In just two months' time, the San Francisco 49ers’ most crucial matchups with a familiar foe have changed dramatically.
The 49ers last played the St. Louis Rams in a Week 4 divisional tussle that proved quite the one-sided affair.
Following a brief period of offensive inefficiency and a 3-0 first-quarter deficit, the 49ers dominated in every facet of the game.
Colin Kaepernick threw two touchdown passes, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter ran for two more and San Francisco outmuscled St. Louis en route to a 35-11 victory. The Rams generated a grand total of 18 rushing yards on 19 carries compared to the 49ers’ 40 attempts for 219 yards and three scores.
San Francisco’s suffocating defense also limited Sam Bradford to a 46.3 completion percentage and just one garbage-time touchdown. It forced the Rams' quarterback into two turnovers and sacked him five times.
The 49ers’ respective offensive and defensive fronts clearly won their battles in the trenches.
Yet, that was an entirely different Rams team back in September.
Now led by rookie running back Zac Stacy and a high-scoring offense, the Rams have posted a respectable 4-3 mark following a miserable 1-3 start.
Stacy has consistently powered his way to 624 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He has also caught 16 passes for 107 yards and one score as a viable dual-threat back.
The offense as a whole has averaged 38 points in its four wins. Backup quarterback Kellen Clemens has held serve in two of those with three touchdown passes, zero interceptions and 414 productive yards through the air.
St. Louis’ defense has also contributed in opportunistic fashion during this time. This unit has racked up 24 sacks, 17 takeaways and 37 points of its own since Week 5.
With this resurgent turnaround in mind, what should the 49ers expect come December 1? They’ve experienced the Rams’ brutal pass rush, but what else must they anticipate?
Here’s a hint: It begins with a game-changing specialist and finishes with yeoman’s work in the trenches.
Let’s now dissect the most crucial matchups for the 49ers in Week 13.
ST/CB/LB vs. KR/WR/RB
Please remain patient while we untangle this jumble of positional acronyms.
The 49ers’ special teams and defensive backfield will have their hands full on Sunday with an emerging first-year weapon for the Rams.
Tavon Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, has finally matched his All-World potential with actual gridiron production.
Austin has four touchdowns over his past two games. Most impressive, though, is the manner in which he scored.
The former West Virginia standout returned a punt 98 yards and hauled in receptions of 57 and 81 yards—all for touchdowns and all in the same game. The Indianapolis Colts were none too pleased.
Austin completed the scoring-phase trifecta one week later with a 65-yard touchdown run to the chagrin of the Chicago Bears.
So, after compiling 207 receiving yards and two scores through the Rams’ first nine games, Austin essentially matched that aggregate in two games alone. And after running for just 16 yards over the initial stretch, he quadrupled that total—on one play, in one game, for one big-time rushing touchdown.
Having a scoring-play average of 76.3 yards is downright silly for most players. But for Austin, it was only a matter of time until his league-shattering elusiveness and sub-4.3 speed materialized in the flesh.
How can the 49ers stop such a dynamic talent who hits touchdown paydirt from the slot, backfield, out wide and deep near his own end zone?
We’ll present four names: Andy Lee, C.J. Spillman, Carlos Rogers and Patrick Willis.
Lee ranks second among NFL punters with a net average of 42.6 yards.
His league-leading maximum hang time of 5.6 seconds, fourth-ranked 17 fair catch-inducing punts and overall directional precision afford San Francisco’s coverage personnel the opportunity to contain explosive returners.
Spillman is one such player.
The 49ers’ top gunner is nearly always first on the scene. Collecting the league’s second-most tackles on special teams is proof positive (11). Having missed just twice all year provides additional corroborating evidence for his downfield containment.
Lee, Spillman and the remaining 49ers coverage unit must put these positive stats—including zero touchdowns allowed—on display. Austin’s minimal 19 yards on six punt returns from Week 4 should indicate that they can.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, the Rams coaching staff has devised creative ways for positioning Austin in space and getting him the ball.
This first example shows Austin burning Indianapolis after lining up wide left.
He exhibits his understanding of nuance as a route-runner by orchestrating a subtle stop-and-go against Vontae Davis (No. 23).
The Colts defensive back bites ever so slightly underneath, as Austin accelerates in an instant and blazes down the sideline for the easy score.
One quarter later, Austin once again lines up at the X position wide left.
