SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In nearly every imaginable way that a defensive lineman could wreck an offensive game plan, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald did it to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
In the type of performance that would make video game Donald jealous of the real-life version, Donald finished Sunday's 39-10 blowout win against the Niners with this eye-popping stat line: nine tackles, a career-high four sacks, six tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
It was the type of virtuoso performance that left the Niners pondering Donald's place, not just in the here and now but in the history of the game.
"I don’t think there’s anybody that’s ever been like him in the NFL," left tackle Joe Staley said. "He’s in a class of his own. But at the end of the day, he’s still an NFL player. Our job is to block him. He was really impactful today."
As the new bully on the NFC West Division block, the Rams have no shortage of players capable of being "really impactful" on a weekly basis. While Donald might be in a class by himself as the league's best defensive player and, perhaps, it's best regardless of position, Sunday's loss offered overwhelming evidence of just how far the Niners have to go before they can return to the postseason, let alone push the Rams for the division crown.
More specifically, Sunday's loss was a resounding reminder of the undeniable truth that the Niners lack something the Rams have in bunches: legitimate, difference-making stars.
A look at the Los Angeles depth chart reveals elite players in all three phases. Quarterback Jared Goff is an ascending star. Running back Todd Gurley is the best and most complete running back in the league. Receivers Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are dynamic players capable of running anything on the route tree. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Rodger Saffold are stout, Pro Bowl-caliber linemen who are equally proficient at opening holes for Gurley and keeping Goff upright.
And that's just the offense. On defense, the Rams have linemen Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers complemented by cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib (who is currently on injured reserve), not to mention talented youngsters like John Johnson III, LaMarcus Joyner and Cory Littleton. Even the special teams features one of the best kickers and punters in the league in Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker.
Put simply, the Rams have enough star power to be the most prominent constellation in the NFL galaxy. The 49ers, on the other hand, do not. That discrepancy showed up in multiple ways Sunday, most notably on the scoreboard.
“It’s always embarrassing when you lose like that," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We’ve got pride and we’re also confident in what we do. We’re not proud of our record right now. We’re definitely not proud of today. When we played better, we still feel the same way. We’re not into any moral victories here. We were as far away from one as we could have [been]."
Last week, the Niners were on the wrong end of another superstar finding a way to beat them when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pulled off a last-minute comeback. This week, it was Donald.
For the most part, the Niners have played hard and been in position to win games, even without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But whether it's a close loss like the one to Green Bay or a blowout defeat like Sunday's, the 49ers lack the type of players capable of swinging a game in their direction.
The hope entering the season was that Garoppolo could do that after he showed signs at the end of last season. Then Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. What's left is a roster whose only elite player is defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and, for as talented as Buckner is, he isn't at Donald's level and doesn't have the talent around him to have opportunities to take over games in the way that Donald did on Sunday. Other high draft picks such as defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead and linebacker Reuben Foster have yet to live up to their draft status.
Which brings up this important question: Short of Garoppolo being able to return and do enough to mask the Niners' lack of top-end talent, just how far do the Niners need to go to become a contender again?
In 2017, there were 56 spots on the first and second Associated Press All-Pro teams. Of those 56 spots, 41 were occupied by players on teams that made the playoffs. Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs, none had fewer than three players to make the Pro Bowl and only the Buffalo Bills had fewer than four.
As an example, the Rams had seven players make one of the top two All-Pro teams and eight qualify for the Pro Bowl last season. They promptly went out and traded for star Talib, Peters and Cooks and signed Suh.
Suffice to say, you won't find many real contenders that don't have at least a half-dozen All-Pro or Pro Bowl caliber players on the roster. The 49ers had zero All-Pros a year ago and fullback Kyle Juszczyk was the team's only original Pro Bowl selection, though Staley ended up going as an alternate. This year, Buckner has played to that level and tight end George Kittle looks like he, too, could move into the conversation as one of the best at his position.
The good news for the 1-6 Niners: They might find themselves in position to draft the type of difference-maker they so desperately need at an important position like edge rusher or cornerback.
The bad news: Unless that player has Donald-type talent, that choice alone won't be enough to get them where they want to go.