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49ers vs. Rams: What's the Game Plan for San Francisco?

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVOctober 30, 2015

The Rams defense will do its best to force the 49ers to be one-dimensional.
The Rams defense will do its best to force the 49ers to be one-dimensional.Michael Thomas/Getty Images

The 2-5 San Francisco 49ers face off against the 3-3 St. Louis Rams in a Week 8 NFC West showdown at the Edward Jones Dome—a game that kicks off at 1 p.m. ET.

San Francisco's previous contest against the Seattle Seahawks displayed little more than whimpers from the offense, as the 49ers produced a mere three points and 142 all-purpose yards. Additionally, they generated fewer first downs (eight) than punts (nine) during the game.

Offensive woes have been a large story behind San Francisco's lackluster start to the 2015 season. And these problems could easily be magnified as the 49ers try to implement a stronger game plan against the Rams on Sunday.

St. Louis' defense may not be as good as Seattle's, but a strong Rams pass rush figures to be a major factor during the game. With the 49ers having allowed 25 sacks on the year, St. Louis' crop of pass-rushers could be in line for a big day.

How can San Francisco scheme against the pass rush?

Fortunately, the 49ers won't have to worry about a high-flying Rams offense. Like San Francisco, St. Louis is near the bottom echelon on that side of the ball. 

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The 49ers' game plan should be simple: Don't let the Rams pass rush be an overwhelming factor and ensure St. Louis' struggling offense stays that way.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's performance in Week 8 will, again, be under the microscope.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's performance in Week 8 will, again, be under the microscope.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Offensive Game Plan

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's woes against the Seahawks continued in Week 7. He looked as if he was trying to avoid making mistakes rather than big plays.

As noted by 49ers' radio color commentator Tim Ryan on KNBR 680 Friday morning, Kaepernick needs to take some risks over the course of Sunday's game in St. Louis. With the 49ers' season going nowhere fast, there isn't much use in a conservative, no-mistake approach.

This is, of course, easier said than done.

All one needs to do is look at the 49ers' offensive production in 2015 to realize San Francisco hasn't been capable of effectively moving the ball on offense. The B/R Insights graphic below tells all:

Credit: B/R Insights

Running the ball has been one of the few 49ers strengths this season. But with running back Carlos Hyde nursing a foot injury, how effective can this approach be?

Surprisingly, San Francisco is struggling in its run blocking this season. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers have a minus-36.7 run-blocking grade on the year. That's obviously not good and may explain why Hyde is averaging just 50.3 yards per game, not including his Week 1 performance (168 yards).

Update: Hyde has been ruled out of Sunday's game per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

St. Louis' defense is vulnerable against the run, as the B/R Insights graphic below suggests. So it's likely to see some run-heavy approaches from offensive coordinator Geep Chryst on Sunday.

Credit: B/R Insights

But running the ball won't be the entire answer. The Rams will likely load the box to take away this approach, which means more pressure on Kaepernick and the 49ers offensive line to integrate a strong passing game.

The Rams pass-rushers are good. Really good. Defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn have combined for 8.5 sacks on the year, and the entire team has 23 over six games played. Combine that with the 49ers' woes in protecting their quarterback, and Kaepernick could be in for a long game.

Pass protection has been an issue all season for San Francisco. And the O-line's efforts in Week 7 perfectly demonstrated why.

Kaepernick was sacked six times during that game, and the right side of the line was, again, the primary culprit, as we can see with linemen Jordan Devey and Erik Pears (yellow arrows).

The 49ers pocket will quickly collapse, and the right side of the offensive line will be the primary culprit again.
The 49ers pocket will quickly collapse, and the right side of the offensive line will be the primary culprit again.Credit: NFL.com

Pears (yellow circle) is still doing a good job at this point, but Devey is clearly beaten (yellow arrow). The pressure forces Kaepernick to step up in the pocket, which he should do at this point, and try to extend the play.

Right tackle Erik Pears is doing an OK job holding his block, but right guard Jordan Devey (arrow) quickly loses his man.
Right tackle Erik Pears is doing an OK job holding his block, but right guard Jordan Devey (arrow) quickly loses his man.Credit: NFL.com

But Pears eventually loses his man, and Kaepernick will go down after running into the back of left guard Alex Boone.

Pears eventually loses protection, which ends up in Kaepernick being sacked.
Pears eventually loses protection, which ends up in Kaepernick being sacked.Credit: NFL.com

O-line troubles, anyone?

Perhaps the play-calling should involve extra blockers, either along the line in the form of added tight ends or backs in the backfield, in order to provide additional protection against the Rams pass rush. This may be one of the only ways San Francisco can keep St. Louis' front seven in check.

And the onus will also be on Kaepernick to get rid of the ball quickly.

Twenty-one of his 25 sacks have come when he's held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, per PFF.

Linebacker Aaron Lynch will be tasked with replicating his Week 7 efforts against St. Louis.
Linebacker Aaron Lynch will be tasked with replicating his Week 7 efforts against St. Louis.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Defensive Game Plan

If the 49ers do have a bit of an edge in Week 8, it's because St. Louis is going through its own offensive struggles in 2015.

