If you were familiar with Puka Nacua before Week 1, props to you.
Most of the country watched his 10 catches for 119 yards — same as fellow under-known receiver Tutu Atwell — and went, “Who is that guy?”
That’s the reaction most of this Rams roster elicits. Aside from Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald, it’s a plethora of unknowns like Nacua, Atwell, and defensive players like safety Russ Yeast.
This is an odd roster, and one which sets up for a different matchup than what we’ve seen from the 49ers and Rams in the past.
These teams haven’t faced each other this early in the season since 2016. It is the first time this matchup doesn’t have potentially massive stakes since 2018.
That’s a little weird, isn’t it?
“Nope,” said Deebo Samuel.
Kyle Shanahan at least had more to say on the subject, and the fact that the 49ers and Rams won’t see each other again until the final game of the year.
“It’s still early now, so we totally don’t know exactly where either team is at, so it’s a little more unknown,” Shanahan said. “We’ll see what two types of teams we are when it gets to the last week.”
There’s something unsaid in that line about the reality that the Rams might be way out of the playoff picture by that time.
But even with a Rams team that — at least on paper — doesn’t figure to contend for the NFC West, the 49ers don’t share the sentiment that this matchup lacks the juice as the other nine which have preceded it.
To them, it’s the Rams.
It’s familiar NFC West football, regardless of the newcomers and unfamiliar faces. It’s still Sean McVay, Raheem Morris, Donald and Stafford. It’s a Rams team that showed, with a 30-13 road win over a Seahawks team, that they’re not to be overlooked.
But this is the first time there’s not substantial, immediate stakes or some existential crisis the 49ers are facing. Look at the recent history:
2019: Changing tides
In 2019, their first matchup was the one that validated the 49ers as a contender, in a stifling, 20-7 win that featured a Jimmie Ward goal-line stop on fourth down. It marked the first of eight-straight regular season wins over the Rams for the 49ers.
Their next matchup? It featured a Fred Warner pick-six that Nick Bosa called his favorite moment in their matchups with the Rams, and a 34-31 win. It was a Week 16 victory that set up that famous Dre Greenlaw goal line stop against the Seahawks to end the season.
2020: False hope
In 2020, the 49ers were decimated by injuries at a historic rate in that cursed COVID-19 season, but at 2-3, a Rams win evened them up and kept them temporarily afloat. A win over the Patriots followed to move them to 4-3. But Jimmy Garoppolo was injured against Seattle in the next game, and the 49ers lost three straight.
But when they needed juice, the Rams provided it, in a 23-20 49ers win that gave them short-lived playoff hope at 5-6. The Bills promptly erased that, sending Kyle Shanahan spiraling down a path towards Trey Lance, but the Rams games were the ones to give San Francisco a little bit of belief in that season.
2021: Rams give the 49ers juice, but get last laugh
In 2021, the 49ers were 3-5, a loss away from pulling the plug on Jimmy Garoppolo after an embarrassing second loss in four weeks to the Arizona Cardinals. Instead, the Rams arrived, and with that win, the 49ers won seven of their next nine, ending the season with an overtime win over the Rams to punch their playoff ticket.
The 49ers went on to have their Super Bowl dreams crushed in Los Angeles, and perhaps would have succeeded if not for a Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception and some Garoppolo mishaps on a questionable shoulder. But those two regular season games against Los Angeles were massive wins, and that NFC Championship effectively decided the Super Bowl winner.
2022: More juice, and the CMC show
That brings us to last season, when, at 1-2, after a pathetic loss in Denver, the 49ers got back on track against with a 24-9 win over the Rams.
The next time they met, San Francisco was sputtering after bad losses to Atlanta and Kansas City, at 3-4. Then, Christian McCaffrey, in his first full week with the 49ers went superhuman. He ran, received and threw a touchdown pass in a 31-14 drubbing of Los Angeles that was the first of 12-straight wins before the NFC Championship catastrophe.
Every single year since 2019, the Rams have provided juice for the 49ers in the regular season, usually right when they needed it.
But after a 30-7 win over the Steelers on the road, and with a Rams roster of players you might assume were Madden-generated, there’s no desperation on the 49ers side.
They don’t need any juice.
If anything, it’s Los Angeles’ extremely young roster with a resurgent, healthy Stafford and Donald that needs the juice. Their players are too inexperienced and too well-coached to know they’re supposed to be a bad team. They have nothing to lose.
So could this be a trap?
It actually bodes better for the 49ers that the Rams won last week with Cooper Kupp on the sidelines. That result makes it impossible for them to shrug off Los Angeles — not that they’d ever do that.
The Seahawks had a pathetic five percent pressure rate against the Rams, leaving Stafford free to dissect them.
Seattle does not currently have a pass rush. Meanwhile, San Francisco made Kenny Pickett fear for his life on nearly every play and has a clear, top-five pass rush and defense to start the season.
Seattle is also missing both of its starting tackles, and its interior offensive linemen looked like they were running with sandbags tucked into their pads. It was unconvincing, slow and easy-to-attack offensive line play, especially with the Rams having a few athletic, young edge rushers to benefit from Donald.
The 49ers — aside from backup corner Samuel Womack — are healthy, and substantially more talented than both the Seahawks and Rams.
Based on how seriously San Francisco took the opener, it’s tough to imagine that they’d overlook McVay and co. Kyle Shanahan surely wouldn’t allow that to happen.
George Kittle addressed that notion head on. He doesn’t expect to roll over Los Angeles:
You know everyone’s been talking down on the Rams? I doubt there’s a single person in this group that picked the Rams to beat Seattle in Seattle this week. Probably not.
Aaron Donald is still Aaron Donald. He’s incredible and you have to account for him on every single play. But while you might not like notice every guy’s name on their whole defense, they have effort. They have a really good coach, and they’re gonna try really hard and hey, they won the Super Bowl a couple years ago. They know exactly what they’re gonna get from us.
It’s going to be a good game and it’s going to be very gritty. And I know like, hey, the Niners will go in there and dominate them. I don’t really read too many headlines, but that’s probably what everyone’s thinking.
It’s going to be a really good game because they put a lot of effort out there. And they have guys are willing to play. Some of their guys are second string guys in the last couple of years that are getting an opportunity to start. And you can see why they they’re starters now because they put a lot of good stuff on tape.
The shared history here all but assures that no one will be taking the Rams lightly.
But the lack of proper buzz around this game, even adjusting for it being Week 2, is unique. The 8.5-point line in favor of San Francisco, with a home crowd at SoFi, belies the feeling of where this is headed.
It highlights the 49ers’ ability to upgrade and upgrade again even after botching the Trey Lance pick, while the Rams’ “fuck them picks” strategy has them trying to figure out who they are, as they attempt to get the most out of their aging stars and decide which of their young pieces are for real.
The most interesting part of this game is that it’s Brock Purdy’s first chance to get involved in the 49ers’ ownage of their neighbors to the South. A failure in that respect would be eyebrow-raising.
But as far as stakes go? This is clearly as low as they’ve ever been since 2018.