SANTA CLARA — Were you lucky enough to get Puka Nacua on your fantasy league waiver wire?
The 49ers will get an up-close look at one of football’s Week 1 breakout stars, as they will travel to Levi’s South in Los Angeles to play the Rams on Sunday.
Most figured that the Rams’ offense would have a huge drop-off once Cooper Kupp was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, but the rookie receiver Nacua did his best impression to keep the offense afloat, racking up 10 catches on 15 targets for 119 yards, largely working in the middle of the field.
Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Nacua has a big frame and reminds 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan of his own slot receiver.
“When you look at Nacua, he's a very tough physical football player,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “He reminds me a lot of Jauan (Jennings). He's going to get after it on every play. The game's not too big for him. And when you can put those guys in the right spots and you’ve got a quarterback like they do, it can be pretty lethal.”
We’ll have to see how the 49ers line up the defense on Sunday, but cornerback Deommodore Lenoir started Week 1 as the primary nickelback in the slot, meaning he could be tasked with trying to shut down Nacua in Week 2.
“He’s a good player,” Lenoir said of Nacua. “We just wanna show up on Sunday.”
It’s also worth noting that Lenoir moved back outside to cornerback in the second half after Ambry Thomas got benched, moving free-agent veteran signee Isaiah Oliver into the slot. While Thomas had to go into concussion protocol and passed his evaluation, Shanahan hinted that other factors may have been in play, as Thomas was burned a couple times on the Steelers 95-yard touchdown drive to end the first half.
“Things dictate the change,” Shanahan said. “We thought they'd all play in the game, but stuff happened in the game that has us adjust. Stuff that's between me and our team. Just watch the film. You might be able to figure it out. Stuff I can't say, sorry.”
Despite his mid-game change in roles, Lenoir still matched his career high with 10 tackles. The nickelback can be a tough role, as you’re often asked to take on the responsibilities of a third linebacker, but the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Lenoir kept on delivering.
He did have a rough drive to end the first half, though, as he got swallowed up by the Pittsburgh offensive line on a Najee Harris cutback during a 24-yard run, which got an additional 15 yards once Lenoir delivered a late hit on the sideline.
“I gotta be better and continue to fly around,” Lenoir said. “I’m just here to be where the team asks. Wherever they play me, that’s where I’m gonna play.”
Lenoir also helped extend the drive with an illegal contact penalty near the goal line, but Shanahan said he didn’t agree with the call.
“I thought he had a good game,” Shanahan said. “He had that personal foul on the sidelines and then I didn't totally see it the same way with the defensive holding that he got down there. But I thought he had a solid first game playing inside and outside and good start to the season.”
All things told, it was a solid season debut for the third-year cornerback, but he’ll have his hands full against Nacua and quarterback Matthew Stafford on Sunday.