Thursday, September 26, 2013

5 Burning Questions For Week 4

The 49ers travel to St Louis on a short week to take on a Rams team that they could not beat in two tries in 2012.  Both teams come into the game struggling with identical 1-2 records.  The last time these two teams played the 49ers defense held the Rams offense to 0 points until the last play of regulation, a 53 yard Greg Zeurlien field goal that tied the score at 13.  The first 10 Rams points came by way of an intentional grounding call on Colin Kaepernick on a play that originated from the 17 yard line, and an errant option pitch that was recovered for a touchdown.

Here are 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome of the game.

1)  Will Colin Kaepernick rebound? - Colin Kaepernick was close to brilliant in his first 10 starts in 2012, and leading the 49ers a Super Bowl birth.  Along the way he posted a passer rating below 70 only 1 time, in the Super Bowl where he posted a 61.1.  In the season opener against Green Bay he appeared to pick right up from 2012 as he torched the Packers for 3 touchdowns and over 400 yards passing.

And then came the last 2 weeks.  Against the Seahawks and Colts, Kaepernick posted ratings of 20.1 and 49.9 while throwing 4 interceptions, no touchdowns and for less than 300 yards combined.

The primary reason for Kaepernick's slide has been due to poor pocket presence and overall inaccuracy.  As I mentioned in my game rewind post a couple days ago, there often were receivers getting open, but Kaepernick was failing to get through his progression and breaking down in the pocket too often.

The Rams defense likes to play a lot of Tampa 2, giving up the underneath routes forcing their opponents to work their way down the field.  It will be up to Kaepernick to take what he is given and work the offense down the field.

2)  Will Greg Roman stick with the run? - In the first half last week against the Colts, the 49ers running backs ran the ball 11 times for 82 yards (7.45 average).  In the second half they carried the ball a total of 4 times.

In the last matchup between these 2 teams the 49ers were committed to the run, and were in control of the game until a late fumble on a poorly called option play led to the game tying touchdown.

Coming off the short week, I think the 49ers need to get back to establishing the run to try and pull out a victory in this one.

3)  Can the 49ers defense stop the run? - The 49ers defense has struggled the last 2 weeks against the run giving up 351 yards on the ground.  The 49ers now take on a Rams team that ran the ball 64 times in the 2 meeting between the teams in 2012.  The good news for the 49ers defense is that the Rams come into the game having averaged only 57 yards per game on the ground over the first 3 weeks.  Also, unlike the Colts who came into the game with all of their backs averaging over 4 yards per carry on the year.

The Rams look to have back their leading rusher, Daryl Richardson.  Richardson has been hobbled by a foot injury suffered in their week 2 loss at Atlanta.  He comes into the game having rushed for 93 yards on 30 carries.  His 3.2 yards per average may be exactly what the 49ers defense needs to get back on track.

4)  Who makes the sacks without Aldon Smith? - Aldon Smith has accounted for over 50% of the 49ers sacks since 2012, and 42.5% of their sacks since joining the organization in 2011.  He is now out indefinitely as he tends to his rehabilitation from substance abuse.  All reports thus far point to Dan Skuta making the start at left outside linebacker in his place.

I would look for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to rotate Skuta and Corey Lemonier, with Skuta playing in the base downs and Lemonier in the Nickle and Dime passing situations.

Whomever the 49ers have at right end, they are in for a tough matchup as they will be up against the former first round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, Jake Long.  Long has struggled in pass protection so far this season.  According to Pro Football Focus he is currently ranked tied for 45th out of 62 tackles in their pass blocking efficiency rating.

The pass rusher that needs to step it up is Ahmad Brooks.  The veteran will be going up against the Rams backup right tackle, Joe Barksdale.  Barksdale, who will be making only the 4th start of his career, struggled at times last week against the Cowboys, but the Rams helped him out by sending a back or right guard Harvey Dahl in his direction.  This helped open up the inside pass rush, and the Cowboys were successful getting good pressure in the face of Sam Bradford routinely.

5)  Can Carlos Rogers cover the slot? - Whether it was Danny Amendola in week 10 or Chris Givens in week 13, the 49ers slot corner had a tough time with the Rams receivers from inside.

With Amendola departing during the offseason in free agency, the Rams drafted Tavon Austin from West Virginia in the first round.  Austin has picked up 6 receptions in each of the first 3 games of the season, however he is averaging only 6.6 yards per reception.  Austin is exactly the type of slot receiver that has given Rogers trouble in the past.  He is quick and shifty, running most of his routes short and horizontal to the line of scrimmage.

If last year was any indication, look for Rogers to be tested often from the slot.

Prediction Time:

49ers 13  Rams 9

The main reason for this pick is that I cannot wrap my head around the 49ers losing 3 straight games under Harbaugh.  The other reason is that the Rams have shown little ability to get the ground game going, and over the last 2 weeks have gone away from it rather early.  The 49ers defense must keep that trend going.

On offense the 49ers need to get back to being balanced.  There is no doubt that Kaepernick is struggling right now, so they need to make it easy on him tonight.  A heavy dose of Frank Gore, and some easy passes off play action early on to get him in rhythm could go a long way.

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