This time, however, he motions back toward the formation. He uses great patience in letting his fellow receivers clear coverage from the middle and underneath portion of the field.
No. 11 streaks across from the slot, catching the pass in stride. He then shifts direction and runs from the right sideline all the way back over the deep middle for the 81-yard touchdown.
The most innovative usage of Austin’s unique skill set came during the following week versus the Bears.
Austin lines up in the right slot and flexes to the backfield behind Clemens pre-snap. He and the Rams offense then execute a team-wide misdirection to the left.
Just as the Bears pursue right, Austin stops on a dime, orchestrates a lightning-quick 360 and makes his way down the opposite sideline for the 65-yard score.
He out-juked, out-smarted and out-ran Chicago’s defense before it ever knew what happened.
Thankfully, the 49ers have the NFL’s top-five slot corner and inside linebacker.
Rogers allows only one reception every 11.2 snaps in which he covers receivers from the slot. He gives up just 0.85 yards per coverage snap as well.
The 49ers veteran corner shut down Austin for zero receptions on three targets during their first meeting. Rogers must blanket him once again, with Willis spying him underneath from sideline to sideline as both a runner and pass-catcher.
Willis, with help from NaVorro Bowman, must fully anticipate Austin’s game-breaking ability.
It’s a collectively tall order, no doubt. Maintaining their top-three defensive ranking for fewest pass plays of 20-plus yards (24) and league-best standing with zero run gains of 40 or more yards allowed are tough assignments.
But preventing Austin from creating the big play will help wrest any such winning advantage away from the Rams.
DE vs. LE
From big plays and flashy receivers to big men and grind-it-out-physicality—this analysis moves on.
Justin Smith is the All-Pro defensive end for the 49ers. He represents the essential foundation from which the entire pass rush and run defense for San Francisco derive their shutdown strength.
He seals the edge and occupies multiple blockers, thereby allowing the active 49ers linebackers to wrap up ball-carriers and apply pressure to quarterbacks.
That is, when he isn’t doing so himself as a top-seven 3-4 DE with 63 combined QB pressures and defensive stops.
Across the line, Jake Long serves as the Rams’ foremost lineman on his team’s offensive front.
Indeed, the former All-Pro left tackle is operating at an elite level through 11 games in 2013.
Long has earned the No. 4 overall ranking from Pro Football Focus among blindside protectors. Despite giving up five sacks, his 27 total QB pressures rank just above, for comparison’s sake, the 24 by perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas—the left tackle rated No. 1 in pass protection.
What really separates Long from the pack is his dominance in run-blocking.
His unrivaled positive-11.0 grade is a key contributor toward Stacy’s ascendance into a consistent backfield force.
The Rams’ first-year running back rushed for his highest collective average (7.3 yards) against the Seattle Seahawks with Long in front. Stacy then produced both of his two rushing touchdowns against Tennessee with Long paving the way.
Stacy most recently benefited from Long when he totaled 58 of his 87 yards and one touchdown versus Chicago’s once proud defense.
Back in Week 4, Stacy didn’t register any touches, and the Rams ran for an atrocious 18 yards against San Francisco’s stout defense. Darryl Richardson tallied just one carry for two yards behind left tackle.
That said, Long did limit the 49ers’ pass-rushers to three QB hurries. He received a positive-1.7 for his quality work keeping Bradford upright. Smith wasn’t up to his usual standards opposite Long and went home with a negative-1.2 overall grade.
Fast-forwarding nine weeks later, Smith must erase that lone negative performance from his memory and further his defensive mastery in recent weeks.
The 5’8’’, 216-pound Stacy—barring a concussion-based setback—will provide a bruising element the 49ers did not face in the opening matchup. He and Long will look to hammer an underperforming San Francisco run defense that has allowed 103.5 yards per game and nine rushing touchdowns.
The 49ers’ do-it-all warrior in the trenches must occupy Long, so Willis and Bowman can contain Stacy in the backfield.
Speaking of linebackers, the surging Aldon Smith will also need the elder Smith on his blocker-eliminating game. San Francisco’s premier sack artist performs at his best when working in tandem with No. 94.
Long, Stacy, Clemens and any other Rams would-be ball-carrier beware—you have not yet seen the “Smith Brothers” in action.
RT vs. DE
What happens when the secondary strength and primary weakness from members of two teams line up directly across from each other?
Something’s got to give.
