Rams, reenergized QB Matthew Stafford face tough test against 49ers defense

In his first game back after a spinal cord injury that ended his 2022 season, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford got back to his old ways.

The Georgia product looked refreshed and healthy in throwing for 334 yards without taking a sack in a season-opening win over the Seattle Seahawks. But when the Rams host the NFC West division-rival San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Stafford and L.A.’s offense must figure out how to move the football against one of the best defenses in the league. 

The 49ers have had Rams head coach Sean McVay’s number since Kyle Shanahan took over as the team’s head coach in 2017, posting a 9-4 record in the head-to-head matchup including the playoffs during the span.

Of course, the Rams won the one that mattered most, defeating San Francisco 20-17 at SoFi Stadium in the NFC Championship game two seasons ago to reach the Super Bowl.

Stafford is 2-7 against San Francisco, dating back to his time with the Detroit Lions. He faces a San Francisco defense that held the Pittsburgh Steelers to just seven points last week, posting five sacks and forcing six three-and-outs against second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett and Pittsburgh’s offense. 

“It’s a first-round pick at basically every spot you look at,” Stafford told reporters this week, when asked about San Francisco’s defense. “They got a bunch of talent and a bunch of players playing at a high level — fast and physical. They communicate great. Really, really solid defense.”

The 49ers have one of the game’s best defensive fronts, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa, along with defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead. Second-year edge rusher Drake Jackson was fantastic last week. Linebacker Fred Warner anchors the defense. And safety Talanoa Hufanga provides playmaking ability in the back end.

[Williams: Nick Bosa on 49ers DE Drake Jackson’s emergence: ‘He’s going to be dangerous’]

San Francisco has made adjustments with new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks taking over for the departed DeMeco Ryans, but the 49ers still play with the same ferocity on the defensive side of the ball. 

“Stafford does a tremendous job in getting the ball where he needs to go,” Wilks said. “The pocket was great. He had time to be able to sit back and go through his progression. And then again, I thought the receivers stepped up. One of the best in the league is down right now (Cooper Kupp) and you really couldn’t tell based off their performance last week.” 

The Rams did a good job of protecting Stafford in last week’s road win, not allowing a sack and giving up just three quarterback hits against Seattle. Repeating the feat and keeping Stafford clean will be important. San Francisco has sacked Stafford 17 times in five games, including the postseason, against the Rams.

The Rams also need their playmakers to step up for another week, with Kupp still on the injured list for at least three more weeks because of a hamstring injury.

Kupp’s replacement, rookie Puka Nacua, also could miss Sunday’s contest due to an oblique injury. Nacua showed up on the injury report Thursday and did not practice. 

The BYU product finished with 10 catches for 119 receiving yards in his NFL debut last week, becoming the fourth player in NFL history to have 10 receptions and over 100 receiving yards in his first career game.

Dave Helman breaks down Matthew Stafford, Rams’ STUNNING win over Seahawks

One thing Stafford will have to do a better job of is taking care of the football. Stafford has six turnovers in five games against San Francisco since joining the Rams, including two interceptions which have been returned for touchdowns. 

The 49ers forced two takeaways against Pittsburgh last week. San Francisco has forced a turnover in 10 straight games, the longest active streak in the league.

After playing well in the team’s season opener, it appears Stafford is staying put. Speculation percolated this offseason that the Rams tried to move the Georgia product and had tried to restructure his contract, something team brass refuted but Stafford confirmed.

NFL Media reported the Jets were interested in trading for Stafford before securing Aaron Rodgers in an offseason trade. They could rekindle those talks with the 39-year-old signal caller suffering an Achilles tendon tear that put him out for the year.

But for now, McVay appears content with his 35-year-old quarterback leading a young roster and the Rams starting the season a surprising 1-0. Stafford will need to be at his best for the Rams to have any chance against the 49ers. 

“His overall command, his communication,” McVay said about Stafford. “Just everything that you want your quarterback to represent, this guy is checking all the boxes and I’m really happy for Matthew.”

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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