The 49ers remain, along with the New England Patriots, one of just two unbeaten teams in the NFL.
Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team does not face a must-win, by any stretch, on Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Rams. But the 49ers have an opportunity to create a little distance between themselves and the two-time defending NFC West champions. The Rams enter in third place in the division with a 3-2 record.
The odds are against the 49ers, who will not have the benefit of four important starters – cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
“We’re missing some tackles and our fullback, but I think we’re ready for this more mentally than we have been in the past,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said.
Here are five important players to watch for the 49ers:
5. K Robbie Gould
Kicker Robbie Gould made no excuses this week when asked to explain his slow start to the season.
But, let’s face it, there is no advantage in the 49ers employing three different long-snappers as they try to get through the first six games before Kyle Nelson is eligible to return from serving a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
When the season began, Gould was second in NFL history behind Justin Tucker with an 87.7 career field-goal percentage He has since fallen to No. 5 at 86.9 percent. Gould has made just seven of his 12 attempts through four games.
The short-handed 49ers will not be able to leave any points behind if they have any hope of beating the desperate Rams on Sunday. Gould, long-snapper Garrison Sanborn and holder Mitch Wishnowsky must work well together to capitalize on every scoring opportunity.
4. DB K’Waun Williams
The 49ers have long-believed that K’Waun Williams is the best nickel back in the game. That assertion is open for debate, but Williams has certainly gotten off to a strong start this season with two interceptions.
But what the 49ers like most about Williams is his ability to tackle despite his 5-foot-9, 185-pound stature.
Williams will be matched mostly against Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who already has 41 receptions for 505 yards and four touchdowns. The 49ers will undoubtedly give up some receptions to Kupp, as quarterback Jared Goff will look to get the ball out quickly.
The key for Williams is to quickly bring down Kupp, who at 6-2, 208, is a bigger man than most slot receivers Williams faces.
3. C Weston Richburg
After Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald thoroughly destroyed the 49ers last October, Staley said, “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s been like him in the NFL.”
There’s a strong case to be made that Donald is the best player in the league – regardless of position. Donald is so impactful as a defensive tackle because lining up on the interior of the Los Angeles defensive line places him closer to the ball when it is snapped. It’s not as easy for an offense to go to one side or the other to minimize his impact.
Whether Donald shades to the side of left guard Laken Tomlinson or right guard Mike Person, the 49ers will need center Weston Richburg on top of his game to lend help and get the offensive line working on the same page.
Richburg struggled through his first season with the 49ers. He played most of 2018 with an injured knee and quadriceps that required extensive offseason surgery. He is feeling much better and his play has reflected it.
Richburg is one of the key players on an offensive line that has helped the 49ers lead the NFL in rushing with a 5.2-yard average. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been sacked just four times in four games.
2. FS Jimmie Ward
After missing the first three games of the season following surgery on his broken right ring finger, Jimmie Ward replaced Tarvarius Moore and was back in the starting lineup Monday night against the Cleveland Browns.
There are a lot of elements of Ward’s game that the 49ers appreciate, such as his versatility and his toughness. Moore is an immensely talented player, but he has struggled to take the correct angles and failed to prevent two long touchdown passes already this season.
Ward has a good feel for the game, and he will be relied upon to serve as “The Eraser.” With the number of weapons in the passing game the 49ers will face on Sunday, Ward’s main duty is to prevent Rams wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods from exploding for big plays.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo views his job in the most simple of terms: “At the end of the day, it’s did you win or did you lose? That’s all I care about.”
The formula for success through the 49ers’ first four games has generally consisted of a stout defense and the league’s best running attack.
On Sunday, there will be more on the plate of Garoppolo, as the 49ers will replace Staley and McGlinchey with Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill. They must also compensate for the loss of Juszczyk, who is such a large component to the 49ers’ offense.
After ranking 22nd in the NFL in passing yards through Week 5, the 49ers will likely seek more production from Garoppolo and the passing game.