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What to watch for in Rams at 49ers on Thursday night

Thursday night's helping of football fare offers up a clash of two rivals from the NFC West.

The winless 49ers aim to stop the bleeding against a Rams team showing signs of growth under first-year coach Sean McVay.

Here's what we'll be watching for in a matchup that airs exclusively on NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET:

  1. Through two games, the McVay effect has proven valuable in Los Angeles. Hired to flip the switch on offense, the newbie coach has milked tangible signs of growth out of second-year quarterback Jared Goff. It helps that the Rams -- for the first time in years -- have something to talk about at the receiver position, with traded-for Sammy Watkins making plays and Cooper Kupp emerging as one of the game's most exciting rookies. Instead of forcing Tavon Austin into a starting role he refuses to earn, McVay has given Goff players to work with, and it's shown:

After shining against the Colts, Goff did experience problems in Sunday's loss to the Redskins, though, especially against the blitz. It will be fascinating to watch left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the Rams' offensive line attempt to shield Goff from DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, San Francisco's rangy duo of defensive linemen who blasted Seattle's front five in Week 2 and appear amped up to face Goff:

While the front seven has some juicy parts, the Niners are a banged-up operation, with productive safety Eric Reid (knee) and linebacker Reuben Foster (ankle) ruled out. On a positive note, safeties Jaquiski Tartt (neck) and Jimmie Ward (hamstring) are practicing and look good to go.

  1. While the Rams have shown hope under center, the same cannot be said of San Francisco's Brian Hoyer. The struggling signal-caller has crept out of the gate with just 292 yards passing over two games to go with a pair of picks, zero touchdowns and a lost fumble. Hoyer hasn't engineered a win since Oct. 2 and is averaging 4.7 yards per attempt with just two passes of 20-plus yards. He's been hit hard and sacked six times -- partly the fault of a less-than-stellar line -- but the veteran has a knack for generating drive-crushing turnovers for a team that has gone without a touchdown over its first two games for the first time in franchise history.
  1. The bright spot for coach Kyle Shanahan's attack looms in the backfield, where Carlos Hyde is responsible for 43.8 percent (220/502) of San Francisco's scrimmage yards this season, the highest percentage of any player league-wide, per NFL Research. Whispered about all spring as an ill fit for Shanahan's scheme, Hyde has been a teacher's pet, nabbing 24 of the team's 34 rushing attempts at a dominant 7.0 yards per carry -- second best in the NFL -- while seeing 12 targets through the air, tied for second most on the team.
  1. Averaging 112.2 scrimmage yards per game at home with five touchdowns since last season, Hyde should see a monster role against a Rams defense that surrendered a troubling 229 rushing yards at 5.9 yards per pop. Legendary defensive playcaller Wade Phillips refuses to panic, though, pointing to a collection of players still adjusting to his 3-4 scheme after years in a four-man front. Phillips relies on his inside linebackers to neutralize the run, but Alec Ogletree (a former outside 'backer) and Mark Barron (a converted safety) are learning on the fly.

It certainly helps to have bone-crushing defensive anchor Aaron Donald back in the mix. He flashed on a rash of plays against the Redskins.

  1. What to make of Todd Gurley? Coming off a promising Week 2 performance that saw the Rams back rush for 88 yards at 5.5 yards per carry and haul in three catches for another 48 yards, the arrow is pointing up. That came after Gurley averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against the moribund Colts in the opener. It's encouraging to see him heavily involved in the passing game, but Gurley -- already tying his previous season-high with three fumbles -- has not generated a 100-yard game on the ground since Week 14 of 2015. To be fair, last season was a comprehensive wash as he faced an endless stream of eight-man fronts.
  1. From a bird's-eye view, this game offers far more intrigue than a year ago. The Rams are averaging 19 more points and 89.8 more yards per game, while the 49ers have plenty of exciting young faces on defense. Thursday also marks the meeting of the league's two youngest head coaches. McVay (31) has risen to the highest level of his profession at an age when plenty of Americans are still living at home with their parents rent-free. Shanahan is just 37, but it feels like he's been around the NFL for a hundred autumns. If they can build their teams and avoid disaster, this could be the first of many, many games between these young offensive masterminds. Crack a beer and enjoy.
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