The 49ers are coming out of their perfectly placed, week 9 bye week and stepping into a seemingly favorable matchup against the St Louis Rams. The Rams are also coming off of a bye and, having Coach Jeff Fisher and a full two week to prepare, should not be overlooked. With a Monday Night Football week 11 showdown with the Chicago Bears looming (second seed in the NFC will be on the line as long as the 49ers don't lose tomorrow), this game is the kind of 'trap' game that catches teams off guard. We've already covered the 49ers defense and their need to avoid the big play here at Bay Area SB Nation so I'm going to look at how our offense matches up with the Rams defense.
While the 49ers defense is ranked at or near the top of nearly every key statistical indicator the Rams offense is near the bottom of most. Clearly a mismatch if there ever was one. That's not the case when the teams go the other way. The 49ers offense, while much improved, falls in the middle of the pack in both points and yards. Dominating offensive line play has led the way to league-leading numbers in yards on the ground and yards per attempt. While an increase in production in the red zone, better play on third down, and a Michael Crabtree intent on living up to his pre-draft potential have all combined to create a new and improved passing game. In short, the offense is much better than it was last season.
The Rams defense has led the way for them en route to a 3-5 record, good enough for last place in the NFC West. It hasn't been for lack of trying, as the team started out with three wins in their first two games, all at home. On the road, it's been another story for them, and two weeks ago in London, the defense was exposed in a major way, though Tom Brady and Co. have the tendency to do that to teams (we'll get our chance to prove otherwise in week 15). Former 2nd overall pick Chris Long and last year's first-rounder Robert Quinn have been key along the defensive line, combining for 12 sacks on the season. Long has fallen on hard times in the last few games and the Rams pass rush as a whole was invisible in the 45-7 pasting the Patriots handed them in week 8. The entire team did not lay a hand on the quarterback until after Tom Brady was pulled from the game and the outcome was beyond question. If the pass rush plays like it did in the first 7 games of the season it could cause the 49ers some problems, although it should be noted that the New England offensive line has done an excellent job all season at nullifying their opponents pass rush. Pass blocking has been one of the few weak points for San Francisco with the team ranking 30th in adjusted sack rate according to Football Outsiders. Most of the Rams sacks have come from their defensive line, which is common for a 4-3 defense (though they have played a lot of nickel this season), and if their front four can pressure Alex Smith, alleviating the need to bring extra rushers, the Rams will be taking a step in the right direction. As we know, Smith has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league against extra rushers since Coach Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman took over to start the 2011 season.
The other big battle of the day will be in the secondary. The Rams secondary has done an admirable job against their passing-challenged opponents, holding four teams to under 200 yards passing. None of those teams are in the top 20 in the league in passing. However, against the elite passing attacks that they've faced, the Patriots, Lions and Packers (the Pack has under-performed for much of the year) they've given up 300+ yards. Where the 49ers fall in that spectrum is still a matter of debate. Undoubtably, the passing attack is improved over previous years. The offense has been held to 204 yards passing or under in six of their eight games (yes, I realize that is a make-believe stat). This should be taken with a grain of salt, as the team's dominating run game and the fact that they have generally played with a lead have not necessitated much of an aerial display. When they have gotten behind, especially in their two losses, they've been unable to mount the necessary fireworks to avoid defeat. The Rams, however, don't possess the type of offense to put the 49ers on the back foot, but then again, neither does Minnesota, right?
Leading the Rams secondary has been Cortland Finnegan, who's played well after coming over from Tennessee to reunite with Coach Fisher. He'll be matched up against Michael Crabtree for much of the game and the winner of this battle will go a long way in deciding who wins the aerial war. On the other side is rookie Janoris Jenkins. Rookie cornerbacks generally have to make big adjustments in the move to the pros and Jenkins is no exception. Against the Patriots, Jenkins was beat for two touchdowns, a week after receiving a lesson or two from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Mario Manningham and Randy Moss will be his to cover and, barring a big step up in play from the rookie, he should find himself targeted early and often. The wild card in the passing game will be Vernon Davis. Davis started off the season leading the league in TD receptions after the first three games, but hasn't caught one since, and has been held to 6 catches for 71 yards over the last three games. The Rams, against the Patriots, were torched by Rob Gronkowski to the tune of eight catches for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A return to relevance by Vernon Davis would be a welcome development for the 49ers passing game, allowing them to test the Rams linebackers in coverage and allowing Jenkins less safety help against whomever he is covering.
In case you haven't noticed, I haven't mentioned Frank Gore. How can one discuss the 49ers' offense without mentioning Frank Gore? Gore, with help from the best run blocking line in football, has been nothing short of excellent through the first half of the season. As mentioned, the team leads the league in yards and yards per carry, the two main indicators of running success. Gore is the constant, and he can be expected to set up manageable third downs all game long for Alex Smith and the passing game. With easy third downs and a few soft targets in the secondary, the 49ers should have no problem putting the necessary points on the board against what has been a decent defense. Alex Smith doesn't need to be great to win this one. It's hard to see the Rams putting up more than 10 points against the 49ers' defense so unless he plays like he did in the Giants loss, the 49ers can expect to top that total by halftime. The Rams should not be underestimated, and Coach Fisher will have his young team prepared and make sure they all know that this is a must win game if they want to entertain any postseason aspirations. The 49ers, however, are too talented, and should be able to cruise through the last quarter on their way to a 20-6 victory.