Rams vs. 49ers: 10 Keys to the Game for St. Louis
The Rams, however, have been stuck on those three wins for the last five weeks, and the season is at a crossroads in this weekend's matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
Defeat the 49ers, and the Rams are possibly one game out of wild card contention with a home game against the New York Jets waiting for them.
Lose to San Francisco, and the losing streak then stretches to four games. The once promising season then starts to look like many of the others for the Rams over the last half-dozen years.
It is quite the towering assignment for these Rams against the 49ers. The odds makers agree, marking the Rams as near two-touchdown underdogs on the road.
Here are 10 keys to the game for St. Louis to pull out the victory.
1) Limit the 49ers Running Game
More specifically, the magic number is 100 yards. As in, keep the 49ers running attack under it.
Only twice this year have the 49ers failed to break the century mark in rushing yards, and both times they lost.
San Francisco ran for 89 yards in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota. They likewise ran for only 80 yards against the New York Giants in a Week 6 defeat at home.
Limiting the 49ers running game is important because if you don't, things get extremely ugly. I'm talking Tecmo Bowl ugly.
If the 49ers reach the 100-yard mark on the ground, they end up running for nearly 200 yards against you. More importantly, they win.
2) Contain the Niners Offensive Line
This goes along with the previous key, but the Rams have to contain the 49ers offensive line.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers have the NFL's best offensive line, with four of the team's five starters worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. PFF scores the 49ers run blocking three times higher than the next best team.
The 49ers rankings are much more average in pass blocking (10th) and penalties (12th), so the Rams may have to make their mark in those areas (which we'll get to).
But the bottom line is the Rams cannot be consistently pushed around by the San Francisco offensive line in the running game.
3) Force Turnovers
The emphasis here is on forcing multiple turnovers.
Looking at the 49ers' losses to both the Vikings and Giants, you'll notice that the 49ers turned the ball over three times in both defeats.
In San Francisco's other six games (all wins), they gave up just three turnovers combined.
Forcing a couple turnovers may be difficult for the Rams to do as they have not forced a turnover since Week 5 against Arizona. That, coincidentally, was the last time the Rams left the field as victors.
What's your prediction for Rams at 49ers?
On the other hand, it might also mean the Rams are overdue.
4) Score Touchdowns
It sounds rather obvious, but the Rams aren't going to win by making this a game of field goals. Four of the last five opponents of the 49ers tried to compete with just field goals, and that didn't work.
San Francisco is allowing a league-low 12.9 points per game. But in the team's two losses, they've given up 24 and 26 points, respectively.
The Rams must find a way to get to 24 points. That means turning back the clock to the team's Week 2 victory over Washington — the last time the Rams reached that point total.
The Rams currently are averaging 17.1 points per game, which is 29th in the NFL.
To get to 24 points, the team will have to find an extra (you guessed it) touchdown.
5) Break Tackles
When the Rams' wide receivers catch the ball in open space, they must find a way to get extra yards after the catch. Which means they cannot go down on the first effort of a 49ers tackler.
Pro Football Focus grades the San Francisco cornerback tandem of Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers as the NFL's best tackling CB combo. Brown and Rogers have only missed one tackle on 50 opportunities this season, by far the best.
This is a bad recipe for the Rams as they don't have any wide receivers in the top-50 in receiving yards after the catch.
Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson are in the top-20 of NFL wide receivers in catch rate. That means they should have plenty of opportunities to turn those seven-yard receptions into gains of 12 or 13 yards.
6) Sam Bradford
This goes along with the previous key, but Bradford is going to have to find a way to move the ball through the air.
That's a tough assignment against the 49ers, as they give up the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL (184 yards allowed per game) and are tied with two other teams for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (six).
Bradford is having a good year (by his standards), as he is on pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passing yards, yards per pass attempt and quarterback rating.
Bradford is going to need the game of his career against the 49ers.
One way to do that is through the use of ...
7) Play Action
Bradford is a different (read: better) quarterback when using the play action.
According to PFF, Bradford averages 10.1 yards per passing attempt in the play action, while averaging 6.7 yards on non-play action passes.
That difference (3.4 yards) is tied for 4th best among quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks have better numbers in the play action simply because they throw the ball downfield more.
But Bradford is especially good at using deception in the backfield to make gains downfield in the opponent's secondary.
I've constantly begged the Rams to use Lance Kendricks in the play action. It's a shame the offense doesn't use Kendricks more. He has received less than 11 percent of the offense's passing targets (ranked 27th among NFL tight ends).
The next great theme of NFL offenses is using the athletic tight end who can tear through the middle of a defense. The Rams have such an option in Kendricks, who is very reliable in the passing game (20 receptions on 27 targets). The Rams need to start using Kendricks now.
8) Give Steven Jackson the Ball
Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling that Jackson will come to play on Sunday. His good name has been drug through the mud by media sites large and small over the last couple weeks as the NFL trade deadline came and passed.
If Jackson was ever going to play with a chip on his shoulder, I'm sure this weekend's game would be the time. Jackson has quite a bit left to prove. He's potentially a free agent after this season, as he has the power to veto his contract for next year with the Rams. Jackson is playing for his next (and most likely last) big contract. What better way for Jackson to show off his value than by running through the NFL's sixth-best run defense (87 yards allowed per game)?
You want the ball, son. Here it is.
9) Get Pressure on Alex Smith
Alex Smith has had it too easy this year. In order to win, the Rams need to change that on Sunday.
Smith is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this season, which is good for second best in the NFL. Compare that to Smith's career rate of 59 percent. Smith's QB rating (102.1) is seventh best in the league. This is all for someone who has attempted less passes than 30 other quarterbacks. Like I said, it's been too easy for him.
Smith can be handled in the right setting. He's been sacked 22 times this year, more than all but six other quarterbacks. For comparison's sake, Bradford has been sacked 23 times. In the 49ers two losses, Smith was sacked nine times.
Robert Quinn and Chris Long have to find a way to get around, through, under and over the 49ers offensive line. If they can get a push into the pocket, there should be plenty of chances to take Smith down.
10) Get Something, Anything in the Return Game
Score a touchdown or shift the field position with a big return. Is it really too much to ask?
Since 2008, the Rams have only scored one touchdown on a kickoff or punt return. (Nick Miller, wherefore art thou?)
Assuming Amendola is back returning punts on Sunday, he has been respectable, averaging 9.7 yards per return. His longest return, however, is only 22 yards. That's been bested this year so far by 27 other returners.
Chris Givens and Isaiah Pead have been okay on kickoff returns, but they have yet to show they can break off a long run. Both their averages (Givens at 25.3; Pead at 22.0) and their longs (36 and 32, respectively) are very similar.
I'm convinced that the Rams need to find a way to score an unconventional touchdown against this 49ers team. The Rams aren't going to be able to line up against San Francisco and outplay them consistently on first, second and third downs.
Jeff Fisher and staff need to think outside the box. Johnny Hekker throwing a touchdown pass to Amendola is one example. The Rams need more ingenuity like that.
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