By John Doylemason
When the NFL Schedule Gods put the Rams and 49ers together in Week 4, I circled my calendar. The 49ers were a powerhouse in 2012 but went 0-1-1 with an up and coming Rams squad. Built on stout defenses and led by young gunslinger QBs, this looked to be Round 3 in a spectacular division bout.
And then came Week 4 of the 2013 season. Both squads are a dismayed 1-2. Each defense has been thrashed 3 weeks in a row and the offenses have sputtered at times. Regardless, if you enjoy defensive football, clock management, and fundamental situational coaching this will be a game for you. Otherwise, I would not turn in because there will be no barn burning in St. Louis.
The Rams have averaged 19.3 points in their first three games, solely on the arm of Sam Bradford. The running game in St. Louis is atrocious, accounting for 0 TDs and 171 yards. If the Rams are to win, it will be through the air. Bradford is averaging 297 passing yards per game so far but yards won’t come nearly as easily vs the 49ers. SF has allowed only 597 passing yards so far, but 333 yards came from Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers offense. Since that game, SF has held both Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck to below 165 yards in SF’s last two blowout losses. The key to Bradford’s success will be through multiple receiving threats. Bradford spreads the ball meticulously as seven Rams players have caught at least nine passes so far. With Aldon Smith (who accounts for 3.5 of 8 of the 49ers sacks) on indefinite leave, the 49ers will struggle to get their traditional pass rush and Bradford should have success.
The Rams have a young talented pass catching corps with burner Chris Givens, rookie dynamic speedster Tavon Austin, and athletic TE Jared Cook. Chris Givens will likely get matched up with Nnamdi Asomugha, SF’s leading man cover corner. Nnamdi is prone to pass interference on the double move so Bradford will likely be airing it out. This bodes well for Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, and Daryl Richardson to catch a bunch of passes underneath. As linebackers will need to be brought in on blitzes to generate a pass rush, Bradford can dump off to the three. Expect solid games from them.
The Kaepernick bandwagon is losing “49er Faithful” at an absurd rate thanks to abysmal performances the last two weeks. Over three games Kaep has a 56.4% completion percentage, tossing for 3 TDs and 4 INTs. The dynamic QB has only rushed for 129 yards so far this year, but in two matchups vs. STL in 2012, he rushed for 155 yards and a TD so it will be interesting to see which Kaepernick shows up on Thursday.
Anquan Boldin has been Kaepernick’s go-to WR thus far in 2013. In Week 1, he exploded against Green Bay for 13 catches, 208 yards and a TD, but has been relatively pedestrian since then. He has the potential to post another big game against a St. Louis secondary that cannot get off the field, who have been the worst in the NFL in 3rd down conversion rates (50%). I expect Cortland Finnegan, the Rams most physical corner, to matchup against Boldin. He’ll also have bracketed coverage on 3rd down to rely on. After missing Week 3, Vernon Davis is likely to play Thursday despite being limited two practices in a row to start the week. If Vernon is able to stretch the field, the tandem should be able to keep the 49ers offense moving.
Without Davis, the 49ers will have little chance to win. The 49ers offense have not be able to run the ball averaging just 3.3 yards per carry on the season, although a matchup with SEA played a large factor in that. Combine that with Kaepernick’s inability to look to other receivers (only Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams have averaged even 3 catches per game) and you can see disaster on the horizon offensively.
Given the 49ers struggles in the run game and its lack of talent at the receiving positions, I expect a Rams victory. Despite being torched by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas rushing attack last weekend, the defensive issues on the St. Louis side can be rectified, especially with them matching up against a much less dynamic 49ers so far this year due to their lack of weapons.
Doyle’s Prediction: Rams: 27, 49ers: 17
Most importantly, you want to know what to do with your fantasy teams. So, the relevant players in this game were divided into three categories: Start ‘Em, Approach with Caution and Sit ‘Em. Pretty self explanatory. Note that these designations are referring to standard 10 team leagues in which you start 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE and a flex.
Start ‘Em: Jared Cook, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Frank Gore
Approach with Caution: Colin Kaepernick, Sam Bradford, Daryl Richardson, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, SF D/ST, STL D/ST
Sit ‘Em: Isaiah Pead, Austin Pettis, Kyle Williams