San Francisco 49ers vs. St. Louis Rams: Breaking Down St. Louis' Game Plan

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San Francisco 49ers vs. St. Louis Rams: Breaking Down St. Louis' Game Plan
David Welker/Getty Images

Despite the fact that the St. Louis Rams’ Week 3 showing was a penalty-laden disaster, there remains a glimmer of hope for their chances of victory at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

In 2012, the Rams’ Thursday Night Football appearance was also against a divisional foe in the Arizona Cardinals. It followed a physical matchup with the Seattle Seahawks four days prior, but the Rams turned in nine sacks, gave up three points and took the win.

For any chance at a similar performance in Week 4, the Rams will have to get after Colin Kaepernick the same way they bludgeoned Kevin Kolb on Thursday night last year.

San Francisco’s offensive line is a lot better than Arizona’s was last year, but the 49ers’ maulers have not been elite in pass protection thus far: They have allowed eight sacks through three games, which ties them for 15th in the league.

Alec Ogletree will be tasked with keeping Kaepernick from running all over the turf in St. Louis; the third-year QB has rushed an average of 7.7 times per game through the season’s first three weeks. Look for the speedy rookie to be frequently deployed as a spy.

The San Francisco running game hasn’t been as productive as once feared. Frank Gore is averaging just 3.5 yards a carry this year, while Kaepernick is rushing for 5.6 yards per attempt.

Last year, Gore rushed for 4.7 yards a pop. Kaepernick ate up 6.6.

But the Rams will still have to re-prove their discipline and get off their blocks, unlike Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys—when they allowed DeMarco Murray to enjoy yet another career day by gaining 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

His longest run went for 41 yards. Let’s check out that one to see what went wrong—and what the Rams have to fix before Gore comes into town.

The most alarming part of this play is that it was straightforward—no trickery whatsoever. The Cowboys lined up two tight ends on the left—where Murray was to take the ball—along with two wide receivers on the right and DeMarco in the backfield. St. Louis responded by allowing T.J. McDonald (green) to sniff around the line of scrimmage.

It gave Dallas a man-to-man look (see the cornerbacks and wide receivers at the top of the screen), but the Cowboys ultimately ran a zone play. Cortland Finnegan would end up backing out while Alec Ogletree dropped into the zone he was occupying pre-snap.

McDonald (green) gets erased immediately. Will Witherspoon (yellow) is about to get introduced to Tyron Smith on his rush, and Miles Austin is closing in on Alec Ogletree (red) as Murray receives the handoff. At this point, the D-line is already out of the play.

Ogletree is still dealing with a wide receiver and notice that the Rams’ linemen are all still at the line of scrimmage or in the offense’s backfield. That will be the last you hear from them on this play.

The orange Ram above is, of course, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who is dispatched by a cut block and rookie Travis Frederick as Murray passes the line of scrimmage, escaping an arm tackle along the way. Rodney McLeod (purple) came from a deep zone, but had a poor angle and will get run by soon enough.

See?

Failure to beat one-on-one blocks, poor angles and a defensive line that's too good for its own good at times made that 41-yard gallop possible.

Luckily for the Rams, San Francisco’s passing attack isn’t nearly as lethal as their running game has been since Kaepernick took the reins of the offense. St. Louis proved, on the above play, that its D-line, in fact, can get upfield too quickly, which will be especially problematic when San Francisco runs the option.

The 49ers’ targets, however, are another story. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin has more than twice as many catches (19) as any other San Francisco pass-catcher. Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams each have nine.

Expect Finnegan to match up with the very physical Boldin, who caught just one pass on seven targets the last time he faced some NFC West defensive backs: at Seattle in Week 2.

San Francisco may have to rely on a hobbled Davis—the only other 49ers pass-catcher (Boldin) to have more than 100 receiving yards to his credit this season—to move the ball through the air.

 

St. Louis will benefit from the absence of one, if not two, of San Francisco’s all-world linebackers: Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. That’s after losing starting nose tackle Ian Williams to the IR. The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows reported that Willis hasn’t practiced all week and is unlikely to play, despite being listed as questionable.

That should make things a little easier on Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham between the tackles.

Unfortunately, what I think should happen with the Rams offense and what actually happens with the Rams offense are two vastly different things. That would be OK for Rams fans if St. Louis was dropping 40 every week, but it isn’t. 

How more bubble screens aren’t called for Tavon Austin a la Wes Welker and Julio Jones, for example, is beyond me—but this is the closest thing I’ve seen to one.

With two 1-2 divisional foes meeting on a short week, now is as good a time as any for the Rams to uncover some new wrinkles in their offensive playbook.

Sam Bradford is spreading the ball around well, with three players receiving at least 13 catches, 22 targets, 114 yards and two touchdowns. One of those guys is Austin. One is Jared Cook, the big tight end to whom Bradford has gone less frequently since he blew up in Week 1, and the last is Austin Pettis.

Cook needs some more love to put pressure on the middle of the defense and keep things open for Austin underneath, as well as Chris Givens over the top. Since catching seven of 10 targets for 141 yards and two touchdowns—and the Rams’ last win—in Week 1, Cook has caught six of 12 balls for 54 yards and no scores.

Givens didn’t get behind the 49ers in his only appearance against the 49ers in 2012 (remember, he was suspended for the game in Candlestick). His longest reception went for just 16 yards, but he caught 11 passes for 92 yards on 14 targets.

The Rams only put up 16 points in that game, working their way into a 16-13 overtime win.

Austin better get double-digit looks on Thursday night.

Ultimately, St. Louis also has to exploit San Francisco’s depleted linebacker corps. Deep shots to put the defense on its heels never hurt, either.

 

Jamal Collier graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is now a law student who covers the St. Louis Rams in his spare time. His work also appears on Yahoo!Follow him on Twitter: JCollierD

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