It’s face-off of 1-2 NFC West foes, as the San Francisco 49ers travel to take on the St. Louis Rams.
Although it’s not necessarily a must-win game for either team, failing to score a victory puts the loser much closer to panic mode. As a result, the outcome will have major playoff implications given the overall depth of the NFC and the Seattle Seahawks’ dominance within the division.
In short, fighting for a potential wild card spot is close to occurring. And winning in Week 4 only helps that cause.
Line: San Francisco -3
*Note: line courtesy of FootballLocks.com.
49ers Offense vs. Rams Defense
Although it’s early and St. Louis has plenty of time to get back on track, the Rams aren’t looking solid defensively like they did in 2012. Having allowed seven passing scores and a 71 completion percentage, St. Louis will get challenged by San Francisco’s offense.
Fortunately for the Rams, Colin Kaepernick is struggling right now with three passing scores to four interceptions and a 56.4 completion percentage. The good news is that Anquan Boldin is still a beast capable of drawing extra coverage and the 49ers are faring pretty well on the ground.
Here, St. Louis must play man press coverage with inside leverage and blitz the edges. Doing so will prevent the middle from being vacated and let its safeties react more quickly in their Cover 2 system. San Francisco on the flip side, needs to establish a better running game and send more targets towards Kyle Williams.
Tight end Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis are listed as questionable on the 49ers’ day-before-game injury report. One player, however, seems a lot more likely to play than the other.
Davis (hamstring) practiced on a limited basis this week. (The only full practice occurred on Tuesday). Willis (groin) did not practice this week. Neither did cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (knee). They are likely to be replaced by Michael Wilhoite and Tramaine Brock respectively Thursday against the Rams.
Rams Offense vs. 49ers Defense
As reported from Matt Barrows in the above section, San Francisco may be out with some key defensive players (Willis and Asomugha). Factor in Aldon Smith’s absence and the ‘Niners appear to be in trouble as written by Ed Werder of ESPN.com:
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith has been admitted on an in-patient basis to a facility to be treated for alcohol abuse, a league source told ESPN.
The union doesn’t want Smith’s return date to the 49ers to be a factor in determining when he will be finished with treatment.
“It’s not like he’s going to be magically cured in a month,” a source close to Smith told ESPN. “If his problem is serious enough, a month might not be enough.”
Regardless, though, St. Louis has to find its ground attack. The ‘Niners have given up six rushing scores thus far and the Rams have talent at the running back position in Daryl Richardson. With an upgraded passing game that features five players with 10 or more receptions, Sam Bradford’s six passing scores have also gone to three different guys.
In other words, a run-balanced approach to set up play-action and keep San Francisco honest is required. The Rams nearly pulled off the upset win last season, but the 49ers were driven by defense at that time.
Now, however, San Francisco is flirting with panic mode, but have to rely on its front seven to strictly stuff the run. Doing so allows for a nice mixture between Cover 2 or Cover 3 zone and Cover 1 man under.
Kyle Williams and Tavon Austin are the speedsters here capable of breaking this game open. That said, St. Louis has a major edge on punts entering this key matchup.
The Rams only allow just three yards per attempt for opposing returns, whereas San Francisco gives up 12. Nine yards is quite a difference, not to mention Johnny Hekker averages 48.8 to Andy Lee’s 46.1 when knocking the rock downfield.
Factor in kicker Greg Zuerlein who is a perfect 5-for-5 and St. Louis possesses a key edge on special teams. Even though Phil Dawson is a veteran, Zuerlein’s youth and leg strength is an advantage.
The challenge is for each offense to get going on the ground to create some sort of passing game. Even with San Francisco’s recent struggles, the backbone of the team is still its defense. On the other hand, St. Louis isn’t a dominant ground team, but Bradford and co. do rank No. 8 in passing offense.
For San Francisco’s sake, coach Jim Harbaugh’s defense has already seen the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck thus far. So, Bradford will be a step back in proven consistent efficiency at the very least.
As for the 49ers offense, Kaepernick’s dual-threat ability will give the Rams issues. His arm strength and accuracy are still there, although his mechanics definitely have to improve. Nevertheless, San Francisco has the edge up front and defensively.
St. Louis doesn’t have a great secondary right now by comparison, not to mention the 49ers are better on the ground and have the experienced deep threat targets.
San Francisco 26, St. Louis 20
Pick: 49ers straight up & against the spread
Follow John on Twitter @Rozum27