Nobody expected the San Francisco 49ers to go into their Week 4 showdown with NFC West rival St. Louis at a disappointing 1-2.
Not after Jim Harbaugh's team captured the NFC Championship over the Atlanta Falcons a matter of months ago.
But after demoralizing defeats to both the Seahawks and Colts, this preseason Super Bowl favorite suddenly appears to be in disarray and is in dire need of a victory on the road against the Rams on Thursday night.
Heading into this all-important tilt between two bitter rivals, here's a look at what the 49ers need to do in order to climb back to .500 in Week 4.
A better game out of Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick obviously missed All-Pro target Vernon Davis dearly during Week 3, but the second-year starter has to be better than he's been during the 49ers' last two games.
With a whopping four interceptions against Indy and Seattle, Kaepernick hasn't looked like the cool and composed signal-caller who took the league by storm in 2012.
Even though he has rushed for a combined 107 yards during the team's pair of losses, Kaepernick has to be more careful with the football. Six turnovers in three games is simply unacceptable.
Fortunately for Kaepernick, he'll be facing the league's 23rd-ranked pass defense, so he, Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams should be able to get things back on track through the air.
First and foremost, regardless of whether Davis is back for Thursday's tilt, Kaepernick needs to limit the turnovers. The Rams haven't exactly been great against the run either, so he and Frank Gore should be able to do enough damage that way, even if the passing options aren't there.
Compensating for key absences
As I already mentioned, Davis is a question mark for the game in St. Louis as of now, but at least he's been on the field at practice, as Pro Football Talk reported Tuesday.
Patrick Willis (groin) hasn't practiced this week for 49ers, Vernon Davis (hamstring) has http://t.co/yg3ocBqZ17— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) September 25, 2013
These are two Pro Bowl-caliber defensive stalwarts, and against a quarterback with the offensive capabilities of Sam Bradford, guys further down the depth chart will need to step up.
The first two names that come to mind as potential replacements are Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier, and the 49ers confirmed earlier this week that both will be on the field in Smith's absence, per Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he expected both Skuta and Lemonier, a pass rushing-oriented rookie from Auburn, to play extensively in the team’s Week 4 matchup, a Thursday night duel in St. Louis opposite the Rams. Skuta, more likely a base-downs ‘backer, is listed first on the unofficial depth chart.
Though both are certainly capable of filling in, Lemonier's upside has to be intriguing for Harbaugh and his staff, as the two-time All-SEC selection appears to have the raw abilities to be an effective pass-rusher for San Francisco on Thursday night.
For now, Skuta is slated to be the first-stringer, but the 49ers will need both to have big evenings in order to compensate for the loss of at least one of the league's best defensive players.
A big night out of Frank Gore
During the 49ers' last four meetings with St. Louis dating back to the 2011 season, star running back Frank Gore has exceeded the 75-yard mark on the ground just once. But if Davis is off the field, Gore will have to make up for that lost offensive production.
So far this season, Gore has been maddeningly inconsistent. The four-time Pro Bowl back has been held to less than 45 yards twice in three games, but he did have a better Week 3 against the Colts, with 82 yards on 11 carries and another 21 yards through the air.
When Gore is effective, he forces opposing defenses to respect the threat of the run more consistently, and that's a big key for the 49ers, especially because Kaepernick has looked shaky for the last two weeks.
If he has a solid game, it'll buy enough time for Kaepernick to create opportunities with both his arm and his legs. And more often than not, that leads to a San Francisco victory.