When the 2013 NFL schedule was released, there was talk that the San Francisco 49ers ran the risk of a slow start. With the first three games against playoff teams from the previous year, it was entirely possible that San Francisco could have started the season with two early losses. So while their 1-2 record may not be completely shocking, the manner in which they have gotten there has been. After looking impressive in a Week 1 win against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers have been steamrolled by the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts in back to back weeks by a combined score of 56-10.
The offense has been ineffective and the defense is beat up. The team, as a whole, is shell shocked from the indefinite suspension of Aldon Smith as he enters treatment for substance abuse. Can the Niners rise above the ashes on a short week and win a road game against the St. Louis Rams?
The Rams gave the 49ers fits in 2012, going 1-0-1 against them. Even though the underdogs played the 49ers tough, San Francisco was only two plays away from going 2-0.
Their Week 10 matchup marked the beginning of the Colin Kaepernick era in San Francisco as St. Louis knocked then starting quarterback Alex Smith out of the game with a concussion. Kaepernick brought them back from down 17-7 to ultimately tie the game at 24. The teams battled into overtime and if not for a missed David Akers field goal attempt, the 49ers would have pulled the game out. Because of the miss, the two teams tied.
In Week 13 at St. Louis, the 49er offense had trouble moving the ball but the team was in a position to win the game before Kaepernick made an ill advised pitch in the direction of Ted Ginn that was returned for a touchdown by the Rams’ Janoris Jenkins. The 49ers did take back the lead but field goals late in the game and in overtime by Greg Zuerlein gave the Rams the victory, 16-13.
Players to watch
The 49ers will be without two of the best defensive players in football as Patrick Willis is out with a groin injury and Aldon Smith begins his suspension. Their replacements will play a big part in what the team is able to do on defense. Michael Wilhoite will get his first NFL start in place of Willis. While Wilhoite had a strong preseason, it’s unknown how the former undrafted free agent signing will fair in his first extended look. Dan Skuta is slated to get the start for Smith with rookie Corey Lemonier most likely getting snaps on passing downs. While Lemonier is intriguing as a pass rusher, Skuta has mostly played special teams throughout his career. Parys Haralson would have been great insurance in this situation had the 49ers not traded him away. That move, which was questionable at the time given Haralson’s manageable salary, looks even more shaky now.
When the Rams drafted Tavon Austin in the 2013 NFL draft, 49er fans sighed as visions of the speedy West Virginia product wreaking havoc in the slot danced through their heads. Austin has been good so far but not exactly explosive. He has 18 catches over three games but only 118 yards. The Rams will need some big plays from Austin as well as fellow wide outs Austin Pettis and Chris Givens. Also in the passing game, Sam Bradford likes to throw to his tight ends as Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks have combined for 23 catches for 279 yards and two touchdowns. With Willis out, the 49ers will need someone to step up and cover the tight ends in the 49ers’ base package.
Game changing factor
Anyone who ever doubted what Vernon Davis meant to the 49ers’ offense only has to watch the game tape of the team’s Week 3 loss to the Colts when the versatile tight end was out with a hamstring injury. Even when Davis isn’t filling up the stat sheet, just his presence commands the attention of the defense and allows other receivers to make plays. If Davis can’t play in Week 4, or if he is limited because of the injury, the 49ers could be in for another long day.
Stats to know
The Rams gave up 193 yards on the ground to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. The 49ers showed signs of life in their running game against the Colts as they ran for 115 yards on 23 carries. San Francisco has to show a commitment to their running game and keep handing the ball to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. With Kaepernick struggling, a strong rushing attack could be his best ally in a hostile environment. Kaepernick has been brutal over his last two games, going 26 for 55 for 277 yards and has committed six turnovers (four interceptions and two lost fumbles). Kaepernick has looked hesitant to throw the ball into tight coverage and does not seem to trust his wide receivers beyond Anquan Boldin.
The 49ers may also want to consider giving Jonathan Baldwin a shot this week as they have gotten virtually nothing from Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and rookie Quinton Patton. That trio has combined for 10 catches and only 93 yards through three games. Williams has nine of those receptions but he has hardly looked like a starter so far.
While it’s difficult for road teams to win Thursday night games because of the short week, the 49ers need to pull this one out. A loss here puts them at 1-3 and could really put the team in a hole in the NFC West. With the way the 49ers have looked the past two weeks though, playoffs should be the last thing on their minds. They have to find a way to right the ship and get the offense moving in the right direction. Because of sheer desperation alone, the 49ers should be able to pull out a tight game.
Photo: US Presswire
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