Niners need to wrap up Jackson & Rams rushing game
The 49ers are looking for a different outcome Sunday in their highly-anticipated rematch with the Rams in St. Louis after the NFC West rivals battled to a 24-24 tie in San Francisco three weeks ago. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the 49ers need to do to beat the Rams for their third consecutive victory and extend their unbeaten streak to six games.
Don’t let Rams get Steven Jackson and running game rolling
Jackson’s steady pounding in the first meeting between the two teams on Nov. 11 was the primary reason the Rams were able to take control early, building a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and maintain the upper hand throughout most of the contest. The Rams handed the football to Jackson 29 times, and he rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown in the first half to stake St. Louis to a 17-7 halftime lead. Jackson kept it up in the second half, finishing with 101 yards rushing to push the Rams to 458 yards of total offense – by far the most allowed by the 49ers in a game this season. Jackson is coming off a season-high 139 yards rushing to spark the Rams to an upset at Arizona last week, when St. Louis rushed for a season-high 173 yards. After allowing a season-high 159 yards rushing to the Rams, the NFL’s second-ranked defense recovered nicely the next two weeks against the Bears and Saints. Now ranked fourth in the NFL stopping the run, the Niners need to continue that trend on the St. Louis turf.
Break out the offensive arsenal with Kaepernick at the controls
The December stretch run begins here, and the 49ers have committed to second-year veteran Colin Kaepernick as their starting quarterback after his strong performances in wins over Chicago and New Orleans. The 49ers have been steadily adding more wrinkles to their offense with Kaepernick at the controls, but now is the time to start letting it all hang out against the Rams with the NFL’s 12th-ranked defense being the unquestioned strength of this St. Louis team. The 49ers don’t want or expect this game to get into a shootout, but nonetheless they should start using all the diverse elements of their playbook that now come into play with Kaepernick behind center to not only let their young quarterback hit his stride in the offense, but also get this unit rolling as the 49ers hit the crucial playoff stretch run.
Limit the impact of WRs Danny Amendola and Chris Givens
Amendola scorched the 49ers for 11 receptions and 102 yards receiving three weeks ago, and those totals include neither an 80-yard reception in overtime or a 62-yard punt return that each were nullified by penalties. The 49ers stopped Amendola at the San Francisco 2-yard line on both plays, so the Rams would have been much closer to recording a victory rather than a tie if either of those plays had counted. The Niners had no answer for Amendola as he slipped underneath their coverage and was quarterback Sam Bradford’s go-to guy. Amendola has been limited by a foot injury but said earlier this week he’s getting better every day and hopes to play Sunday. The Niners didn’t have to worry about rookie speedster Chris Givens three weeks ago because Givens was held out of that game after breaking team rules. Givens is back this week, and he’s on a roll after leading the Rams with five catches for 115 yards at Arizona last week, including a 37-yard touchdown. Givens, averaging 21.2 yards per catch, is a legitimate big-play threat. Despite being limited by injuries throughout the season, Amendola leads the Rams with 51 receptions.
Get Gore and ground game going early and establish a new backup
The Rams have been solid against the run all season, so it’s important that the 49ers establish Gore and their running game early, particularly since the Niners will be without their strong complement to the veteran, Gore’s backup Kendall Hunter, who will miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles’. Gore’s production becomes even more crucial now that Hunter is out, because the Niners don’t have a proven backup behind him with Hunter carrying the load in that role throughout the season. At the same time, the Niners need to establish a steady backup to take Hunter’s place and keep Gore’s workload at a manageable rate. Their rushing game has excelled all season – San Francisco leads the NFL in rushing offense – because the Niners have been able to keep Gore both healthy and fresh. The new back to give Gore a breather could be bruising Brandon Jacobs, who recorded his first carry of the season last week. Other options include Anthony Dixon (48 yards rushing this season) and rookie second-round draft pick LaMichael James, who has yet to be in uniform for a game this season.
Anthony Davis vs. Chris Long
In the latest rendition of a premier game-within-the-game battle that could be reprised twice a year for the next decade, Niners’ promising right tackle Anthony Davis will lock horns with one of St. Louis’ best players, left defensive end Chris Long, on a regular basis. Long has gotten the better of that battle on several occasions so far in five meetings between the two, and he gave Davis problems three weeks ago while recording one of St. Louis’ five sacks and also adding two hits on San Francisco quarterbacks. Davis has been one of San Francisco’s most improved players on the offensive side of the ball this season and has been developing into a power player in his own right. That makes it power vs. power in this key matchup, and Davis must prevail or at least hold his own to help hold up his side of the offense.
Make it a bad day for Bradford
Sam Bradford has had several successful outings against the 49ers so far in his young career, and the Nov. 11 game at San Francisco was one of them as Bradford dissected the 49ers defense while completing 26 of 39 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 104.1. That was one of the best performances by an opposing quarterback against San Francisco’s stout defense this season. The Niners weren’t very successful disrupting Bradford’s rhythm in that game as Aldon Smith was the only defender to get him down on the ground, recording each of San Francisco’s two sacks. The Niners need to get help from others in putting the heat on Bradford and not allowing him to get comfortable this time around. A better performance in coverage than last time also would help – Bradford completed at least one pass to 10 different receivers three weeks ago, and only one of his 12 passes directed at Amendola fell incomplete.
Better dome performance from kicking specialists and special teams
All kickers look forward to kicking in a dome, but David Akers’ recent slump continued last week in the Superdome, when he missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt and had a 33-yard attempt blocked. It was Akers, remember, who missed a 41-yard attempt – usually a routine make for him – in overtime against the Rams three weeks ago that would have given San Francisco a victory. Akers has been hampered recently by a pelvis injury, and the Niners brought in veteran kickers Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding for tryouts earlier this week. But Akers held onto his job and will be kicking for the Niners again against the Rams. With Kyle Williams out for the season and Ted Ginn Jr. having problems handling the football lately, the Niners also will be looking for better performance overall from their special teams units, which will be without Demarcus Dobbs, the Niners’ leader this season with 567 points on special teams according to a team rating system on those units. Dobbs was arrested early Friday on his 25th birthday and did not make the trip to St. Louis with the team.