Barber: For 49ers, toughest test comes this week
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers just won the biggest game of the Shanahan era, beating a talented Browns team on “Monday Night Football.” And now they will play the new biggest game of the Shanahan era, an NFC West showdown against a squad that played in the Super Bowl last February.
Sunday represents a huge challenge but also an opportunity for the 49ers to prove their 4-0 record is not a façade. If they beat the Rams, who are 27-10 over the past two-plus seasons, it will be impossible for any reasonable person to dismiss their success.
More specifically, the next game is a litmus test for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh. Both have received rave reviews this season. Both will be hard-pressed to keep the magic rolling against the Rams.
This matchup would have been an Xs-and-Os puzzle under any circumstances. But the current context puts the 49ers at a disadvantage. The most obvious reason: The Niners, coming out of the Monday night game, are operating on a short week. Meanwhile, the Rams have extra time to calculate. They last played on Thursday night, in a close loss to the Seahawks.
In other words, Los Angeles will have had nine days to prepare for the upcoming game, while San Francisco has five.
“I mean, it is what it is,” Shanahan said Wednesday, betraying a little smile that indicated I might be a dope for asking. “You always want more days, not just for a coach to prepare, but also for the players to rest.”
Having your opponent get the strategic jump on you is generally not ideal in the NFL, a league of detailed schematics, repetition and laser focus on one game at a time. It’s especially dicey against the Rams, because of their celebrated brain trust, head coach and offensive play-caller Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
McVay, of course, is the coach every NFL team has been trying to clone for a couple years. He’s still just 33 years old, and now has an NFC championship on his resume. His offense scored 527 points and gained 6,738 yards in the regular season last year, behind a quarterback, Jared Goff, who might be little better than average.
Granted, McVay’s star has lost some luster. Los Angeles managed just three points against the Patriots in Super Bowl 53, and something weird is going on with star running back Todd Gurley, who has just 270 rushing yards through five games and is questionable for Sunday with a thigh bruise. Still, McVay’s passing attack remains fairly lethal, and he has those extra days to study up on the 49ers.
The man responsible for shutting down the Rams offense is Saleh, the third-year defensive coordinator. Saleh has a good reputation in the league, having come from the Seattle system. His players love his energy and the uncomplicated nature of his defense. Before this year, though, Saleh didn’t have the results to match.
That has changed in a hurry. The 49ers currently lead the NFL with 11 takeaways. They are second in total defense, second in passing yards allowed, fifth in rushing yards. They still haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown. And just like that, Saleh’s name is on the short list of prospective head coaching candidates for 2020. For example, Sports Illustrated’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column recently included him among “15 coordinators and position coaches to watch” — before Saleh’s defense destroyed the Browns on Monday night.