49ers right tackle Anthony Davis will stare into the intimidating mug of Rams defensive end Chris Long when Week 13 action continues Sunday.
Long ranks second on the Rams with 6.5 sacks and 35 additional quarterback pressures. He utilizes strength, grit and every bit of his 6’3’’, 268-pound frame in pursuit of the oppositions’ franchise meal ticket.
His Pro Football Focus-awarded 8.2 rating as a pass-rusher qualifies as top-seven among 4-3 D-ends.
What Long accomplishes in run defense, however, is comparatively awful.
He has played to the level of the sixth-lowest rating—and lowest on his team—in the same positional category for his work defending enemy rushers (negative-3.3). Opposing squads consistently target Long’s left front in the ground game.
Gore, in particular, accumulated 56 of his 153 yards and one touchdown when attacking Long’s side of the field in Week 4.
Davis (No. 76) was one of the 49ers’ linemen who helped seal the opening on fourth down for Gore’s pivotal 34-yard score in that game (shown above).
A later instance shows San Francisco’s right tackle eliminating Long on Gore’s 13-yard burst in the third quarter.
Overall, though, Davis is better equipped in pass-blocking situations.
He grades out as second-highest on the 49ers with a positive-3.7 when providing time for Kaepernick, compared to a team-worst negative-2.4 when blocking for his running backs. That latter rating includes a negative-1.4 against the Rams in September despite those aforementioned successful blocks.
So, when Long rolls into San Francisco, Davis must will his strength—and mitigate his weakness—just enough over his counterpart’s similar abilities and deficiencies.
Put another way, Davis must hold up his end of the bargain for the sake of his playmakers.
Spoiler alert: There are far more implications at stake for his more celebrated linemate to the left.
LT vs. DE
Two of the NFL’s elite positional opposites going mano y mano—talk about Epic Matchup, Inc.
Left tackle Joe Staley of the 49ers will battle Rams defensive end Robert Quinn when these divisional foes square off over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Staley stands alone atop his position-based hierarchy with a positive-24.7 rating, according to Pro Football Focus. He is equally proficient as a pass- and run-blocker (11.2 and 10.1, respectively).
No other tackle—either left or right—with 11 games started rivals his miniscule 12 quarterback-pressures allowed. His two sacks given up are particularly impressive considering none have come after Week 5.
Staley also helped propel Anthony Dixon (Week 5), Gore (Week 7) and Kaepernick (Week 8) to touchdown runs in separate games this season. The Seahawks are the only team to force him into a negative grade in run-blocking.
Quinn, for his part, has been just as masterful in 2013.
Please take a gander at his otherworldly statistical resume.
These totals are downright staggering.
Quinn’s positive-53.1 overall grade shatters the next closest competition by 31.2—a difference that’s greater than Michael Johnson’s positive-21.9 to begin with.
Amassing a collective 107 quarterback pressures and defensive stops—including three games with multiple sacks—should render speechless anyone privy to these numbers. Six forced fumbles and one returned for a touchdown aren’t so bad on the eyes either.
Quinn remains a slightly superior pass-rusher at this point in his career. But earning a top-10 mark in rushing defense—including 17 run-stuffs—more than qualifies Quinn as a dominant all-around defensive lineman.
Now, what should the viewing public expect in this rematch between the Rams and 49ers?
Regarding the early-season head-to-head, it’s fair to say that Staley won going away.
He posted his highest PFF grade of the season with a positive-6.2. He facilitated a 5.3-yard average for Gore on the ground and gave up just one QB hurry to Quinn.
On the other side of the line, Quinn compiled a two-spot in the categories of tackles, stops and QB hurries. He took down Kaepernick for a lone first-quarter sack.
Most revealing was his PFF grade of negative-2.3. No other time this season did Quinn produce anything lower than a positive-1.2.
But Quinn’s poor showing transpired nine weeks ago. He has since tripled his production in nearly all measures across the board.
In other words, he is a different—and far better—player heading into the fourth month of the season.
Staley will already have a much more challenging task with Adam Snyder lining up next to him at left guard.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh inserted Snyder into the lineup after Mike Iupati suffered a sprained left MCL against the New Orleans Saints. He gave up a critical sack in that game on a missed assignment, followed by four QB hurries surrendered to the Redskins’ defensive front.
The 49ers left tackle must now compensate for Snyder in pass protection against Quinn and Michael Brockers. The Rams interior lineman has 3.5 sacks and 10 additional QB pressures on the season.
