The 49ers face the Rams in St. Louis tomorrow and both teams want to 'tie' up some loose ends. In Week 10, the two played five quarters of mistake-filled football on their way to a 24-24 tie. Players on both sides indicated that the result felt like a loss, and surprisingly, more than a few remarked that they didn't even know a game could end in a tie. Well, it can, and it did.
If there was blame to be placed, much of it would fall on the shoulders of the defense, though David Akers' missed field goal in overtime had a hand in it. The offense, despite losing Alex Smith to the 'concussion heard 'round the world', did its part, scoring 24 points with Colin Kaepernick filling in admirably in relief, setting in motion a chain of events that we're all more than familiar with. 24 points would have been more than enough to secure a victory had you asked any unbiased observer before the game.
The Rams got out to a 14 point lead in the first quarter, scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions against a defense that appeared to still have their heads in the bye week clouds. The defense settled down, holding the Rams to 10 points over the final 62 minutes of the game. Seven of those points came in the fourth quarter, however, after the 49ers had retaken the lead. The defense allowed Sam Bradford and the Rams to march 81 yards in 14 plays over 7:14 of game time. The 49ers also allowed a season-high 458 yards against that day. The previous high had been 344 yards allowed vs the Vikings. Repeating any of these feats could spell trouble for the Niners.
The keys for the Rams on offense in the first meeting were Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola. Jackson notched his first 100-yard game of the season against the 49ers with 101 yards rushing, albeit on 29 carries for a 3.5 average per carry. It was a hard-fought 101 yards, but the establishment of the run game made the Rams two-dimensional, an important ingredient in the recipe for success against the Niners defense. On the season, the Rams rank 12th in rushing yards with nearly 118 per game and have rushed for at least one hundred yards in each of their last seven contests, including a season-high 173 yards in last weekend's victory over the reeling Arizona Cardinals.
Running the ball successfully is a must against the 49ers. They've given up 100+ yards in four games this season. Not coincidentally, both losses and the tie saw teams run for over 100 yards. The 49ers' 3.6 yards per carry against is tied for second in the league. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, fresh off of this weeks contract extension, are arguably the two best in the league and run defense depends on them. Both players, however, had a subpar showing in the first encounter, each netting a rare negative grading from Pro Football Focus. The St. Louis Rams' offensive line has done a good job this season and played well against the 49ers. They rank 8th in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards and were frequently able to get into the second level in the Week 10 matchup.
The other star of the first matchup was Danny Amendola. Playing in his first game in a month, Amendola was able to burn the 49ers secondary for 11 catches and 101 yards. Carlos Rogers bore the brunt of Amendola's big game, frequently matching up against him in the slot. Last week the 49ers' secondary did a remarkable job against Drew Brees and the Saints, holding the receivers and tight ends to only 31 yards after the catch on 23 receptions. Brees was allowed to complete his passes, a nearly impossible task to stop, but sure tackling by the pass coverage unit stopped it from going any further. The defense has tightened up in the last two weeks and will look to keep the momentum going. The 49ers rank 2nd in passing yards against and 1st in yards allowed per pass play.
In discussing the 49ers' defense's matchup with the Rams there is one clear mismatch. The 49ers' pass rush has been on fire in the last two weeks, and the defense's overall play has improved with it. Throughout much of the season, the team had failed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and questions were raised about its effectiveness. In the first game, the Niners' defense only garnered two sacks against a Rams offensive line that ranks 22nd in the league in adjusted sack rate.
Aldon Smith was recently named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November. He recorded 9 sacks and forced two fumbles and is maturing into one of the best players in the league before our eyes. With 11 sacks in the last two games, the defense has risen to 11th in the league with 28. Before the recent explosion of pressure they had ranked in the bottom third. Previously they had feasted on week offensive lines, but the Saints' unit had been among the best at protecting the quarterback going into last weekend's tussle.
Ahmad Brooks' game last week against the Saints also deserves attention. He got to Brees for 1.5 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown. He's been effective pressuring the passer, despite not recording high numbers of sacks. Justin Smith is breaking out of his statistical funk as well, getting his first two sacks of the year in the last two weeks. He's been integral at stopping the run and freeing up Aldon Smith, without recording the same 'glory' statistics. Sam Bradford went 0-5 last week on throws under pressure. He hasn't fared well this season when teams get to him and the way the 49ers' defense is playing, this doesn't bode well.
Assuming the 49ers are able to continue their high-level of play they've maintained in the last two weeks, in marquee matchups no less, the Rams will have a hard time putting up points. I expect the team to keep up the pressure on the quarterback against a less-than-spectacular Rams pass-blocking unit. Bradford should expect to be pressured early and often. Steven Jackson may accrue some yardage, but if the 49ers force him to do so with a lot of carries, it shouldn't hurt them too much.
I can't see the Rams' offense getting past 250 yards on this one. Bradford will be sacked and turnovers will be forced. The 49ers have far more to prove and a lot more to lose, as a loss here sets them back in the race for playoff positioning This should be the dominating performance from the Niners that the first game wasn't. I expect the 49ers' to hold the Rams to 10 points or less. Colin Kaepernick and the offense should be able to integrate the new pieces without being forced to carry the team like they did in the first meeting. 49ers 23, Rams 10.