The final game of Week 10 of the 2021 NFL season pits NFC West rivals against each other. The Los Angeles Rams, coming off a disappointing home loss to the Tennessee Titans last week, travel to Northern California to take on the San Francisco 49ers, who have lost five of their last six games after starting the season 2-0.
This game should mark the Rams debuts for Von Miller and Odell Beckham, while it will also be their first game since losing Robert Woods for the season. L.A. has an opportunity to gain some ground on the division-leading Cardinals after Arizona lost to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The 49ers are pretty far back in the playoff race at the moment, but they do at least have an opportunity to play spoiler here.
So, can the Rams get back to their winning ways, or will the Niners send them into the loss column once again? We'll find out Monday evening. But first, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Rams have the ball
The Rams suffered a tremendous loss in Friday's practice, when Woods went down for the year with a torn ACL. The Beckham signing softens the blow a bit as it prevents the Rams from having to dig even deeper into their wide receiver depth chart, but Woods and Beckham are much different players. The Rams are almost surely not going to use Odell the same way they did Woods in the run game, for instance, and Woods' facility and willingness to do the dirty work as a blocker is part of what made him such a valuable player for this offense.
In Woods' absence, it seems more likely that Van Jefferson will play more of Woods' role, while Beckham slides into Jefferson's role as a field-stretcher and back side threat. It's a role that Beckham is well-suited for, but also one he didn't particularly like playing in Cleveland. The Rams pass the ball far more often than do the Browns, so perhaps he'll be more willing to accept that role because he'll actually see more targets deep down the field. Matthew Stafford can certainly get the ball there on those plays, as well as those where Beckham is running the back-side dig that Woods or Jefferson would often run prior to Woods' injury.
No matter Beckham's role in the offense, it seems highly likely that Cooper Kupp will maintain his place atop the team's pecking order. He has shown immense chemistry with Stafford this season, he has the deepest wealth of knowledge of the offense, he's the team's best route-runner, and he's now also easily the biggest and most physical of the team's starting wideouts.
Kupp lines up on the perimeter more often these days than he did earlier in his career, but is still most often aligned in the slot. The 49ers have allowed 46 catches on 55 targets to slot receivers this season, per Pro Football Focus, allowing 361 yards and two touchdowns on those passes. That is, uh, not very good. K'Waun Williams is the team's top option in the slot and he's been better than other defensive backs the Niners have tried in the role, but the 5-9, 185-pound Williams is at a distinct size disadvantage against Kupp, who is quite big for a slot receiver (6-2, 208 pounds).
The 49ers' perimeter defensive backs have left a lot to be desired in coverage this season, leaving them potentially vulnerable to Jefferson and Beckham doing some damage as well. Josh Norman is listed as questionable for this game, but he's been ineffective for most of the year anyway. Emmanuel Moseley has been... fine, but it's easy enough to attack the 49ers' other starters that you don't even need to worry about throwing at him.
The Niners are usually quite good at taking away the middle of the field due to the coverage abilities of their linebackers and safeties, but Dre Greenlaw has been out since Week 1, Fred Warner is having a down season, and Jaquiski Tartt has largely not played up to his usual standards, either. It seemed likely earlier this week that tight end Tyler Higbee was headed for a decrease in role after the Beckham acquisition; but the Rams now don't have the receiver depth to dramatically ramp up their usage of 10 personnel, so Higbee will likely retain a near-every-down role in the offense. He could be set up fairly well in this matchup, too.
The 49ers have been far more effective stopping the run (sixth in Football Outsiders' rush defense DVOA) than the pass (25th), thanks in large part to the ability of their defensive line to make plays in the backfield. San Francisco ranks fifth in Adjusted Line Yards allowed per carry, and ninth in the share of opponent rushing attempts stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Rams have done a good job of running the ball throughout the season so far, but the advantages they have in the pass game makes it seem like they should tip the balance more in that direction in this matchup.
When the 49ers have the ball
This is not necessarily a strength-on-strength matchup, but it's definitely a preference-on-preference matchup. The Rams' defense is designed to encourage opponents to run the ball, and the 49ers largely want to base their offense around the zone running game. Few teams in the NFL use fewer defenders in the box than the Rams, who have aligned with six or fewer defenders near the line of scrimmage on 23 more defensive snaps than the next-closest team despite not yet having played their Week 10 game.
The 49ers have tended to run into heavier boxes than most teams in the league, so this game should be a change of pace for them. Elijah Mitchell has run into an eight-plus man box on 39.3% of his carries, per TruMedia, the league's highest rate among 49 qualified running backs. He's averaged 5.0 yards per carry into those eight-man boxes, tied for the ninth-best figure among that same group of players. Mitchell has just 15 carries into light boxes this season, but he's averaged 5.53 yards per tote on those plays. That's a good sign for his potential to get going against the Rams, which would in turn set the 49ers offense up for success.
San Francisco's pass game is predicated on a lot of play-action and bootleg concepts, which give Jimmy Garoppolo easier reads and wider throwing lanes. Garoppolo's 108.7 passer rating on play-action throws dwarfs his 88.1 mark on straight dropback plays. The leveled crossing routes that are the 49ers' staples on those plays, though, don't work quite as well or as often against the types of two-high safety looks that form the basis of the Rams' defensive coverages. It will be up to the likes of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle to adjust to the zones and find open space for Garoppolo to deliver them the ball.
It's also worth watching what the Rams decide to do, coverage-wise, in this matchup. They have used Jalen Ramsey in the slot on about 40% of his defensive snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus. Using him there allows him to contribute to the run fits along with the defensive front, but might not allow him to contribute as much as a coverage player in what should be the team's preferred matchups. It seems somewhat unlikely that he shadows either Samuel or Kittle wherever they go, but we can't rule out the possibility.
The Niners typically block things up very well up front, but the loss of right tackle Mike McGlinchey could prove damaging here as Von Miller might make his Rams debut on Monday night. Miller has tended to rush from the left side of the defense during his career, putting him right where McGlinchey would usually be. Couple him with Aaron Donald up the middle and Leonard Floyd on the opposite edge, and the Rams have the ability to make things very uncomfortable for San Francisco's offensive line.
Prediction: Rams 33, 49ers 23