Rams vs. 49ers: 3 Key Matchups to Watch for San Francisco
After a Week 9 bye, the San Francisco 49ers are as healthy as ever heading into Week 10. Even with nine players listed on Friday's injury report, all nine were listed as full participation, meaning they are all probable for Sunday's contest.
Jim Harbaugh's club is currently sporting a two-game winning streak, and they will be looking for their first three-game winning streak of the season by game's end. Last season, the 49ers built their season on winning games in bunches.
They haven't quite hit that same stride through the first eight games of the season, but after two convincing wins against the Seahawks and Cardinals, it appears that they have finally found that same groove from 2011.
Coach Harbaugh is 2-0 all time against the Rams and 2-0 this season against the NFC West.
Ahmad Brooks vs. Barry Richardson
Even though the 49ers' pass rush as a whole isn't as potent as it was 2011, there is one player who has done a complete 180 off the edge. Last season Ahmad Brooks' ability to get after the passer was often hit or miss, but for the first time in his career, his ability to harass the quarterback is now feared on every down.
Not to discredit his seven-sack, 10-quarterback-hit season from 2011, but his second year in Harbaugh's system has seen him take a giant leap. Halfway through the season, he already has four quarterback sacks, six quarterback hits and 20 quarterback hurries.
Based on those numbers, he will easily eclipse his total number of pressures from a year ago. By the end of the NFC Championship game, he had 57 total pressures; by Week 17 of the regular season, he should have 60 total pressures.
This week those improved pass-rushing skills should come in quite handy against one of the worst pass-blocking offensive tackles in all of football. Barry Richardson has started all eight games for St. Louis this season, yet he hasn't been able to protect quarterback Sam Bradford as well as he would like to.
According to Pro Football Focus, he is the sixth worst pass-blocking right tackle in the NFL right now. He has surrendered four quarterback sacks, eight quarterback hits and 12 quarterback hurries. Not to mention he allows a quarterback pressure once every 11 times Bradford drops back.
That is the highest rate among any starter on the Rams' offensive line. There's no question who this matchup favors. 49er fans will be hoping Brooks turns in a performance that is similar to his Week 8 performance against the Cardinals.
Anthony Davis vs. Chris Long
With right tackle Anthony Davis' improved play and Chris Long's annual Pro Bowlesque play, this could easily be the biggest matchup come Sunday. Long and Davis already have four one-on-one battles under their belt. Right now it's pretty obvious as to which player has done all the dominating, but this could be the game that changes everything.
In 2011, Long tallied two sacks, three hits and six hurries. In 2010, he tallied two sacks, four hits and eight hurries. Davis improved by a total of three hurries in 2011, however, the one-sack-per-game average needs to go.
And this Sunday's game couldn't come at a better time for the 49ers' right tackle. Long is currently in a pretty deep slump, and his chances of coming out of it on the road are pretty low. Everyone knows he is a much better pass-rusher in the dome on a fast surface.
Over the course of his last 116 snaps, Long has recorded exactly one hurry—no sacks, no hits, no nothing. The last time he recorded at least one sack, one hit and one hurry was during St. Louis' Week 5 game against the Cardinals.
His slump is surprising considering the way his counterpart Robert Quinn has been getting after the quarterback. Quinn had an okay rookie campaign, but with him breaking out, I figured no one would benefit more than Long.
Regardless, the odds are in Davis' favor. He has two games this season where he didn't allow a single pressure. He has also held opposing defenders sackless in seven of the 49ers first eight contests. His biggest break down in protection came against the New York Giants.
Opposing defenders piled up 10 total pressures against him. It's a game Davis definitely wants to forget.
Andy Lee vs. Johnny Hekker
I know, I know, this is probably the least sexy match of the entire game, yet with two top-notch punters, their performances will dictate the field position battle. PFF has both players in its top 10 of punting efficiency. Lee is ranked No. 5 and Hekker is ranked No. 6.
Hekker is an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State, but you wouldn't know he is a rookie given the way he kicks the ball. He has the fourth highest average in the NFL at 49 yards per punt, and he is the only punter who has thrown a touchdown pass this season.
When looking at net yards, Hekker's numbers tend to drop a little. His net yards per punt is 41.4, the 12th highest mark in the league. The strength of his leg is incredible, yet he needs to really work on his directional kicking. It is holding his net average back, although with enough experience, it will eventually come.
Lee, on the other hand, has the fifth highest net average. He is netting 42.5 yards per kick, the second highest total of his career. By the end of the season, he could easily get that number back to the 44-yard mark like it was last year.
The field-position battle is one of the most underrated aspects of a football game. Having two of the best punters in the game magnifies just how important it is. Especially when both players are launching moon shots off their right leg.
Whoever wins the field-position battle on Sunday will come out victorious.
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