Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers have a tough test ahead of them in Week 13 as they travel to St. Louis to face the Rams—the same team that forced a tie just three weeks ago at Candlestick Park.
The Rams are a physical team that isn't afraid to mix it up with the top teams in the NFL, but the 49ers should be able to dominate—provided they execute the game plan and minimize penalties and turnovers.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the most important keys for Kaepernick and the 49ers.
Kaepernick Must Keep Firing Away
Confidence is one of the most important attributes an NFL quarterback can have.
Natural talent, good coaching and skilled teammates are just as important, but once confidence is shaken, players don't play to their potential.
At this time, Kaepernick's confidence in himself and his teammates is sky high.
He trusts what he's seeing on the field and is decisively acting on what he sees.
The Rams feature a couple of top-notch cornerbacks in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins missed the first meeting between these two teams after Jeff Fisher sat him out for disciplinary reasons, and the Rams still held Kaepernick in check without a touchdown pass.
Jenkins is coming off a two-interception-for-touchdown performance against Ryan Lindley and the Arizona Cardinals and has three on the year. Finnegan also has three interceptions on the season, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
It would be easy to understand if Kaepernick were a little wary throwing the ball their way, but if the 49ers are to succeed again on the road, he must continue firing the ball with confidence—trusting himself to make the proper reads and trusting his teammates to come up with the ball.
Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James Must Step Up
One of the reasons Frank Gore has been so spry late this season is that Kendall Hunter was giving the 49ers just as much production as his backup, breaking off 5.2 yards per carry.
Now that Hunter is out for the rest of the season (via USA Today) it's up to Jacobs and the rookie James to step into that same role and produce.
This turn of events makes me appreciate the mad genius that is Jim Harbaugh.
Much has been said about Harbaugh's decision to keep Jacobs out of the lineup for most of the season, but I always thought it was a brilliant move. You see, Jacobs is as fresh as he's ever been this late in the season and has a huge chip on his shoulder, to boot.
He's going to be running with fire and brimstone as his allies, and I predict we'll see him come through in a big way the rest of the season.
James, on the other hand, still has a lot to prove—motivation of a different sort. His game-breaking speed and quickness cannot be denied, though, and he'll likely get a few opportunities to show what he can do.
The Rams feature two pass-rushers—Chris Long and Robert Quinn—who can get pressure on Kaepernick if the 49ers can't run the ball. With that in mind, it'll be imperative for Jacobs and James to produce when they're in the game.
Stop. Steven. Jackson.
Jackson absolutely killed the 49ers three weeks ago, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown. He set the tone for the Rams, helping them get up on the 49ers 17-7 before Kaepernick finally got his act together and started moving the 49ers offense.
That can't happen again—especially on the road, where the home crowd will energize Jackson the more success he finds.
That means Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith and Ricky-Jean Francois must come with their A-games—something we didn't see from them in their first game against the Rams.
Sopoaga, in particular, got pushed around in a major way in Week 11.
Jackson and rookie Daryl Richardson will be given 30-plus chances to penetrate what once was the NFL's top run defense. If the 49ers fail to stop them in their tracks, they will be in danger of losing a crucial game in the race for the top seed in the NFC.
Harbaugh's decision to roll with the youngster isn't without serious risk.
If Kaepernick stumbles badly this week, there will be no end to the debate between him and Alex Smith.
If Kaepernick comes out swinging like he did in New Orleans a week ago and leads the 49ers to another impressive victory, Harbaugh will look like a genius.
It's not all up to the second-year signal-caller, though. The rest of the players on the 49ers roster need to continue playing at the top of their game, because the Rams are not going to give them any room to breath.
This upcoming game will be a slugfest—just like it always is between these two teams—and the 49ers must not fall flat.
Every challenge presents new opportunities for glory, though, and Kaepernick and the 49ers are certainly capable of adding to what's already a loaded highlight reel in 2012.