Grant Cohn: Yes, 49ers can beat Rams — here's how

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If the 49ers play as well as last week, they’ll still lose Sunday to the Los Angeles Rams.

But if the 49ers play just a little bit better, and finish the game strong, they can beat the Rams. They can beat anybody.

Here’s what the 49ers have to do to win Sunday.

1. Bring the same energy and confidence they had against the Packers.

Embarrassment fueled the 49ers’ Monday night performance. The embarrassment of losing by 10 points at home to the winless Arizona Cardinals the week before. That brought out the 49ers’ best eight days later against the Packers.

But the 49ers still lost to Green Bay. They gave up a game-ending field goal to Packers kicker Mason Crosby on the final play. Tough to come back from such an emotionally draining defeat.

Now, the 49ers’ record is 1-5, and they have to play the NFL’s only undefeated team — the Rams. And the Rams had an extra day to prepare. The 49ers have every reason to come out flat and get blown out. That’s what a bad team would do.

A good team won’t come out flat. A good team won’t need to feel embarrassed to play well. A good team won’t lie down and accept defeat against its main rival.

Let’s see the 49ers play like a good team.

2. Feature Kyle Juszczyk.

The 49ers made him the highest-paid fullback of all time, but they’re not committed to using him.

Juszczyk should never leave the field. He is the best blocker and receiver of all the running backs on the 49ers. He should be the fullback on first down and second down, and the exclusive back on third down.

And the 49ers should throw him more passes. Lots more. Dumping the ball to the fullback is a great way to move the chains and protect C.J. Beathard.

Through six games, the 49ers have targeted Juszczyk only 23 times. He has caught 73.9 percent of his targets, averaged 13.4 yards per reception and scored one touchdown. Fantastic numbers.

Compare those stats to Pierre Garcon. The 49ers have targeted him 39 times, and he has caught just 51.3 percent of his targets, averaged just 11.3 yards per catch and scored no touchdowns. Bad numbers.

Juszczyk is one of the three best weapons in the 49ers' passing game, along with wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and tight end George Kittle. Garcon should be an afterthought. He rarely has the advantage over a cornerback at this stage in his career. Juszczyk almost always has the advantage over a linebacker.

3. Block Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

C.J. Beathard is accurate when he stands in place and throws in rhythm.

Last week, he did those things and completed 70 percent of his passes. His pocket was clean.

This week, it may not be. The Rams have two of the best interior rushers in the NFL — Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Combined, they have seven sacks this season.

Even if Donald and Suh don’t sack Beathard, they can collapse the pocket, push the offensive lineman into Beathard’s face and break up his rhythm. Force him to move. That’s when he’s inaccurate.

The 49ers can’t double-team both Donald and Suh. One guard, either Laken Tomlinson or Mike Person, can help center Weston Richburg block Suh. But the other guard will have to block Donald one on one. Tough matchup.

The 49ers will need super-human efforts from Tomlinson, Richburg and Person. Can they be super human?

4. Find a way to run against a loaded box.

The 49ers have a good running game. They average 5.1 yards per carry, third-best in the NFL.

But, in some ways, it’s an illusion. They can’t run when it counts, when it’s crunch time. When they have a lead and the opposing defense expects them to run and loads the box to stop the run. Brings one more defender than the offense can block.

Last week, the 49ers ran for just 23 yards during the fourth quarter, and lost.

Something similar happened to Kyle Shanahan in the 2017 Super Bowl when he was the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator. The Falcons led 21-3 at halftime over New England, and needed to run in the second half to use up the clock, to protect the lead, to win. So, the Patriots loaded the box, and the Falcons ran for just 18 yards in the second half, and lost.

Shanahan has to learn how to run against a loaded box. He still has things to learn. But this, along with game management, is Job One.

Maybe he can take lessons from his protégé, Sean McVay. Because Rams running back Todd Gurley faces loaded boxes more often than any 49ers running back.

Here’s what McVay does: On a run to the left, McVay often sends a wide receiver sprinting across the formation to the right before the snap (or vice versa, depending on the direction of the run).

The wide receiver in motion is a “ghost blocker.” He doesn’t touch anyone, but draws the attention of a defensive player and takes him out of the box, away from Gurley and the point of attack. Gives Gurley more space to run.

Most of the time, the wide receiver is a disguise, a distraction. Eye candy. Occasionally, the receiver takes the handoff and runs around the edge. So, the defense has to honor him.

Shanahan can use this play, too. Or, he can use a power formation with three tight ends and one wide receiver like Jim Harbaugh did in those situations. Shanahan needs to do something — anything — to run effectively when he needs to run effectively.

5. Give up no long touchdowns to the Rams offense.

McVay is a good offensive coach, but not any better than Shanahan.

McVay’s stats are better because he has better players. But he and Shanahan have the same strengths and weaknesses. They’re great at creating long touchdown plays, but not great at scoring in the red zone. They try to bypass that area.

The 49ers defense has to make the Rams earn their points in the red zone. Don’t give up home runs.

The 49ers almost never give up long plays when they communicate and play their assignments properly. But they miscommunicate and blow assignments every game.

This is the week to change that trend. This is the week to communicate like a top-tier NFL defense. This is the week to make a statement.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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