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With Jimmy G looking likely, these 49ers must also step up

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Jimmie Ward

Signs from the 49ers' Santa Clara practice field point toward Jimmy Garoppolo returning to action Sunday for the 49ers' all-important regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams.

But let’s take quarterback out of the equation for the moment.

The same thing will be asked of the 49ers’ quarterback on Sunday, whether it’s Garoppolo, rookie Trey Lance or a combination of the two.

The 49ers must convert on 40 to 50 percent of their third-down opportunities and not give the ball away. It really is that simple.

And if they do that, the other individuals on the team must do their jobs in order to give the 49ers a better chance of beating the Rams and advancing into the NFC playoffs.

The 49ers would clinch a playoff spot with a victory at SoFi Stadium. They could still make it into the postseason if the New Orleans Saints were to lose to the Atlanta Falcons.

Clearly, the 49ers want to handle matters on their own. And here are five players who will play key roles in the 49ers’ bid to upset the division-leading Rams:

5. DL Arden Key

The 49ers have gotten contributions from a lot of different defensive linemen this season, and Arden Key is near the top of the list.

He came to the 49ers known as an edge rusher. But he has found his niche as a nickel pass rusher lined up at defensive tackle, alongside Arik Armstead.

Before he came to the 49ers, Key had three sacks in his 37-game career with the Raiders. In 16 games with the 49ers, he has a career-best six sacks and ranks second on the team behind Nick Bosa.


If Key can apply pressure in the face of Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford it could help cut down on the quick-hitting throws over the middle and force Stafford into more mistakes. Stafford has thrown six interceptions over the past three games.

4. RT Tom Compton

Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald gets most of the attention, and that is completely understandable. There will not be one matchup to highlight with Donald because he moves all across the formation on a snap-to-snap basis.

Right tackle Tom Compton has played well for the 49ers in place of injured Mike McGlinchey. There is not a lot of mystery for him, as he knows he is going to see a lot of Rams defensive end Leonard Floyd.

Floyd ranks second on the Rams with 9.5 sacks after registering 10.5 sacks in his first season with Los Angeles in 2020.

Compton might be asked to hold up in one-on-one blocking situations more than usual because of the talent elsewhere on the Rams’ defensive line. 

Los Angeles ranks second in the NFL with 47 sacks. It does not matter who is playing quarterback for the 49ers, if they can’t protect him, they are not going to win.

3. NB K’Waun Williams

Nickel back K’Waun Williams went on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week. Regardless of his vaccination status, he should have enough time to clear the protocols and be available for his biggest challenge of the season.

When the 49ers and Rams played earlier this season, wide receiver Cooper Kupp caught 11 of the 13 passes thrown his way for 122 yards. 

Kupp has played his way into the NFL Most Valuable Player discussion with an amazing season. He has 138 receptions for 1,829 yards and 15 touchdowns in 16 games. For context (also in 16 games), Jerry Rice’s best season (1995) was one in which he caught 122 passes for 1,848 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

Stafford will try to force the ball to Kupp. Williams will be tested early and often. He will give up some plays, but the more plays he makes will increase the 49ers’ odds of a victory.

2. WR Brandon Aiyuk

The Rams have a do-everything defensive back, Jalen Ramsey, who lines up all over the place.

Ramsey will certainly follow around Deebo Samuel a little bit, and he will take his shots at locking down tight end George Kittle.

When Ramsey is elsewhere, 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk will be counted on to make plays one on one against some of the Rams’ lesser defensive backs.

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Aiyuk deserves a lot of credit this season for taking coach Kyle Shanahan’s tough love to heart and making himself a better player. He is averaging more than 66 yards receiving over his past seven games and is now up to 50 receptions for 719 yards on the season.

It is clear Aiyuk is a better all-around player than he was at any point in his rookie season. The door could swing open for him to have a big game.


1. FS Jimmie Ward

We’re going to make the assumption that free safety Jimmie Ward will be cleared out of the COVID-19 protocols and be available for this game.

Ward is the most important member of the team’s secondary. Period. In this game, his role takes on even greater significance.

Stafford has a penchant for taking chances or making ill-advised throws. As he did in the first meeting between these teams, Ward must be ready to capitalize on those opportunities.

He had two interceptions — his only two since the 2016 season — against the Rams on Nov. 15. His 37-yard return for a touchdown gave the 49ers a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

But Ward’s biggest impact could be a lot less tangible. He has to make sure that everybody is on the same page in the defensive backfield. Ward has to be ready to cover up the mistakes of the cornerbacks to prevent long-scoring plays.

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