Yes, San Francisco ranks dead last in the NFL in both total points (103) and all-purpose yards (2,069), but the Rams are also ranked at the bottom in these same respective categories.

St. Louis has already had its bye week, which alters the total numbers somewhat. But as seen in the B/R Insights graphic below, the Rams' averages per game speak to their ineffectiveness on offense through six contests.

Credit: B/R Insights

The Rams' primary strength will focus on the running game. Rookie running back Todd Gurley is quickly building a reputation as one of the league's best backs. He is averaging six yards per carry and 110.5 yards per game.

Ryan noted the 49ers should employ a similar defensive tactic seen by their own offense frequently this season: loading the box.

According to PFF, the 49ers boast a plus-3.8 run-stopping grade on the season. Defensively, it's one of the team's few strengths.

Look for the Rams to feed running back Todd Gurley early and often.
Look for the Rams to feed running back Todd Gurley early and often.Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

San Francisco struggled against Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch last week, but the middle-of-the-field defense won't have to worry about tight end Jimmy Graham when it faces off against St. Louis. This should free up players such as safety Jaquiski Tartt and linebacker NaVorro Bowman to support the run defense to a larger extent.

Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin figures to be the biggest aerial threat. Negating his abilities will actually fall upon San Francisco's pass-rushers. Linebacker Aaron Lynch had a solid game in Week 7, as seen below:

Lynch is easily able to scoot past the Seahawks O-line and rush quarterback Russell Wilson.
Lynch is easily able to scoot past the Seahawks O-line and rush quarterback Russell Wilson.Credit: NFL.com

Lynch easily beats his man and quickly brings down quarterback Russell Wilson, despite the quarterback's attempts to step up in the pocket:

Lynch's efforts resulted in two Week 7 sacks for the second-year linebacker.
Lynch's efforts resulted in two Week 7 sacks for the second-year linebacker.Credit: NFL.com

Pressuring Rams quarterback Nick Foles may not be as easy, though. The Rams have allowed just 11 sacks on the year. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been under pressure. Foles has been pressured 42.5 percent of snaps—third highest in the league, per PFF.

And the fact Foles isn't exactly mobile (10 rushing attempts this season for just 21 yards) means the 49ers could force the quarterback to get rid of the ball earlier than he'd like.

If the 49ers can clamp down on Foles' primary target in Austin, perhaps the secondary can force a few more of these:

Will Kaepernick be able to find his rhythm despite a strong Rams pass rush?
Will Kaepernick be able to find his rhythm despite a strong Rams pass rush?Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Key Players and Matchups

The focus in Week 8 will, once again, be on Kaepernick and whether or not he can bounce back from yet another abysmal effort the previous week.

St. Louis' pass-rushers will make this difficult, given their numbers on the season and the ineptitude of the 49ers O-line through seven games. Dialing up additional blockers may be the only way to keep Kaepernick upright and allow him to find his receiving targets.

Yet that will mean the 49ers wideouts and tight ends will have to get open. Doing so against a Rams secondary that is allowing an average of 255.4 yards per game (14th in the NFL) may not be easy. And it could be complicated given veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) is listed as questionable for the contest.

San Francisco's O-line will bear a heavy burden both in establishing the running game and protecting its quarterback. Look for this matchup to be a critical X-factor.

On defense, the 49ers' primary focus will be limiting Gurley to less than four yards per carry—not so simple. But making the Rams one-dimensional is an absolute must since St. Louis' passing attack ranks dead last in the league with just 1,066 yards.

This means players such as Lynch and fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks will need to be on point. And the secondary will have to take advantage of underthrown and/or ill-advised passes.

Based on the trends seen this season, the 49ers will likely endure yet another tough loss in Week 8.
Based on the trends seen this season, the 49ers will likely endure yet another tough loss in Week 8.Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Prediction

The 49ers have yet to win a road game this season and, aside from their Week 1 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, their best offensive showings have come against suspect defenses such as those of the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens.

A strong St. Louis pass rush combined with horrid 49ers' pass-protection efforts may be the critical element determining the game's outcome.

Yes, the 49ers could do a few things better than what they showed one week ago. And they'll probably try to showcase adjustments made, given the added days off from last week. But will this be enough?

Sunday's contest will be decided on the defensive sides of the ball—which team gets the better of the struggling opponent's offenses. Statistically, St. Louis has a considerable edge here.

Credit: B/R Insights

San Francisco will struggle to move the ball on offense, barring any sudden, unforeseen improvements from its offensive line. The Rams defense could victimize Kaepernick, pressuring him at every opportunity.

And, if that's the case, it's only a matter of time before the 49ers defense is worn down by having to stay on the field for the majority of the game.

Look for the Rams to come away with a 21-13 victory in Week 8.

Prediction: Rams 21, 49ers 13

All statistics, injury reports, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Panacy is a Featured Columnist covering the San Francisco 49ers for Bleacher Report. Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.

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