Week 1 of the 2016 season is a monumental game for the San Francisco 49ers, as it begins the dawn of a new era. The team is in a complete rebuild mode right now, and it’s doing so under the guidance of HC Chip Kelly. This is his squad now, and he’s going to be at the controls for the foreseeable future. What will be interesting to see is how the Niners develop throughout the season, and if we can say the arrow is pointing up, despite what their record might be. The first test will come against the Los Angeles Rams, who have multiple issues of their own. While this season may be a tough at times for San Francisco, the opening game (at home) is certainly a winnable one.
The division rivals managed a split last season, which was a big deal for the Niners considering it was the only victory the team was able to get inside the division all year. The Rams dominated the first meeting however, holding the San Francisco offense to 189 total yards in the 27-6 win. Despite 20 completions, QB Colin Kaepernick only managed 162 yards passing, and RB Kendall Gaskins and RB Mike Davis combined for 11 yards on 15 carries. RB Todd Gurley paced the Rams attack with 133 yards on 20 attempts, including a 71-yard touchdown run. WR Tavon Austin also found the endzone twice.
The 49ers would get revenge in Week 17, as QB Blaine Gabbert threw for 354 yards including a 33-yard touchdown to WR Anquan Boldin. K Phil Dawson would do the rest of the scoring with four field goals, as the Niners would squeak by the Gurley-less Rams 19-16.
Players to Watch
All eyes will continue to be on the quarterback position in San Francisco as, despite being named the starter, Gabbert will have to prove his worth week after week. Gabbert did improve significantly in 2015 after looking over matched earlier in his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, posting 2,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games. He also completed 63.1 percent of his throws. The completion percentage could be a little misleading though, as Gabbert plays an inside out game and often targets his tight ends and running backs underneath. With the 49ers trotting out a suspect receiving group, this trend is likely to continue. Will it be enough to move the ball on All-Pro DT Aaron McDonald and the rest of the Rams’ stout defensive front?
Teams will look to slow Kelly’s fast paced offense down by running up the middle early and often, and Gurley should see a high volume of touches in this one. The young runner took the NFL by storm in 2015, winning rookie of the year with a rushing line of 229/1106/10. With Los Angeles also having more questions than answers behind center with QB Case Keenum starting, it will be Gurley’s show.
Game Changing Factor
For as much criticism as the the San Francisco passing attack gets, Los Angeles is actually worse off. In 2015, the Rams finished last in the NFL in total passing yards (2,805) passing touchdowns (11) and QB rating (74.1). With first overall draft pick QB Jared Goff sitting the bench for now, Keenum will go to work with very little in terms of weapons. Austin can make plays but is inconsistent (his career high is 473 yards receiving), and WR Kenny Britt and WR Brian Quick don’t really scare anyone. The 49ers should be able to keep this game low scoring, which will play into their favor at home.
Stats to Know
If he can stay healthy (he’s already battling a concussion), RB Carlos Hyde will have every opportunity to become a superstar in Kelly’s offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Hyde forced a missed tackle once every 3.6 carries in 2015, which was the best ratio among backs with 100 or more attempts. Playing with a foot injury, a suspect offensive line and no passing game, Hyde still managed 470 yards on 115 carries overall last year. When you consider that former Philadelphia Eagles RB LeSean McCoy averaged 313 carries as the feature back under Kelly in 2013-2014, there’s no reason Hyde can’t gain upwords of 1,400 yards with a better offensive system and vastly improved o-line.
I think these two teams are closer than most people realize, and will probably end up with similar records by year’s end. The Rams do have a very good defense, but they won’t be able to get much going through the air, making them a one dimensional attack on offense. I think the difference here is that Kelly’s scheme will be able to generate just enough points to give the 49ers a low scoring win at home.