By Sam McPherson
The 2016 San Francisco 49ers are staring into a dark hole of potentially losing 15 straight games this season after a Week 1 win against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium. This Saturday, the Niners travel to Los Angeles for the first time since 1994 to take on the Rams in a rematch, and the game represents the last realistic chance San Francisco has to win a game this year. If the 49ers don’t win this one, they likely will finish 1-15, which would be the worst season record in a 71-year history for the once-proud organization.
Yes, the Niners end the season on Jan. 1 at home against the Seattle Seahawks, but the NFC West Division champs from up north need that win to help secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. There’s little chance that Seattle will let up in that game against the 49ers. Considering San Francisco has won just once in its last nine games against the Seahawks, the Rams’ road game is the best bet for a second win in 2016. Here’s how the Niners can beat L.A. on Christmas Eve.
Run, Run, Run, Run
In terms of yards allowed, the Rams defense is ranked 11th in the NFL this year. Against the run, specifically, Los Angeles is just 19th, however, so the 49ers’ offensive strength plays right into that weakness. San Francisco has the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL this season, despite its 1-13 record. The 49ers need to give the ball to running back Carlos Hyde early and often to wear out the Rams’ defensive front seven, while mixing in some designed quarterback runs for Colin Kaepernick.
Hyde and Kaepernick have combined for 1,387 yards on the ground this year, averaging 5.3 per carry between them. Los Angeles’ defensive line hasn’t performed especially well this year, due to injuries, so the San Francisco offense has to exploit that advantage in this game if it wants to win. The more success the 49ers have early on the ground, the more likely they will be able to sustain that edge and wear out the Rams defense deep into the second half of the game.
Kaepernick Must Throw Deep
The San Francisco QB owns a very disturbing statistical trend: His yards-per-attempt average has declined every year since 2012, and this year it’s a mediocre 6.5-yard average. When Kaepernick was at his best, long before defenses figured out his weaknesses, he was averaging 8.3 yards per throw in 2012. If the 49ers want to win on Saturday against the Rams, Kaepernick has to be able to hit some passes downfield.
The problem is a distinct lack of receiving talent. The team’s best deep threat, wide receiver Torrey Smith, is likely out again due to a concussion, and tight end Vance McDonald is also out thanks to a broken scapula. That leaves the deep options thin on this roster, but it just means someone unsung must step up to fill the voids. That’s what being an NFL player is all about, after all. Look for Kaepernick to connect with TE Garrett Celek up the middle a few times, and perhaps inexperienced WR Aaron Burbridge can fill Smith’s shoes, too.
Defense And Special Teams Must Play Mistake-Free Football
In the last two weeks, placekicker Phil Dawson has missed a combined three kicks, which is very unusual for him. The 41-year-old one-time Pro Bowler has been the 49ers’ most reliable player for four seasons now, and Dawson should return to his usual form this weekend. He has to, if San Francisco wants to make the most of its scoring chances. Likewise, the 49ers special teams unit can’t make any mistakes against the potent kick returners on the Rams roster.
In the end, though, this game may come down to a fourth-quarter defensive stand for the much-maligned S.F. defense. The 49ers rank last in the NFL for points and yards allowed, and the unit should draw confidence from its Week 1 effort against the Rams when the 49ers held the opponent to just 185 total yards. Yes, a lot has changed for both teams since Sept. 12, but this S.F. team is a proud one. The guys suiting up know they can beat L.A., because they’ve already done it.
It’s hard to pick the 49ers when they have a 13-game losing streak, but they’re facing a team that’s lost nine of its last 10 games. This is the ultimate character test for head coach Chip Kelly and his roster in 2016, and how the San Francisco franchise handles this opportunity is going to tell us a lot about where the organization is headed in 2017.