Rams-Niners: Revisiting our Prediction

Okay, this is one where we might have to eat some crow. I expected the Rams to start getting stronger at this point in the season, as the Spagnuolo/Shurmur schemes sank in and started to elevate our performance. And I expected the 49ers to get humbled a bit after their offseason of chest-thumping and nutcracking.

Wrong on both counts.

Matchup History

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
4 Oct 4 at San Francisco 49ers 7-9 339/381 19-29 956/1157
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 2, 2006: Lost 13-20 @ San Francisco
Week 12, 2006: Won 20-17 at home
Week 2, 2007: Lost 17-16 at home
Week 11, 2007: Lost 13-9 @ San Francisco
Week 11, 2008: Lost 35-16 @ San Francisco
Week 16, 2008: Lost 17-16 at home

Preseason Prediction

The 49ers come into this game, having already played Arizona and Seattle in weeks 1 and 2, and having traveled to Minnesota in game 3. Especially following that Vikings game, they will be physically beat up, likely sporting a bruised 1-2 record, and looking for a soft, easy opponent to push around the home field. They won’t get one.

At least he has his own golden dome…

On offense, the Niners have been among the worst in the game for the past several years, until Mike Martz came in to town. While writing for TurfShowTimes, I ran a comparison of first-year offensive coordinators in 2008, and the much-maligned Martz actually scored among the highest in the league. He generated the most additional yards of offense (+67.1), and second-most points (+8.1). He used a lot of three- and four-wide receiver sets, leading to a mild bloom from receivers Josh Morgan and Bryant Johnson, and nothing less than a renaissance from Isaac Bruce. Expect the Jimmy Raye “ball control” Niners to be pleasingly predictable by comparison — hand off to Gore, hand off to Gore, incomplete pass, punt. Laurinaitis and Witherspoon should shine in this game, swarming to the point of attack and manning up on Gore, and forcing QB HillSmith into a series of long third-down opportunities.

Thanks to the (well-earned) reputation of Mike Singletary as a physical player, and the emergence of fourth-year middle linebacker Patrick Willis as a tackling beast, the 49ers could almost be seen as an emerging shutdown defense. But this masks over the fact that they’ve consistently allowed gobs of points per season. Their run defense is about league average, but their pass defense is porous. This is in large part because they have only one player — Justin Smith — with the ability to get to the quarterback, and in a constantly-shifting 3-4/4-3 defense, they couldn’t figure out where to line him up. In last year’s games, the Niners had to get creative with linebacker rushes to get to Bulger — sacking him seven times in nearly 90 dropbacks. With a much stouter Jason Brown at center, and blocking back Mike Karney in to protect, the Rams should be able to give Bulger a much better chance against this weak pass-rushing unit.

And that’s where this game may turn: in the mental battle between Bulger, his receivers, Pat Shurmur’s schemes, and perhaps the smartest corner in the division: Nate Clements. With Walt Harris gone for the season, Clements becomes the primary enforcer in the defensive backfield. Avery’s young legs and speed versus Clements’ technique and experience should make for a truly entertaining series of aerial jousts … with lots of openings underneath.

I’m not saying it will be a cakewalk, and it will depend on Steven Jackson breaking off a significant run or two — and prevention of turnovers by Bulger — but I see the Rams winning this game and making a statement in the NFC West. Final: 20-13, Rams.

How we see it now

First of all, I think we have to acknowledge that the 49ers have dramatically improved their run defense. Football Outsiders ranks them third in rush defense, and 14th (but still above average) in pass defense, and that’s after facing down the very strong Minnesota Vikings team in a surprisingly even game. In short, their strength matches up perfectly against our strength.

While the last-second loss may sting, the competition shown in that game firmly places the Niners in the “for real” category. Rams fans, meanwhile, are still trying to argue that they are not the worst of the worst teams, pointing hesitantly toward Cleveland and Tampa. In short, it is very, very doubtful that the Rams fulfill this sunny prediction.

One event, though, could swing this game, and that is the status of backup running back Glen Coffee, the single source of the 49ers ground game this week after the team decided, perplexedly, not to bring up Kory Sheets from the practice squad.

Shaun Hill has shown in week one that he can take the team on his shoulders and win a close game, even if the running game is completely bottled up. But if the Rams stifle Coffee early, and through some “Any Given Sunday” fluke of the game, get some significant early points, then the pressure on Hill becomes much greater. And that’s the only place where our strength, defensively, can match up well against theirs — our playmaking secondary.

But this depends on OJ Atogwe being freed to roam the third level. Last week, when James Butler was lost to injury, Atogwe found himself brought up to the line, where he is less effective, to replace Butler’s role in run support. Meanwhile, Craig Dahl was given the relatively easier responsibilities of deep coverage. He made plenty of tackles, but is not quick enough to the ball to make the kind of game-changing plays that Atogwe is capable of.

This also depends on some sort of pass rush that lasts beyond the first quarter. No matter what the quarterback’s pedigree is, if the Rams give him all day to throw, they will get burned.

The Rams have shown week-to-week improvements in several areas. But to have a chance of winning this game, they must make a quantum leap. My revised prediction: 49ers 20, Rams 13.