Brockers is even better against the run with 18 stops in 2013. He generates relentless penetration in the opposition’s backfield.
Snyder will surely have his hands full despite his eight years of experience on the 49ers' line before this season.
Thankfully, Iupati’s backup is a capable run-blocker. He is fully adept as a pulling guard and succeeded in that role against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, as reported by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Come Sunday, the crucial dynamic within this overall matchup will materialize when Quinn executes inside stunts.
Staley must provide support for Snyder in any way he can in order for Kaepernick to target his downfield receivers from clean throwing lanes.
The 49ers cannot afford a collapsing pocket in the passing game or any failed run-blocking assignments.
Kaepernick needs every possible second against the ferocious Quinn-led pass rush. And as great as Gore is, he needs the left side to maintain its dominant, road-grading ways.
Controlling the trenches is an end-all, be-all for the 49ers offense.
This is a must-win matchup for Staley.
RB vs. S, WR vs. CB
We’ll make this final selection a multilayered breakdown, analyzing both short- and long-term ramifications.
The 49ers offense is predicated on a heavy run game. Gore is the primary running back through which the offense operates. When he runs—and runs a lot—the offense flows and the team wins.
Moreover, Gore’s continual touches from the backfield bring an eighth man in the box. That defender is often the opposition’s strong safety, as a guy like the Rams’ T.J. McDonald represents an extra thumper against the run.
The positive corollary of that evolving dynamic affords single coverage to outside pass-catchers. Corners match up one-on-one against the likes of Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and a flexed-out Vernon Davis, with the free safety providing the only measure of supporting coverage over top.
Throw in a few injuries in the secondary, and receivers suddenly have wide-open opportunities all over the field.
And when a receiver is returning from an injury of his own, playing against coverage backups breeds both opportunity and confidence.
Enter: Injured-depleted Rams secondary.
Enter: Injury-recovered Michael Crabtree.
Team insider Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reported on Tuesday that the 49ers activated Crabtree to the 53-man roster. Head coach Jim Harbaugh told Maiocco that he anticipates Crabtree’s season debut coming against St. Louis this week.
On the flip side, here is how Rams reporter Nick Wagoner of ESPN described St. Louis’ injury-plagued defense as of Monday:
Of more pressing concern might be [Trumaine] Johnson's status given the tenuous situation the Rams have at cornerback. The team placed Cortland Finnegan [orbital bone] on injured reserve Saturday and called Quinton Pointer up from the practice squad. Pointer was inactive against Chicago, leaving the Rams with only Janoris Jenkins, Johnson and rookie Brandon McGee as healthy and available corners. The team also again used safety Rodney McLeod as a slot corner after Johnson suffered his injury.
Johnson played for roughly half of the Rams’ defensive snaps against the Bears before he left with a probable concussion. McGee and McLeod filled in at corner, while Darian Stewart and Matt Giordano saw action at both safety positions.
It is not known whether Johnson will suit up on Sunday until he passes through the mandatory protocol for concussion testing later this week.
Regardless, the 49ers will square off against a corps of Rams defensive backs in complete disarray.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman must implement a methodical Gore-led rushing attack early in the game. Establishing the run will entice McDonald—or whoever plays strong safety for the Rams—into moving up toward the line of scrimmage.
Boldin, from the slot, must then attract coverage over the middle, while Manningham occupies cover men underneath or deep down the sideline. With Davis executing crossing patterns and deep seam routes, Crabtree should find himself with numerous winnable matchups on the outside.
He and Kaepernick will face little pressure in this scenario. They can steadily rebuild their connection that was so prolific in 2012—one that produced 62 completions for 931 yards and nine touchdowns in just 10.5 games (postseason included).
The 49ers as a whole then must exploit the Rams’ extensive shortcomings in the secondary.
Pointer is merely a practice-squad depth-filler, and McGee is an untested rookie with just 62 snaps to his name. The sophomore Jenkins and supposed No. 1 corner have been torched for the league’s second-most touchdowns (six) and a top-11 quarterback rating allowed (119.8).
Coming back full circle, the proverbial mantra for the 49ers must read, "Work Now, Thrive Later."
Kaepernick and his receivers must develop rhythm and continuity now for the benefit of future statistics—and winning production—as a team in the playoffs.
Of course, it all starts with Frank Gore—fancy that.
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