49ers vs. Rams: 10 Keys to the Game for San Francisco
Facetiousness aside, the 49ers certainly want to move forward past the Rams without the dubious distinction of being an NFL team in the modern era with two draws on its record.
(It would just be plain unbecoming for a Super Bowl-caliber squad.)
The 24-24 tie in Week 10 at Candlestick Park was as rare as it was unfortunate for both teams. San Francisco (at the time) put its playoff seeding in jeopardy, while St. Louis did the proverbial kissing of the sister instead of securing a victory that was well within its grasp.
Now three weeks later into the 2012 season, the 49ers and Rams once again find themselves on the gridiron for a heated divisional matchup.
Jeff Fisher’s club has NFC West pride on the line. The Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers, on the other hand, must win to maintain their hold on the NFC’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Pound the rock, stop the run, prevent the big play—these are some of the crucial factors for San Francisco as it looks to advance its record to 9-2-1.
Let’s now examine the 10 keys in their entirety for the 49ers to leave St. Louis with a much-needed "W."
Operation Amendola Shutdown
Let’s face it: Danny Amendola absolutely had his way with the 49ers secondary last time around.
The speedy slot receiver hauled in 11 catches for 102 yards. He simply burned Carlos Rogers throughout the game.
A third-down conversion on the Rams’ go-ahead fourth-quarter drive and 80-yard connection later in overtime—negated by a bogus illegal-formation penalty—exemplified Amendola’s dominance of Rogers.
The veteran corner had essentially put victory in the hands of St. Louis if not for the questionable infraction.
The 49ers must rotate coverage with Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver and have their beastly linebackers push Amendola off his routes when he crosses over the middle. A few well-timed crushing blows by safety Dashon Goldson will also help dissuade the wideout from running through open spaces on Sunday.
San Francisco must neutralize his devastating speed, sure handedness and short-area quickness. Amendola cannot be allowed to run unabated through the heart of this defense.
At the end of the day, though, Rogers must embody the role of a true No. 1 corner. The 49ers aren’t in the business of harboring defensive liabilities.
Operation Jackson Shutdown
Shall we not continue with the fundamental backbone of the 49ers?
In concert with the theme of essential defensive keys, the 49ers have to eliminate running back Steven Jackson from the equation.
Jackson produced his first 100-yard outing of 2012 in the previous matchup. While it required an extensive 29 carries, he still bulldozed through San Francisco’s middle linebackers for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman—normally the NFL’s most dominant inside linebacker duo—were simply outmuscled.
Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald successfully held point on the outside. Ahmad Brooks and fellow outside ‘backer Aldon Smith also sealed the edge and pursued Jackson with great proficiency.
It goes without saying, then, that Willis and Bowman must return to form. They have to be the best—and not worst—among the 49ers defending the run.
This team can ill afford to surrender another 14-0 advantage in the early goings—at least for pride, if nothing else.
Onus on Sam Bradford, Sack Sam Bradford
Shutting down Jackson necessarily leads to this third defensive responsibility.
Quarterback Sam Bradford generally places his team in losing situations when he throws 25-plus times.
The Week 2 victory over the Redskins, notwithstanding, each Rams defeat has occurred when Bradford attempted 25 or more passes.
(To those sticklers out there, St. Louis won in spite of Bradford’s 16-of-30, one-interception effort against the Seahawks in Week 4.)
Point being, Bradford needs a balanced offense with Jackson and Daryl Richardson leading the charge to be his most effective. He’s a young player who’s still acclimating to the speed of the NFL, as well as the immense responsibility required of the quarterback position.
A defense as dominant and terrifying as the 49ers contingent will only exacerbate the third-year player’s struggles. That is, if it performs up to snuff.
Bradford put on his rarely utilized veteran’s cap and led multiple scoring drives down the length of the field in Week 10. He accounted for two touchdowns himself against the usually stifling Vic Fangio-led D.
Aldon Smith and the 49ers pass-rushers must pressure Bradford, take him off his spot and punish him physically on the gridiron. This must happen consistently and not in inconsequential moments (a la end of the first half or when the game’s essentially over).
