The San Francisco 49ers square off against the St. Louis Rams this Sunday in historic, picturesque Candlestick Park. Their third divisional game in a row should not present any serious challenges for the far-superior 49ers squad. Realistically, the 49ers can win this game simply by showing up, but on any given Sunday...
On paper the 49ers are clearly the better team, but the game is played on grass, not stationary. So let's take a look at 10 things the 49ers must do on the field to defeat the Rams.
It goes without saying that the team who does not turn the ball over usually wins the game. This especially holds true for the 49ers. The 49ers feature perhaps the best ball-control attack in the league, but this is not an offense that has proven capable of overcoming a multiple-score deficit.
It also has not proven it can score in a hurry through the air when the running game is abandoned or ineffective.
So the key here is for the 49ers to protect the football and not give Sam Bradford and the Rams any early momentum from a turnover deep in San Francisco territory.
The Rams offense has struggled to put points on the board this season, but their defense has proven to be very stout at times. If the 49ers turn the ball over and the Rams take advantage it could very well put the 49ers into a one-dimensional mode on offense, as has been their modus operandi when falling behind this season.
Securing the football and making smart throws on Alex Smith's part will force the Rams to put together longer drives against one of the top defensive units in the NFL, which is a tall order for St. Louis.
Sam Bradford hasn't quite lived up to the expectations that come with being the number one overall pick in the draft.
That being said, many of his struggles are directly linked to subpar offensive line play. Bradford was taken with the first pick for a reason. He can sling the ball with some of the best quarterbacks in the game when given time to operate in the pocket.
But get after him and he becomes much less effective, more so than most. The Rams have struggled running the ball at times this year and they will most likely continue to struggle against the 49ers' run defense. The San Francisco secondary is arguably the best in the league, but putting pressure on the quarterback certainly helps their cause.
If the Smith Brothers and Co. have a big day, this contest could get ugly very quickly for the Rams.
If they have trouble getting after Bradford, he has enough talent to make the 49ers pay.
As mentioned previously, the 49ers are a ball-control offense. Everything on offense starts and stops with the run. Alex Smith has improved immensely over the past year-and-a-half, but much of his improvement has been made possible by the rushing attack and the focus it demands from defenses.
The 49ers have proven they can run the ball in virtually any manner they want. They have not displayed the same acumen in the passing game and this Sunday is no time stray from their biggest strength.
The Rams hardly have the type of offense that needs to be kept off the field at all costs, but the fact is that the 49ers are capable of putting together drives with the run that chew up significant time.
Why give the Rams any more chances than they need to?
Alex Smith has been sacked 24 times already this season, an appalling statistic.
Some of those sacks can be blamed on Smith's proclivity for holding onto the ball too long. But regardless of why Smith has been sacked so frequently, the fact remains that getting to the quarterback that often is a surefire way of forcing turnovers, either through hurried throws or fumbles.
As much criticism as Smith has received for his inability to throw downfield effectively, he has proven extremely capable in all other areas of the passing game when given time. His accuracy on shorter routes is above-average and is one of Smith's biggest strengths as a quarterback.
I expect the Rams cornerbacks to play a lot of press-coverage in an attempt to disrupt the timing and route-running on the short and intermediate patterns. If the 49ers receivers struggle to get off the line of scrimmage and create separation early, Smith will be forced to make multiple reads and buy more time in the pocket.
While he is somewhat adept at moving in the pocket, Smith has not shown the same ability to progress through three and four reads. His play against Arizona in the 49ers' last game showed marked improvement in this area, but protecting him from the Rams' pass rush will make this task much easier for him.
Just like the 49ers have struggled to play catch-up football, their opponents have struggled to put points on the board when playing from behind. The way the 49ers play football is sort of like a UFC match between a pure striker and a pure wrestler. If the wrestler can "score" first by executing a takedown, he has a huge advantage.
We've seen it before: the wrestler shoots a double-leg takedown, mounts his opponent and smothers him to death with elbows to the frontal plate, knees to the IT band and hammer fists rained down upon his opponent's orbital bones from on high. It's like a huge boa constrictor falling out of a tree and landing around the trachea of a small goat. If the boa gets the jump on the goat, or in this case the ram, it's not a matter of if but when the goat/ram gets shoved down the boa's throat.
If the 49ers can acquire a one- or two-score lead early, the Rams will slowly digest in the belly of players like Ahmad Brooks, Pat Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.
Now, the 49ers have certainly proven this year that they can win without Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker having much impact on offense. However, if the 49ers expect to ascend to the top of the mountain this year, they will need contributions from the tight end position.
The two-tight end set was a staple of the 49ers'offense last season. Given that Alex Smith is not asked to make long downfield throws very often, it is imperative that he incorporate every weapon in the offense to compensate.
Sunday against the Rams is as good a time as any to re-establish the rapport between Smith and his tight ends—a chemistry that was such a huge part of last season's success.
They may not need that chemistry to win this particular game, but they will need it to win further down the road.
Nobody likes the zebras, whether they're replacements or the real thing.
As with turnovers, inopportune penalties can give the Rams the momentum they need to get off to a good start. The 49ers are kind of like Mike Tyson in his early prime. The longer into the fight an opponent could last, the better chance he had of wearing Tyson down. Come in flat to this game and the Rams might be able to summon their inner Buster Douglas. And the Rams' helmets will make chewing their ears off very, very difficult.
When a good team plays an inferior team, mistake-free football all but assures the lesser team's demise. The 49ers are one of the top teams in the league and it will be the little things that either separate them from the pack come playoff time or doom them.
The 49ers' home crowd is one of the louder, more passionate collection of wine enthusiasts, drunkards, CEOs and turophiles in the NFL.
Sam Bradford and the Rams offense would have their hands full if they were playing the 49ers in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. But force them to play the 49ers in the middle of a mosh pit at an early-'90s Rage Against the Machine concert (which is basically what playing the 49ers defense is like) and again, things could get ugly very quickly for the Rams.
I would love to see Sam Bradford and the offensive line become so overwhelmed by the crowd noise that Bradford loses all composure and climbs into the stands in a steroid-induced frenzy that only the blood of someone wearing a Pat Willis jersey can subdue. Hell, with any luck the guy gets wheeled out in a straitjacket and spends the rest of the season slowly slipping into the Big Drool.
The 49ers have a huge matchup following their contest against the Rams.
The following week on Monday Night Football the 49ers host the Chicago Bears and arguably the league's best defense. That game could go a long way toward determining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
I don't envision this weekend's game against St. Louis as a "trap", and Admiral Akbar doesn't know anything about football, so his opinion is irrelevant. Nonetheless, looking ahead to the following week before taking care of business this week is always a harbinger of doom and despair.
So don't count your chickens before they hatch, 49ers, or you could end up with yoke on your face while your chickens get eaten by the neighbor's dog which, for some vague reason is allowed to run loose all over the neighborhood and then when you come home from Easter Sunday mass and your chickens' carcasses are strewn all over the yard and then you have to hurry up and bury them before the kids see their favorite chicken lying in a puddle of its own blood and...oh, uh. Never mind. I got off track.
Show up, play hard and worry about next week next week.
I mentioned earlier that the 49ers probably just need to show up to win this Sunday. Well, that can't happen if the team bus departs from Santa Clara headquarters and runs out of gas somewhere between the Fair Oaks and El Camino Real exits on Highway 101 in Sunnyvale.
Actually, I'm not sure if the 49ers even take a team bus or if their players simply drive their own cars. If that's the case, they need to make sure Aldon Smith has a ride. Either way, if all it takes is showing up to win then they need to show up and show up with a full tank of gas and a smooth-running engine.