Sunday Night Football Betting Preview: Can the 49ers Exploit the Rams' Run Defense?

This week's Sunday Night Football matchup brings us a showdown that will greatly impact the race for the NFC West title, as the Los Angeles Rams travel to face the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams are rolling with a 4-1 record, putting an emphasis on running the football, while the 49ers stumble into Sunday night with a 2-3 mark and have renewed questions about the future of their franchise quarterback.

Los Angeles finds themselves favored by 3.0 points on FanDuel Sportsbook, and bettors have rallied behind that number, as 83% of the bets and 78% of the money is taking the Rams' side of the spread. The Rams' -172 moneyline is the more popular side, as well, as 58% of the bets and 56% of the money see that as the better side. The over/under opened at 49.5 but now sits at 52, and with 50% of the bets and 51% of the money taking the over, this is likely where this point total will hold.

Are we overlooking a desperate 49ers team in this divisional battle, or are the injuries just too much for them to overcome? Let's check our projections for some betting angles and prop bets.

Passing Game Preview

The Rams enter Week 6 as our ninth-ranked passing offense, registering 0.26 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. Despite the efficient passing game, however, Los Angeles has been extremely run-heavy. The Rams are one of just five teams in the league with more rush attempts than pass attempts on the year, and their 0.94 pass-to-rush ratio is tied with the Cleveland Browns for the lowest pass rate.

Despite the low volume, however, Jared Goff does have a nice assortment of targets to choose from. All of Tyler Higbee, Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett, Darrell Henderson, and Josh Reynolds have produced at least 0.80 Reception NEP per target in 2020. Kupp leads the team in targets with 36, and his 0.89 Reception NEP per target ranks second on the team to only Higbee. Kupp, Higbee, and Robert Woods are the three Rams' pass catchers seeing more than 80% of the Rams' offensive snaps on the season, with Everett and Reynolds rotating in depending on the personnel grouping.

The once-mighty 49ers' passing defense has struggled through five weeks, allowing 0.25 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back, the 26th-worst mark in the league. Among the injured players partially responsible for this ranking -- Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, K'Waun Williams, and Solomon Thomas, an all-star cast. San Francisco does expect cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to return to the lineup for the first time since Week 3, and he will slot in on the other side of Jason Verrett in the secondary. With their depth of efficient options in the passing game, the Rams will certainly be a challenge for this depleted 49ers D.

The 49ers' offense is a near mirror image of their defense, as the San Francisco passing attack ranks 25th in the league with 0.03 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back after five weeks. Jimmy Garoppolo returned from injury last week only to struggle mightily, finishing 7 of 17 for 77 yards and two interceptions in one half against the Miami Dolphins. Garoppolo got a full practice in on Friday and does not have an injury designation on the practice report, so he may be over the high-ankle sprain that forced him to miss time.

George Kittle leads the team in both receptions and targets despite missing time with an injury of his own, and his clip of 0.89 Reception NEP per target is the highest of the primary members of the passing attack. Rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk has held his own on 22 targets thus far, looking explosive with the ball in his hands. But San Francisco really needs to get Deebo Samuel on track, as he has been slow to contribute coming back from his IR stint. On 11 targets, Samuel has produced just 0.29 Reception NEP per target over two weeks, so look for the 49ers to try to find ways to get Samuel in space early on.

The Rams have been excellent against the pass, ranking sixth overall with 0.04 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP allowed per drop back. With Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald leading the way, this is a tough defense to game plan for. The Rams have yet to allow 300 yards passing in a game, have registered three or more sacks in four of five games, and completely dominated Washington last week.

Rushing Game Preview

The Rams have leaned on their running game to take pressure off of Goff, and it has worked so far. Los Angeles has the league's 12th-ranked rushing offense, producing 0.10 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry, a solid number considering that they lack a mobile quarterback to boost those numbers.

Darrell Henderson has produced the best numbers on the ground, racking up 0.11 Rushing NEP per carry on his 58 attempts, and his contributions in the passing game make him the Rams' best all-around option out of the backfield. Malcolm Brown has produced pedestrian numbers in both the running game and passing game, and LA no doubt would like to see rookie Cam Akers take more snaps away from Brown. Akers has struggled thus far, however, as his -0.08 Rushing NEP per carry on 26 attempts has been a drag on the running game. He is working his way back from a rib injury, however, and he ripped off a 46-yard run in his first game back last week, so perhaps he is beginning to turn things around.

The 49ers posses the NFL's fifth-best run defense, allowing -0.05 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry in 2020. While they haven't exactly faced a schedule of elite rushing offenses, they have held each of their last three opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing as a team, so this will be a test for the Rams' rushing attack. Los Angeles showed their commitment to the run last week against a similarly ranked Washington defense, racking up 35 attempts for 129 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

San Francisco's 10th-ranked running game has carried the offense thus far, producing 0.11 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry. Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert have both been impressive on the ground, totaling 0.14 and 0.10 Rushing NEP per carry, respectively. Mostert returned from injury last week and took back the bulk of the work, but expect both to be featured going forward. More of Mostert and McKinnon will mean good things for this 49ers' ground game, as Jeff Wilson's -0.15 Rushing NEP per carry as a fill-in was doing them no favors.

The place to attack the Rams' defense is on the ground, as they rank 30th in the league allowing 0.20 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry. Before last week's dismantling of the Washington offense, the Rams had allowed more than 100 yards rushing to each of their opponents, and they have surrendered five rushing touchdowns on the year. It seems pretty clear that with the struggles of the 49ers' passing attack, they will plan to attack this Rams D on the ground early and often.

Historical Comparison

Of the 10 most comparable games to this matchup, the favorite has won outright a strong 8 of 10 times. The favorite has also gone 7-2-1 against the spread, so these are two trends in favor of the Rams in this matchup. Couple that with the under hitting in 8 of 10 instances, and we have some stark historical trends to take notice of.

Game Projections and Props

Our algorithm gives the Rams a 60.1% chance to win, giving the moneyline a negative projected return on investment (ROI) on both sides of the bet. We also project a negative ROI on both sides of the spread (Rams -3.0), but the over/under is a different story. We project a strong 25.6% ROI on under 52 total points scored, which matches with our historical trends as well as how both teams likely want to attack the opposing defense. Outside of hammering the under, we are going to have to look to player props to find some intriguing bets.

On FanDuel Sportsbook, there are some interesting same-game parlays to attack. Since we like the under and we project Goff for just 255 passing yards, let's double-up on the potential low-scoring, run-heavy game script. Combining the under (52) with the under on Goff's passing yardage (269.5) gives us a payout of +197, which is a lot more exciting than just betting the under straight up. If you would rather attack the Rams' weak run defense, parlaying the over on Mostert's rushing yardage (72.5) with the under on Garoppolo's passing yards (240.5) produces an enticing +212 payout, and that would fit with a return to the 49ers' ground-and-pound strategy that helped them to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019.