The St. Louis Rams (3-3) will host the San Francisco 49ers (2-5) for the first matchup of the 2015 season between these two NFC West rivals. Even though the 49ers are struggling, the Rams will still need a competent game plan to survive this contest, as these divisional games get heated.
The Rams have a 2-3-1 overall record against the 49ers since Jeff Fisher took over. When St. Louis and San Francisco meet, the entertainment value is top-notch. For the most part, the games come down to the wire and create a lot of excitement. This will truly be a can't-miss game for Rams fans, and it's a matchup that could set the tone for the remainder of the season.
If the Rams pull off the win, they'll be in possession of a winning 4-3 record. It'll mark the first time in Fisher's tenure that St. Louis has held a winning record (other than being 1-0) in four seasons. To accomplish this, the Rams will need to be fired up.
St. Louis has been known to roll over and choke against lesser opponents, but it's difficult to imagine the Rams coming out flat against a division rival. The Rams should be pumped up for this game, but unfortunately, the 49ers will be as well.
To pull off the win, St. Louis needs to execute its game plan on both sides of the ball. Here's what to look for:
Offensive Game Plan
When the St. Louis offense steps onto the field this Sunday, it won't be a thrilling site. It'll be a battle of mediocrity between St. Louis' last-ranked passing offense (177.7 yards per game) and a San Francisco defense that ranks 31st in both pass defense (292.7) and overall defense (406).
Between the anemic St. Louis aerial attack and the non-existent 49ers pass defense, this game will be partially determined by which unit can prove to be less awful.
We've been waiting all season for Nick Foles and the passing game to get something going through the air, so this could be the break we've been waiting for.
The Rams need to take several deep shots to Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. The 49ers have allowed seven passes of over 40 yards (tied for third-most in the league) and 28 passes for 20 or more yards (tied for fourth-most), so taking shots deep and picking up yards in large chunks should be a priority for the Rams this week.
If St. Louis can get a slight rhythm going through the air, it will not only prevent the unit from becoming one-dimensional, but it will open things up for the run game—which will be the Rams' key strength on offense in this game.
The Rams need to attempt to capitalize on San Francisco's poor pass defense, but in the end, it's Todd Gurley and the run game that will carry the unit.
Currently, Gurley is on a tear. With over 100 yards in all three of his starts this season, Gurley is averaging over 144 rushing yards per game, ranks second in yards per carry (6.0) among backs with 25 or more attempts and ranks 12th overall in rushing yards (despite missing the first two games entirely and having just six carries in Week 3).
The Rams will lean on Gurley once again and depend on him as the focal point of the offense. The 49ers rank just 20th in run defense (113.3 yards per game), so this matchup will give Gurley an opportunity to have yet another productive outing.
Expect about 25 carries for Gurley. The specific game plan will call for runs to the outside, as Gurley is at his best when he wins the edge. This strategy will also help St. Louis avoid NaVorro Bowman, who's still a force for the 49ers in the middle.
As long as the offense focuses on Gurley while throwing just enough to expose the weak 49ers pass defense, the Rams will be fine offensively. With a great St. Louis defense taking the field, the Rams shouldn't need many points to ensure a win this week.
Defensive Game Plan
Between the St. Louis defense and the San Francisco offense, it's not hard to gauge which unit is superior, at least on paper.
The 49ers have a weak offensive line, including two very green starters in right guard Jordan Devey and center Marcus Martin, who have just 26 combined starts between them. They'll be lining up against Aaron Donald, who's already a Pro Bowler despite being in his second year and a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
At receiver, the 49ers have two respectable talents in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. However, Boldin injured his hamstring this week and will be a game-time decision, per the official 49ers website. Even if he plays, the Rams can keep him covered with Janoris Jenkins, who's been playing lights-out this season.
The 49ers have a dual-threat quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, who's been somewhat productive on the ground this season with 228 rushing yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately for San Francisco, the Rams have an excellent rover in Mark Barron, who can cover the whole field and has already taken out two quarterbacks—Ben Roethlisberger, Josh McCown—this season.
Not to mention, San Francisco's No. 1 running back—Carlos Hyde—is out for this game with a foot injury, per NBC Sports, which will take one of the 49ers' top offensive weapons out of the equation entirely.
The game plan for St. Louis should be fairly simple.
The first step is to contain Reggie Bush. The 30-year-old Bush has lost a step and has just eight carries for 28 yards this season (3.5 yards per attempt), but it's up to defensive ends Robert Quinn and William Hayes to secure the edges and prevent him from getting outside. Bush isn't as fast as he used to be, but he can still be dangerous on the perimeters.
Second, the Rams must clobber Kaepernick. That involves Barron coming in for run support to stop him on the ground, but Donald and Quinn must also be in the backfield all day and provide pressure—which will disrupt the passing game.
If St. Louis can successfully contain Bush and Kaepernick, the 49ers' point production will be abysmal in this game.
Aaron Donald vs. Jordan Devey and Marcus Martin
As mentioned, offensive linemen Martin and Devey will have their hands full with Donald. The St. Louis defensive tackle is an unstoppable force and has been a factor in each game thus far.
Donald had a sack and three tackles against the Cleveland Browns a week ago. Those numbers aren't terribly gaudy, but they don't tell the full story. Donald was in the backfield constantly effecting every play. The Cleveland offensive linemen jumped offsides three times—a response to the threat Donald poses.
If Devey and Martin roll over, it's going to be a nightmare for San Francisco.
Janoris Jenkins vs. Torrey Smith
Boldin will be a game-time decision—as mentioned earlier—but if he's out of the game, St. Louis will stick Jenkins on Smith.
Smith's last trip to the Edward Jones Dome was as a rookie in Baltimore during the 2011 season. He torched Rams cornerback Justin King for 152 yards and three touchdowns. So St. Louis fans are well-aware of the deep threat Smith provides.
Fortunately for St. Louis, Jenkins is not King. He knows how to cover a receiver. Even so, this will be a key matchup. If Smith can break free for one or two big plays, it will give the San Francisco offense a much-needed boost.
Greg Robinson vs. Ahmad Brooks
Ahmad Brooks is an accomplished pass rusher for San Francisco. He has five or more sacks in each of the last six seasons and already has three in 2015.
Robinson struggled early in the year but his run blocking has improved each week. Having said that, he's still a liability in pass protection.
If the Rams hope to capitalize on the weak San Francisco pass defense, keeping Foles upright is essential. If Brooks overwhelms Robinson and has Foles running for his life, it'll take away the pass and force St. Louis to become one-dimensional.
Robinson has to step up and do his job as the blindside protector. If that happens, the Rams could have their most productive aerial game of the season.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' 2015 game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.