Under The Radar Players Who Will Help The 49ers Clinch The NFC Championship
The San Francisco 49ers are on the verge of one of the great Super Bowl runs in NFL history.
Having stunned the Los Angeles Rams to make the playoffs in Week 18, successive upsets of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers on the road mean they need just another win over those same NFC West rivals to secure their place on the grandest stage of all.
San Francisco's surprise postseason surge has been defined by an outstanding defense, and their stars, most notably Deebo Samuel, delivering in the biggest moments. Samuel, George Kittle, Trent Williams, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner will all obviously be critical to the 49ers claiming a seventh consecutive win over the Rams and booking a third trip to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI.
But the Niners' roster depth has also played a crucial role in their recent postseason triumphs, and they will need these under-the-radar contributors to step up again for San Francisco to survive another stern examination from one of the NFC's elite and progress to a second Super Bowl in three seasons.
Jennings may not be a well-known name among the wider NFL universe, but the Rams should be well aware of his talents after his career day in Week 18, which saw the former seventh-round pick catch six of his seven targets for 94 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in San Francisco's comeback win in Los Angeles.
Using his 6'3" and 212-pound frame to his advantage, Jennings has blossomed into a dependable red-zone and third-down receiver for the 49ers. Eight of his 10 third down receptions in the regular season went for a first down, and he made three key catches in the same situation in the Wild Card round win over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Rams' attention in the passing game will largely be focused on Samuel, Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk, yet it could be Jennings that makes the crucial difference in sending San Francisco back to the Super Bowl.
For all the talk of Jimmy Garoppolo's merits and faults and the potential deficiencies of a secondary playing markedly better than it has been given credit for, it is the offensive line that stands as San Francisco's biggest potential concern against the Rams.
Trent Williams' sprained ankle means the Niners could be forced to turn to a backup at left tackle as they did in this encounter in Week 18, and Compton did not offer them much room for optimism with his play on the right side in the defeat of the Packers.
Solid for most of the season since replacing the injured Mike McGlinchey, Compton struggled mightily in attempting to deal with the power of Green Bay edge rusher Rashan Gary and will have his hands full in a game where he will likely come up against each of Von Miller, Aaron Donald, and Leonard Floyd.
If the Niners want to maximize their prospects of scoring points on the Rams, they must do a better job of keeping the pass rush away from Garoppolo than they did in Green Bay. Regardless of whether Williams plays, it is imperative Compton enjoys a return to form.
It may be surprising to see a nose tackle described as an integral cog of a defense in an era of football dominated by the passing game, yet there is no doubt that is what Jones is to the Niners.
The 2017 sixth-round pick is enjoying the finest season of his career, emerging as a player who has added an increasingly impactful interior rush to his ability to soak up double teams and disrupt the run game.
Jones has a sack in two of his last three games, bringing down Matthew Stafford in the Week 18 meeting and then Dak Prescott in the Wild Card round. The 49ers held the Rams to 2.4 yards per rush in their last regular-season meeting. Their success in slowing down Cam Akers and Co. will hinge heavily on Jones maintaining his excellent play.
Hufanga made the most significant play of the victory in Green Bay, recovering Jordan Willis' punt block and returning it three yards for a touchdown to tie the game. Yet it is his potential contributions on defense, rather than special teams, that make him one to watch against the Rams.
At Lambeau Field, the Niners utilized Hufanga in three-safety looks that allowed them to mix up their coverages and take advantage of the versatility of Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, dropping Ward in man coverage closer to the line of scrimmage and deploying Tartt as an extra defender on Davante Adams.
With the Rams presenting the Niners the threat of both Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr, Hufanga could again be used as a foil in the defensive backfield to allow Ward and Tartt to roam, especially if San Francisco sees the former as their best hope of successfully covering Kupp when he lines up in the slot.
Fellow rookies Ambry Thomas and Elijah Mitchell will each likely see substantial action for the Niners, and it may prove to be the case that fifth-rounder Hufanga will make a significant contribution to the Niners regaining the NFC title.
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