THOUSAND OAKS — Rams middle linebacker Bobby Wagner didn’t have an opinion on Jimmy Garoppolo’s surprising return as the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
Garoppolo said goodbye to media members after the 49ers fell to the Rams in the NFC championship game in January. He assumed his days in the Bay Area were numbered because the organization drafted quarterback Trey Lance third overall last year, but after months of waiting to be traded, Garoppolo decided to return as Lance’s backup.
Garoppolo quickly became the starter again after Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2.
“I didn’t care or pay attention to like all the stuff they had going on,” Wagner said. “I felt like I was kind of dealing with my own stuff.”
Wagner had his own goodbyes to deal with, but there was no return after he ended his 10-year stint with the Seahawks to join the Rams in March. The eight-time Pro Bowler put his focus into getting acclimated with his new teammates and learning the system of Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.
Wagner, who is juggling a variety of roles, has gotten the hang of the Rams’ defense and he’s coming off arguably his best performance of the season last week in Arizona. He’s now preparing to face the familiar 49ers in a “Monday Night Football” matchup between the NFC West rivals at Levi’s Stadium.
“You can tell he’s being Bobby Wagner,” Rams outside linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “I feel like he’s always been around the ball within these first three weeks regardless of (him adjusting). He knows how to just play, but when you get that comfortability behind you, you start seeing him make more instinctual plays faster and play way more comfortable.”
The Rams jumped at the opportunity to sign Wagner for several reasons after he showed interest in free agency, but two notable ones are his run-stopping skills and knowledge of the NFC West teams. The Rams have struggled with the rushing scheme of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, including last year when the Rams allowed 156 yards in a Monday night loss at Levi’s Stadium.
“That is certainly one of the things that I think has been a great trait of his,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of Wagner as a run stopper. “The physicality at the point of attack to knock back tackles, the concept trigger, the awareness. Certainly, anytime that you’re talking about division opponents, especially a great division opponent like this one that is definitely a part of it. It’s not exclusively that, but he’s a guy that when you look at those matchups, just with the amount of crossover, I thought he’s always played well in any game, but he’s done a good job when they played the Niners when he’s been in Seattle.”
The 49ers have struggled to score points and haven’t cracked 200 passing yards in a game this season, but they’re still a productive rushing team with an average of 151 yards per game. The Rams are fourth in the NFL in rush defense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, and Wagner is a big reason why they’re efficient in that area.
Wagner didn’t pay attention to San Francisco’s quarterback drama, but he has a high opinion of Garoppolo.
“He gets the job done and he does what he needs to do,” Wagner said. “A lot of people look at certain passes or look at certain sacks or things of that nature, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure he has a winning record, I believe so. He took this team to the Super Bowl. He’s done a lot of great things. He knows how to get the ball to the right people, he knows how to get the ball out fast when you got blitzes coming. He understands when the blitzes are coming. He’s very smart, he can communicate. So you got to respect a guy like that.”
Garoppolo might not have the upside and the physical gifts of Lance, but he knows how to command the offense and utilize the skill sets of his star playmakers, such as tight end George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, the hybrid receiver and running back.
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Wagner struggled against the Buffalo Bills’ high-octane offense in Week 1, but he was instrumental in keeping Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray in the pocket during the Rams’ two-game winning streak. For his performance in Arizona, Wagner received a season-high grade of 84.3, according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics.
It didn’t take Wagner long to adjust, despite his several roles as a run stopper, pass rusher, coverage man and play caller of the defense. He’s now playing fast and sharing his knowledge of a familiar opponent.
“He’s gotten more comfortable with the pace of the game and playing alongside all of us,” Lewis said. “Command-wise he’s getting super comfortable with our calls and making adjustments, knowing when it might be too fast. … Making sure we’re all in one accord and communicating all the time.”
Safety Jordan Fuller (hamstring) returned to practice Friday as a limited participant and rookie cornerback Derion Kendrick (concussion) was elevated to full participant. Left guard David Edwards missed practice because of an illness.
Center Brian Allen (knee) and cornerbacks David Long (groin) and Cobie Durant (hamstring) were sidelined again for practice.