Bradford cannot have the luxury of a stable pocket with which to utilize his deadly accuracy. And the 49ers cannot enable a steadily lackluster quarterback to appear as anything but.
Here’s to Smith inching a few steps closer to one of those all-time records.
Pound the Rock—Again and Again and Again
San Francisco’s bread and butter on offense is a relentless rushing attack.
No matter who lines up under center.
Frank Gore must establish his presence early and often against the Rams. A steady dose of "Frank the Tank" creates offensive balance, fuels downfield progression and moves the time of possession arrow in favor of the 49ers.
He’ll have to do so this week without his running mate Kendall Hunter. The valuable complementary back who had rushed for 5.2 yards per carry is out for the season with an Achilles injury.
Yet, doubting Gore’s ability to successfully carry the load would be downright silly. Hunter himself only carried the ball three times in the infamous tie.
That said, the bruising Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon must help keep the 49ers’ No. 1 back fresh to ensure his complete effectiveness.
Moreover, a persistent 49ers’ run game will help counteract St. Louis’ ferocious pass rush. It will help prevent Chris Long and Robert Quinn from simply pinning their ears back and getting after the quarterback.
The collection of Rams pass-rushers did register five sacks and nine hits on Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick three weeks ago. But it wasn’t any fault of Gore’s.
He ran for a quality 97 yards and touchdown off 21 carries—consistently gaining positive yardage and pass-blocking effectively when called upon. His efforts facilitated a relative 55/45 split between the run and pass as well (after removing quarterback scrambles).
That’s the type of balance that nearly always puts a notch in the win column for San Francisco.
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman must game-plan in a similar way for 49ers vs. Rams 2.0.
Play-action is a fundamental component of any quarterback’s repertoire. Rookie and inexperienced signal-callers rely on it, while many veterans thrive off it.
Guess that qualifies Kaepernick as a veteran.
The second-year pro has utilized play-action passes with tremendous success the past two weeks. He devastated both the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints—often running consecutive plays using this formation.
Case in point: he was 3-of-3 on his first three throws against the Bears, and all came on passes following fake handoffs to Niners backs.
Better case in point: his first career TD pass to Vernon Davis off a beautifully executed play-action later that quarter.
Regrettably, the 49ers coaching staff placed Kaepernick in more straight dropbacks against the Rams last time around. We say regrettable because the 49ers were playing from behind and didn’t have the luxury of play-action.
That was purely evident when Long sacked Kaepernick for a drive-stopping loss in overtime. St. Louis didn’t have to respect the run as it would if San Francisco had the lead.
So, if Gore does indeed pound the rock in a wrecking-ball fashion through the Rams D—which we certainly expect him to do—Kaepernick will be able to successfully run play-action sets. St. Louis defensive backs will have to respect the run.
The 49ers coaches are undoubtedly cognizant of his remarkable execution of these age-old offensive schemes the last two games. They are also aware of the Rams coverage personnel against which these plays will work so well.
Funny how these slides continually lead into one other.
VD Exploitation of Rams Safeties, Linebackers
VD stands for 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Exploitation refers to the mismatch he poses to Rams coverage men from middle to back.
As our eyes bear witness, as Pro Football Focus notes and as Scouts Inc. verifies (membership required), certain St. Louis defenders are unsuccessful at covering dynamic pass-catchers.
Safety Quintin Mikell has allowed quarterbacks to complete 71 percent of their passes (22-of-31) and produce an overall efficiency rating of 99.5 when throwing his way.
Linebacker James Laurinaitis isn’t much better with a 72.2 completion percentage.
Climbing up the latter, outside ‘backer Jo-Lonn Dunbar has 81 percent, two touchdowns and 103.4 (rating) attached to his name. And Rocky McIntosh takes the proverbial cake with a dubious “A”-worthy 100 percent.
In other words, Davis must have him some field-day-like success against this Rams unit.
Good thing he has the perfect quarterback throwing to him.
Most of us realize the unreal physical abilities Davis possesses. He’s faster than just about every linebacker and bigger than just about every safety. He’s simply uncoverable the majority of the time.
