Rams and revitalized QB Matthew Stafford face tough test against 49ers defense

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In his first game back after a spinal cord injury that ended his 2022 season, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was back at it.

The Georgia product looked refreshed and healthy as he threw for 334 yards without a sack in the 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 the Los Angeles offense must figure out how to move the ball against one of the league’s best defenses.

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 head-to-head record, including the playoffs. , during the period.

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, recording five sacks and forcing six 3-pointers against second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Pittsburgh offense.

“He’s a first-round pick basically everywhere you look,” Stafford told reporters this week, when asked about San Francisco’s defense. “They have a lot of talent and a lot of players who play at a high level, fast and physical. They communicate very well. A really solid defense.”

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

(Williams: Nick Bosa on the emergence of 49ers DE Drake Jackson: “It’s going to be dangerous”)

San Francisco has made adjustments with new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks replacing 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 of getting the ball where it needs to go,” Wilks said. “The pocket was great. He had time to be able to sit back and follow his progression. And then, I thought the receivers stepped up. One of the best in the league is down right now (Cooper Kupp) and I really couldn’t know based on his performance last week.”

The Rams did a good job protecting Stafford in last week’s road win, not allowing a sack and allowing just three quarterback hits against Seattle. It will be important to repeat the feat and keep Stafford clean. 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 due to a hamstring injury.

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

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

Dave Helman breaks down Matthew Stafford and the Rams’ AMAZING win over the Seahawks

Dave Helman breaks down Matthew Stafford and the Rams' AMAZING win over the 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 he joined the Rams, including two interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns.

The 49ers forced two turnovers against Pittsburgh last week. San Francisco has forced turnovers in 10 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league.

After playing well in the team’s first game of the season, it appears Stafford will stay. There was speculation this offseason that the Rams attempted to move the Georgia product and had attempted to restructure his contract, something team brass refuted but Stafford confirmed.

NFL Media reported that 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 communicator suffering a torn Achilles tendon that sidelined him for a year.

But for now, McVay seems content with his 35-year-old quarterback leading a young roster and with 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 of Stafford. “Everything you want your quarterback to represent, this guy is checking all the boxes and I’m very 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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