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Rams-49ers: L.A. must account for new Niners’ X-factor in “the next Troy Polamalu”

How Talanoa Hufanga has already changed San Francisco’s defense

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Los Angeles Rams meet the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, the fourth meeting between the teams in less than a year, both sides will be largely the same. The Rams added Bobby Wagner, Allen Robinson, and have a few changes on the offensive line, among other things. The 49ers are also shuffling the offensive line, including the loss of Trent Williams, but even Jimmy Garoppolo is back in this one after already saying his goodbyes to Niners faithful following that loss in the NFC Championship game.

But one San Francisco player who will be a little new to the series, and is taking the league by storm in the early going of 2022, is 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga. A player who has been referred to more than once as “the next Troy Polamalu.”

As pointed out here by Cam Inman, the 49ers parted with safety Jaquiski Tartt (notably after he dropped a huge interception opportunity in the NFC Championship) in free agency and they were anxious to get Hufanga slotted in as the starter at strong safety. Inman calls Hufanga’s play “tremendous” but “not perfect” through three games on the House of Horns podcast this week:

Inman notes that Hufanga’s play as a defender near the line is ahead of his coverage, but that he is also “everybody’s favorite player right now” according to defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Of course, the 49ers also have this guy Nick Bosa and this other guy Fred Warner, so that’s quite the statement.

Hufanga has 17 tackles, four tackles for a loss, one interception, and three passes defensed through three games. He did make one start against the Rams in 2021, a 31-10 49ers victory. It was the lowest scoring game of the season for L.A.

Hall of Fame 49ers safety Ronnie Lott agrees with the Polamalu comparisons:

“The kid is phenomenal, and what I love is the timing, and the anticipation, and the feel [for the game],” Lott said. “What’s great is that here’s a guy that looks like he’s moving faster than everyone else. And what I mean by that is his anticipation of understanding the moment. So, those kinds of situations where you are anticipating feeling the game, understanding the game, seeing the field, and being present to know, ‘I’m trying to observe all of what’s going on, on the field,’ that’s what you want to see from all of your guys.”

Like Polamalu, Hufanga played at USC. He was mentored by Polamalu ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft and Hufanga has looked up to him since he was a kid with a football dream. The 49ers picked him in the fifth round, 180th overall, and six picks after the Rams selected Earnest Brown IV. Even the 49ers, with cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, chose a player in the fifth round ahead of Hufanga.

The 49ers are without safety Jimmie Ward this week, so the pressure will be on Hufanga to hold the secondary together as a leader in the defensive backfield in only his second NFL campaign. Will Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay attack that area or shy away from Hufanga? Will the offensive line and backs be able to keep Hufanga off of Stafford?

On a defense with Bosa, Warner, and Chavarius Ward, it could be the X-Factor at safety who L.A. needs to account for the most.