The only issue with Davis is actually delivering him the football. Not to cast any aspersions on Alex Smith but Kaepernick simply possesses the arm necessary to hit Davis deep down the field and in tight windows.
Please watch the Bears-49ers video recap to understand this dynamic. My words just wouldn’t do justice.
Well, perhaps, a few more captivating highlights will emerge from this 49ers-Rams battle to elucidate the point.
Win in the Pass-Protection, Pass-Rush Trenches
The Rams, for the most part, gained leverage over the 49ers at the line of scrimmage with their defensive front.
It was susceptible to San Francisco’s rushing attack but dominated its opponent’s pass protection. We already noted the five sacks, nine QB hits and numerous QB hurries given up.
(To clarify, “numerous” equated to 13 times that 49ers quarterbacks ran for their lives.)
Additionally, four of those five sacks were the result of failed protection by the 49ers offensive line. PFF doled out negative grades to every linemen but Joe Staley.
And even the left tackle allowed a sack and QB hit.
It’s time for the highly regarded line and best run-blocking unit in the league to apply equal proficiency to its other assignments.
Regarding the other side of the trenches, San Francisco did not generate enough meaningful pressure on Bradford.
Left guard Shelley Smith did succumb to Aldon Smith’s inside stunt for the better part of the game. But his two sacks, two hits and two hurries weren’t sufficient in neutralizing the Rams passing game.
Whether it requires an individual 5.5-sack performance, or more of a collective effort like that produced against the Saints, San Francisco must win this battle of the trenches in St. Louis.
Limit the Penalties
NFL zebras in Week 10 flagged San Francisco seven times for 66 yards. Call it an early gift under the Rams’ Christmas tree.
A facemask penalty courtesy of Ray McDonald advanced the Rams from the SF 37 all the way to the SF 22 in the first quarter. It facilitated a 14-0 advantage for the road team.
Center Jonathan Goodwin added 10 unnecessary yards of his own in the second quarter. The 49ers bid their adieu to a crucial first-down conversion and welcomed an uninvited 3rd-and-20.
Dashon Goldson then fancied himself “unsportsmanlike,” while McDonald once again obliged with some unnecessary rough-housing…err…roughness late in the third.
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein expressed his thanks with a 27-yard chip shot. The deficit grew via a penalty yet again.
There really isn’t any need to go on. Harbaugh knows what to emphasize in team meetings.
David Akers was a, if not, the MVP of the 49ers’ 13-3 campaign in 2011.
He set all-time records in single-season field goals made (44) and non-touchdown points scored (166).
When the 49ers offense failed, he came through. When his team needed a touchback and/or field-position win, he obliged in timely form.
One could say his mind was in a good place.
He cannot say the same anymore.
Akers currently owns a career-worst 70.4 field-goal percentage, having missed eight kicks on the season. There have been three games where he failed on multiple attempts.
He couldn’t be any further away from his All-Pro season just one year ago, not to mention any closer to the game that put this horrific season in its most tangible form.
Akers missed a game-winning field goal in overtime against these very St. Louis Rams. His team was lucky it escaped with a something other than a loss.
The 49ers would like nothing more than for Akers to do his job, do it well and find his normally prolific self with a productive performance this week.
Let’s chalk this one up to resurrection of individual morale for betterment of the team.
No More Fake Punts
Yes, zero converted fake punts are much better than two converted fake punts.
The 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely is widely regarded as one of the best in the business. Read his 49ers.com biography and you’ll easily understand that he’s one of the best in NFL history when it comes to coaching this overlooked aspect of the game.
But when discussing the 49ers’ special teams play against St. Louis in Week 10, he might be amenable to removing himself from the historical ranks.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker threw for two first downs via fake punts. His first was a 10-yard strike on 4th-and-4 but luckily occurred without consequence thereafter.
The second conversion, however, kept alive the Rams’ go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth. It should have cost the 49ers the game—and Seely knows this.
Fortunately, Seely also knows how to turn special teams on its proverbial ear and keep it simple while doing do.
He’ll remind Ted Ginn that he returned two kicks to the house last year and is authorized to do so again on Sunday.
The Rams can have their trickery, but the 49ers will have their touchdown.
And that’s a must.
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