to help set up more manageable second and third downs. If Nick Mullens is often facing third and longs, it’s not a recipe for success for this offense to be able to prolong drives and put points on the board.
Although McKinnon has proven durable this season, it’s becoming clear that asking him to get the bulk of the carries in a run game that predicates the rest of the offense doesn’t work. He’s averaging only 3.8 yards per run this season, and in games where he’s carried the ball at least ten times, he’s averaging just 3.1 yards per run. Mostert and Wilson returning to this offense allow McKinnon a smaller role.
Splitting Up Rushing Duties
Wilson had a phenomenal game against the New England Patriots before getting hurt, rushing for 112 yards and three touchdowns. He’ll probably be the second option after Mostert, who still leads the team in rushing yards despite having played in just four games this season. Mostert is arguably the fastest running back in football. When he accelerates through a running lane, he’s always a threat to take it all the way. Mostert and Wilson would offer a much more dynamic rushing attack than the 49ers have had in the previous few games, and that opens up their entire offense.
Given how successful the Rams’ defense has been at stopping the run this year, the return of Mostert and Wilson is especially welcome news for the 49ers. The Rams have given up the fifth-fewest rushing yards this season and the sixth-fewest yards per run. A run game where McKinnon was getting the majority of looks was likely to be quickly nullified by this defense.
The running game sets up the passing game in this 49ers’ offense, and not vice-versa. Asking Mullens to throw the ball does not seem like a winning formula in these circumstances. Regarding that passing game, Samuel returning takes on greater significance if Aiyuk can not play. They both have a similar skillset, so while swapping out one for the other does not leave the passing game worse off than it was their previous game, given Samuel was out but Aiyuk was in, it’s still a shame that the team will likely have to wait yet another week to get those two dynamic options out on the field together. The running game helps open up opportunities for the passing game, and Samuel and Aiyuk can both take advantage of that.
Richard Sherman Assists an Ailing Secondary
Sherman returning to this secondary would be a huge lift for a unit that has been hit by injuries more than maybe any other part of this team, and that’s saying something. Especially with nickel corner K’Waun Williams still out, Sherman’s presence would do a lot to help solidify this unit against a potent Rams’ aerial attack. The Rams have the 8th most passing yards per game this season. Cooper Kupp is 11th in the league in receptions per game and 19th in receiving yards per game. Robert Woods is tied for 18th in touchdown catches, 22nd in receptions per game, and is on pace for over 950 receiving yards this season. Jared Goff essentially has two legitimate number one receivers to work with, and getting Sherman’s talent and leadership back in this secondary against a team with weapons like that could be gigantic.
With strong safety Jaquiski Tartt ruled out for the season, they needed to get Sherman back soon to help solidify this secondary.
Last season, Sherman allowed the 19th fewest receiving yards per times targeted among all defenders, and the 21st lowest QB rating among defensive players when targeted. Against a team with receiving weapons like the Rams, having an option like Sherman out on the field helps mitigate the type of damage the opposing offense can do. If the 49ers want to catapult themselves back into the playoff race, they’re going to have to slow down this Rams’ offense, and Sherman can be an asset in that regard.
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